Usual diatribes, sleepy muses, raw recruits, unabashed cheating, multidimensional bodhisattvas, ancient arts, the fire of enlightenment & Cambodia.
TThe school bell ringer is early today. Only boys and men ring the bell, usually someone from the high school administration office, occasionally a privileged male student. Sometimes they ring the school bell at quarter to seven, sometimes quarter past. Close enough. The sub-director is the worst bell ringer of all. He takes an old hammer to a dangling rusted wheel hung outside the office. He bangs the bell softly at first, then hard, soft, then hard, like a lousy lover. Goes on for flipping ever, on and on. Finally ends the concert with a big bang. Then the bulky loudspeakers are rolled into the schoolyard and the school director steps into the sun to address the students. Boys on one side, girls on the other circle around the statue of King Jayavarman the VII. The school director always, always blows into the microphone, makes it buzz and squeal, then huffs again and launches into his usual diatribe. He is a small, neat man, dedicated and kind, yet his morning address is a rerun of a familiar reproach: be on time, pick up trash, get a haircut. And tuck your shirt in! He yells into the microphone like he’s addressing raw recruits for boot camp. Scold you so. At the completion of this morning ritual, students go to their classrooms and I follow, their Peace Corps volunteer, an E-Triple-T: English Teaching and Teacher Trainer, E.T.T.T.
The statue of Jayavarman the VII sits in the courtyard of our school, as he does by official decree at all schools in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Often mistaken for the Buddha, the last great King of Angkor (1125–1218) sits with downcast eyes, an enigmatic smile on his lips, with his spine straight in meditation. Historians acknowledge the Angkor epoch from the sixth to twelfth century as an era of great art. At Bayon temple near Angkor Wat, the many bodhisattvas pictured in the multidirectional faces are thought to be a likeness of Jayavarman the VII. The modern version of the king at our school is made of cement, but curiously looks like he could be a cousin of Gumby; the subtle anatomy of the original statue is lost in this contemporary interpretation. The modern version is a rough copy of the ancient sandstone sculpture, which is missing the lower part of his arms and now resides at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Some scholars feel the missing-arms version is a more correct depiction, but most schools prefer their statue with arms and hands. The ancient techniques handed down through the centuries to apprentice sculptors were effectively killed off during Pol Pot’s reign from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge had no use for artists or intellectuals (or people who wore glasses). But the old king is in demand again, as new schools throughout the Kingdom must have the king in the courtyard. As Cambodian artists continue to recover lost skills in the ancient Khmer arts, sculpting technique is bound to improve.
He takes an old hammer to a dangling rusted wheel hung outside the office. He bangs the bell softly at first, then hard, soft, then hard, like a lousy lover.
King Jayavarman the VII may have inherited his day job, but it appears he enjoyed the family business. He is depicted as both a general at war and a spiritual practitioner in bas-relief on the walls of Angkor Wat. After the death of his first wife, he married her sister, who encouraged education for girls at the palace, predating the Peace Corps Let Girls Learn program by a few centuries. His wife, Queen Rajendra Devi, was a poet, scientist and philosopher. King Jayavarman likewise looked out for his people. Real estate was booming at that time, so the king came up with the idea for rest stops every fifteen kilometers, and health clinics within a day’s walk. He was tolerant of the old Brahmanism religion, but officially moved his kingdom toward more-progressive Mahāyāna Buddhism. He also originated the man-bun, which is actually the fire of enlightenment.
The king ascended to the throne when he was in his late fifties, and, perhaps feeling a pressing deadline, he initiated an amazing number of public works, like expansion of highways and waterways in addition to the rest stops, hospitals and temples. A list of patrons at various sites (written in stone, no less—sort of like bricks with the names of donors at a public library) indicate he had the support of his constituents. An inscription at one hospital states, “He suffered his subjects’ illness more that his own, because it is the pain of the public that is the pain of kings rather than their own pain.” He had an idea that he could lead his people to create an earthly paradise. So, while the cement Buddha in our school’s courtyard may look a little dreamy, he represents something greater than a sleepy muse. King Jayavarman the VII wanted people to enjoy the journey—and to take advantage of rest stops along the way.
Today, there are no students in the schoolyard. Or teachers. The school canteen is closed as well, but recess for Khmer New Year doesn’t officially begin until next week. A plastic bottle rolls by like a tumbleweed from a ghost-town Western. Did I miss the memo? I wait and write in my journal. Here, where time is not money, we wait. Students will wait two hours for a teacher who may or may not arrive. Sometimes they play games. Mostly they look at their phones. I wait as well for my tardy co-teachers. A wise Peace Corps volunteer in the north, who came to Cambodia the year before I arrived, shared this axiom: “Class does not begin until the Cambodian teacher is in the classroom.” This is a reasonable strategy. If you teach without your counterpart, they miss your lesson. It also shows students that you are a team when you teach together. Besides, missing class can become a bad habit for teachers who aren’t that interested in their day job. Today I wait for teachers and for students who have no motivation to come to school. Their final exams are done.
One of my Khmer teachers told me the Ministry of Education stopped national standardized testing each term a couple of years ago because it was too expensive. Now teachers in every province and classroom create different tests for the same “national” exam. The test questions for English Language are baffling. Kru Nna’s tenth grade final consisted entirely of fill-in-the-blank answers with two vocabulary options provided. Despite the easy test, cheating was obvious and unabashed. I complained to my co-teacher that students were sharing answers. Kru Nna smiled. I told him that he must tell students to stop talking and to look only at their own paper. He nodded and did, which caused a momentary pause in cheating. Exasperated, I told my co-teacher I could not stay and witness what I considered to be a breach of ethical educational standards. “You go?” he asked sweetly.
Classroom cheating is guileless. It’s really more like mass collaboration.
I went to the school library to cool off. There, students sit at long wooden tables to read aloud to one another or do homework. There are reference books in English and Khmer. This library is a model of good stewardship for books and scholarship, and I can point to the reason: the librarian who dedicated years to procuring and organizing the space. She created a standard for our library emulated throughout the region.
While I regained my composure in the library, I thought about what had just happened. It wasn’t a revelation. We were warned during pre-service Peace Corps training there would be days like this. We were told about the culture of cheating and how some teachers supplement their income by selling exam answers to students. I did not see that, but honestly I didn’t want to look too closely. Classroom cheating is guileless. It’s really more like mass collaboration. The clever students help those who did not study or didn’t even buy the book because that’s what you do in your family and community. Not everyone can pull their own weight, so some must pull harder.
A plastic bottle rolls by like a tumbleweed from a ghost-town Western. Did I miss the memo?
In the dusty light of the library, I can see the merit in helping your friend or your brother. It is an ethical choice. It is also part of a national non-identity: don’t try to be too clever. The problem is that when no one has any ideas of their own, we have nothing new to talk about. No new solutions to the same old problems. Feel like I should be wearing a button: “Ask me about educational standards.” Hey, I’m offering free samples!
Wonder if Queen Rajendra Devi would have made a fuss about my student test-collaborators? Probably not. Would King Jayavarman the VII have been annoyed by an overzealous bell ringer? Doubtful. I am in the Kingdom of Wonder, wondering at it all.
Tree Bernstein joined the Peace Corps at age sixty-four to teach English and art in rural Cambodia for two years, where, in a rogue taxi filled with smuggled teak and two live chickens, she learned how to adapt. This story is part of her Peace Corps memoir, Mistranslations: A Senior Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia, and was a finalist for Nowhere’s Spring 2021 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Thiago Rocha