270. My Khmer Hour

Each week, I spend an hour in a small room with seven children whose first language was Khmer, and their teacher, whose first language was also Khmer. She teaches them to read and write Khmer. At first, I didn’t think I’d have much of a role to play in this class. I know two Khmer words: “jumbarepsua” (“hello”) and “jumbareprea” (“good-bye”). These words are useful for a very small portion of the hour I spend there.
But I do have an important role there. I am an adult who cannot understand their language, and though I can read some facial expressions, hear intonations, read body language, and use other cues to figure out some of what is going on, I mostly have no idea what is being said. I sit there, watching the teacher, listening to all that is said, trying to make some sense out of it. When children glance in my direction, they see an adult who is trying to understand what is going on and only succeeding a little.
I stay cheerful, and try to look the way we want the children to look when they don’t understand everything that’s being said. Two of them, at least, have begun to think of school as a place to be bored, and they’ve started inventing their own ways to make it interesting. I see one of them in his regular class, and occasionally help him with math. I know how distractible he is when English is a factor, and he focuses a little better without English, but I think his distractibility would be an issue in any language.
So I am a model. It isn’t easy to pay attention when I don’t understand much of what is being said. So I model effort and concentration. Just between you and me, there are times, during that hour, when I feel like giving up and doing something else, somewhere else. But I stay there. I know that those seven children know that they understand Khmer and I don’t, and I want to make sure they see me trying. I’m a very slow learner in Khmer, and they know I’m pretty smart in English. I hope that my modelling is helping them gain some perspective on their own difficulty in the regular classroom.
Before the children leave the room, each one puts his/her hands together, bows her/his head, smiles, and says, “Jumbareprea.” Later, when I see one of them outside of this Khmer haven, we have a special connection. They know that I understand how difficult school is for them, because they’ve seen it be difficult for me. I’ve spoken with their teachers, letting them know a little about what I’ve seen. I think I may learn a little Khmer from this experience, but more importantly, I’m learning about how challenging school can be for some children.

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