Monday night, after Tuit and his mother were returned to their home, Eddie joined us on our balcony and together the three of us discussed the events of the day. Due to Eddie”s contact with Lori and the help of her foundation, Pohneary Ly, we were able to take a poor, disadvantaged village child with potential out of obscurity and place him in a school where he would have an opportunity to obtain an education, the first step in providing himself as well as his family with a better life. In the past, the reality of the situation precluded any attempt to leave a sustaining service in place to benefit the entire village, but now we were able to help at least one. The news was good. We had achieved a small victory but as Donald and Eddie enjoyed the last rays of a brilliant sunset crossing our balcony, I could only sense in these end of day shadows omens and premonitions.
The next day I had an appointment with the principal of Wat Bo School and I was not sure what he wanted. Maybe the news was just too good to be true. I was still concerned about Tuit. He and his family were confronting a major transformation in his life and a big challenge as there were many social and economic factors working against his success as well as family situations to which we were not privy. Even though Donald assured me I was over reacting, I still feared the family would forget the promise of the future and settle for immediate gains and take all his new things away from him and not let him go.
If Monday was Tuit”s “lucky day”, then as the sun rose as it did every day over the village of Pom Prei, it was appropriate that it should force back the curtain of darkness because Tuesday would prove the first day of the rest of his life. Donald and Eddie left Siem Reap early and when they arrived at Tuit”s house, just as Donald predicted, they found him standing in his yard, dressed in his school uniform, white shirt with blue shorts, wearing his new shoes and socks. He was experiencing his own moment in time and apparently, with his backpack slung over his shoulder, he was ready to embrace it. They loaded Tuit into the back seat and headed back to town.
As for me, I was early for my appointment with the principal and to the dismay of the waiting tut-tut drivers, I decided to spend the extra time walking through the neighborhood to the school. The rising sun had already dispersed the damp coolness of the night but the morning sky, more grey than pink, signaled the possibility of rain, which the locals would call a “mango rain”. It was only a short walk and the need for action replaced the edginess of the previous night. Passing through the hotel gates, I turned right and joined the life on the street that was already in full swing. I walked for two blocks, past the adjacent hotel I had watched being built, past the bench where I had taught Cinnamon English until I arrived at the vacant lot where I turned right onto a street lined with leafy tamarind trees, always a source of shade and a popular gathering place for the people when the day heats up. Last year we watched as the old building, which formerly occupied this lot, was torn down one sledgehammer whack at a time. When we left, all that was standing was the fence covered over by brightly blooming bougainvillea. A year later, nothing had been built in its place, allowing the vacant lot to be turned into four volleyball courts, apparently the latest craze for Siem Reap”s unemployed young men. The games were in progress and the crowds had gathered. Wherever people gather, entrepreneurial women show up ready to provide food and a series of food stalls, which had not been there last year, lined the street. The charcoal fires were burning, the woks fired up and the stalls were crowded with men enjoying their morning soup, a version of the Vietnamese Pho, but with a sour twist. Next to the al fresco dining area, several barbers were at work. Each had set up a chair and each had nailed a mirror onto a tree. Piles of accumulated hair had mounded up around the chair, testifying to the number of haircuts they had given at fifty cents each. Looking down, there was a small dog, curled up and slumbering, one of those urbanized city dogs that gave up barking a long time ago. Above a monkey had posted himself in a tree observing all that was going on below. That old monkey and I were friends as he had often climbed over a tangle of overhead cables to land on our patio where Donald would offer him bananas and then take his picture. At the corner, I crossed Wat Bo Road with its backdrop of car horns and fired up traffic. It was just a short walk down a dirt road until I was standing in front of the school gate.
Wat Bo School elementary school, with an enrollment of 5,000 children who attend on split shifts, is considered the best public school in Siem Reap. Classes had not yet begun as I crossed the vast enclosed compound picking my way through seemingly all 2,500 children who were chasing each other around. With backpacks bobbing up and down on their small backs, many waved and shouted out hello, what is your name but not staying around long enough for the answer. Then the bell rang announcing the start of the school day and I was pushed along by the rising tide of blue and white children surging into their classrooms.
I entered the administrative offices and was immediately greeted by a delightful older woman who seemed to be expecting me and with a wave of her hand, I found myself seated on one of those locally made wooden couches, always without cushions and too low to the floor, denying even a modicum of comfort. She sat down next to me, took my hand, and with her golden toothy smile asked me if I spoke French. Sorry to disappoint, I shook my head no. It was now a few minutes past nine, the principal had not yet shown up and when she pointed to the clock, she shrugged her shoulders, not an encouraging sign. Petit dejeuner, I understood and soon she was out the door in search of her breakfast leaving me sitting there and smiling to anyone that came through. Two men sat at tables doing nothing more than reading the morning newspaper and occasionally speaking to someone on their two way radios while several secretaries bustled around them. They were very friendly and seemed to know who I was and why I was there but not yet willing to deal with me.
At 9:15, as per our schedule, Tuit arrived and together we sat there until the second in command showed up, waving hello and talking into his radio. Apparently, they had word from the principal, he was not coming to school that day due to illness. In broken English, his assistant explained he was now going to give Tuit a test to determine his grade level. He gave Tuit a pencil and laid out in front of him a few pieces of crumbled paper. I opened the Cambodian Daily, my turn to read the newspaper. The friendly gold toothed French speaking woman returned and offered me a piece of street made pastry wrapped up in a piece of newspaper doing its best to absorb the cooking oil. I avoid street food but since this was no time to be squeamish, I did a few “merci, merci” and slowly picked it apart.
Tuit completed the test and the teacher decided he could enter the 5th grade. This was the first time I allowed myself to believe that he was actually going to be enrolled in this school. Then, with typical Khmer efficiency, they realized they did not have his mother”s signature, necessary to complete the enrollment process. I dialed Donald and as the phone rang, I wondered in vain why this had not been done the day before when she was there. Donald found Eddie and together they drove out to the village, found the mother, and brought her to the principal”s office, today, wearing her new outfit. She had never been in Siem Reap before, and now she had been there twice in two days. Tuit”s mother could not write her name but her thumbprint was acceptable. Now, he was properly enrolled and would start the next morning. However, there were still more arrangements to be made.
Tuit”s mother was satisfied with the sleeping arrangements. Tuit would move into the small building in the back of the compound and the teacher who was living there, for a small fee, would act as his guardian. Pohearny Ly had arranged for him to eat three meals a day at a Khmer style restaurant located close to the school. When we found out they also operated a laundry, we left money in place not only for his food but also for his washing. We brought Tuit and his mother there for lunch and similar to a country style restaurant, they received a large plate of rice and their choice of meat or fish, all of which came out of those large aluminum covered pots. Tuit”s mother ate the food and seemed happy with the situation. A button had come off her new outfit and I dug into my purse and gave her a small sewing kit. Tuit said goodbye to his mother and we sent her home in a tut-tut.
We were not yet finished making arrangements. At the corner of Wat Bo Street and the dirt road leading to the school is Future Bright Language School. Donald and I brought Tuit there and for the first time being able to converse in English, we arranged for his English lessons. Everyday Tuit would come here for his afternoon lesson after he finished his morning session in school. Not finished yet, Pohneary Ly introduced me to Tuit”s main teacher and it was agreed for another small fee he would tutor Tuit after school and another teacher, for another small fee, would help him with his English. Tuit would now be busy for the entire day. Later that afternoon, I went with Pohneary Ly to buy Tuit a bed. She selected a fold up cot along with a mattress and two sets of sheets including a pillow and pillowcases. I also bought him a set of towels and as a good will gesture included a pillow and set of towels for the teacher who would watch over him. I also bought him a rattan shelf unit on which to store all of his new belongings.
Later that afternoon, I met up with Donald and Tuit and the three of us went shopping, this time not to the market but to a proper grocery store located in a new shopping complex. As a boy from the village, I am sure Tuit never saw anything like this before. He and Donald rode up and down the escalator several times before we entered the grocery store where I gave him the shopping cart and we started walking up and down the aisles deciding what he needed. With each item I selected, Donald did a little pantomime to show him what it was for, after all, he had never seen a bottle of Pantene shampoo or a can of bug spray or mosquito coils. Harpo Marx could not have done it better and Donald”s performance included a sketch on how to use a toothbrush and tooth paste. After one more trip back to the market for additional tee shirts and another pair of pants, all of which he picked out himself, I was ready to declare him ready for school until Donald realized he needed one more thing, a watch, an easy purchase in any Khmer market. Back at the school, we arranged
all of Tuit”s new belongings, which included tacking up a mosquito net over the bed. As I made up his bed, I thought of the times I had brought one of my children to camp or dropped them off at college. I was growing attached to Tuit and I was treating him as one of my own and that night, for the first time in his life, Tuit would sleep in a bed with his head on a pillow. The next day was Wednesday.
TO BE CONTINUED