Second place prize for Short Story 2011 from The Nou Hach Literary Association
I repeat a level
I am the kind of person no one notices. If the truth were told, others view me useless like dust. Sometimes it’s not just one person but everyone who despises me. Even those in society and school dislike me. My relatives hate me even more. Also my classmates, they don’t like me because I’m different. I don’t follow along with others; I just don’t get along. In conclusion, I don’t adhere to the Cambodian proverb: “Follow the course of the river.”
Observing my demeanor, everyone sees a lazy student. I feel negative about education. In my opinion, school is not a place of learning. It’s just a marketplace for business. Moreover, I know that the classroom is like a jail for criminals. Every time I step into the classroom, I begin to feel badly. I feel faint, have a headache, and get scared, waiting for the money collector to solicit my payment. I am also afraid of the teacher asking for money; afraid of his yelling and screaming; afraid of his painful pinching of my arms and stomach. I’m afraid he will throw away my books and whiteboard marker. I’m even afraid of the lesson guidelines I have to buy. I’m just afraid, afraid, afraid, because I’m the poorest student in the class and at the very bottom of the class ranking. During study time, the teacher’s loud outbursts remind me of landmine explosions. Trembling, I feel terrified in class.
I’ve never been to the after-school sessions (which cost extra money). One day when I walked over to that classroom, I unexpectedly heard a softer voice from my teacher— “Children, children” —speaking so nicely to every child. Nothing more to say; I just started feeling badly about this. I feel so pessimistic about education at my public school. Nothing can change my mind about this no matter what. There is no way to change my opinion; this pessimism is so deeply rooted in my brain.
Our teacher is supposed to be our second mother, but this one demands money from students. So this second mother is one who extorts money. A real mother provides money for school or snacks.
I don’t blame anyone for this problem. And I don’t really hate or get angry with my teacher. If I think clearly about this situation again, I will admit that a teacher has responsibilities. If my teacher didn’t ask for money, how could he support himself on such a low salary? He would die. His salary is only equal to the amount a high ranking official spends for just one night drinking at a bar. The more I think about this, the more confused I get. I think it over repeatedly and so many issues arise. I can’t think of any solution. I feel hopeless about my future studies. I begin to act differently and I start skipping classes. I become a delinquent student.
This year I have decided to retake this grade level because of how many absences I have even though I didn’t fail the work. I went to the administration office before the term exam because they announced how many absences I had. I thought they might “go easy” on me for this, and “going easy” is positive. If there is any student who cannot pass the exam or has too many absences, they can negotiate “going easy” at the office. When I studied in class, I never went to the administration office; but this time I have the honor of going there to meet the teacher who controls my class. We talk seriously….
“Pay the same as everyone else. Don’t be different,” he tells me. I’m stunned and feel so disappointed about what he’s said.
I still try to respond: “Teacher, I’m an impoverished student. Please help me just this once.”
Suddenly he blames me: “If you can’t help yourself, how can I help you? Just go! Don’t mess with me! Just pay me fifty percent of the usual amount because you are poor.”
I began to beg for his compassion: “Teacher, is there any other choice? Can I ask to take the exam again? The reason I skip class is I don’t have money to pay all the extra fees; so I go to the library or the debate club on literature instead. That’s why I have so many absences. Teacher, please take pity on me. I’m an impoverished student,” I said respectfully in a polite tone… This time I felt like a target for the teacher’s blame.
The teacher said: “If I pity you, my stomach goes hungry. It’s your class time but you skip it and go to the library.”
My teacher spoke rudely while looking at his watch. And he turned to his computer monitor, which was full of games.
Even though I felt angry with the teacher, I still remained polite and respectful and I said goodbye: “Thanks so much teacher. I would like to say goodbye.”
And the teacher did not bother to respond.
I left the room, feeling so hopeless. I smiled while shaking my head about what my teacher had just done to me. I walked over to my old bicycle and rode back home.
On the way, the road was very crowded with cars whose exhaust polluted the environment. I think and imagine a lot; it seems like I am a foolish person.
If I ask my parents for money, they would surely give it to me and I could move on to the next level; but I can’t do this! I can’t pour pure water into a polluted sea. If I pour the water and expect it to counter the corruption, it certainly won’t work. So I need to eliminate all the corruption and I must start with myself.
If other people don’t obey the laws, it is their business; the important thing is that I respect myself. I provide my own dignity. If I give money to the teacher, no one else will know; but I will, so I just can’t do it. My conscience would bother me if I didn’t do the right thing. I’m happy to accept this injustice in others but not in myself, following Socrates’ example.
I’ve known many teachers who talk about how difficult their lives are as teachers. When I hear this, I really want to become a teacher and I’ve already set my goal. If I become a teacher, I will eliminate the corruption in the education sector starting with me. Whatever other people think about me, if I become a teacher, I won’t accept any bribes because I want the education system to become better and bring better human resources into teaching. Now I cannot bribe my teacher. I want to be a good educator so I need to educate my conscience and myself. I’m not happy that all those around me are hungry. Whatever I do, I expect a humble life so I don’t want anything. To just survive, I don’t need to demand money from my students. I still can live with my ability and real knowledge. I will try to do my duty to the nation. I don’t need to be rich besides just doing my job. So I can do the right thing. I will try my best to perform my work according to my conscience…
Two years later, I have discovered a quiet place to escape from the scariness of school and the voice of my teacher. I rarely go to school. I study less in the classroom, about two or three days a week and sometimes I never go at all. I became a delinquent student, who studies outside of class. I go to the library during study time and this has become my habit. This is also the reason that the teacher feels unhappy with me. It is also the main reason that I repeated the same level again last year. I began to discover knowledge by myself and I started to write and read a lot of books.
I hold imaginary discussions with the scholars whose books I read published in both Cambodia and outside the country. I also met well-educated people in the library.
One day I submitted my work to the school’s poem and short story contest. My submission was accepted although no one realized I had written it. No one realized that I was the top pick. Even my teacher and my classmates, who used to sit next to me, never realized this until the principal announced my name. Then they knew and realized that I could survive with my integrity in spite of their corruption…
The Nou Hach Literary Association