Little Children, Playing with Feathers

posted by Sarah Lundgren

I feel there’s some innate desire in children, no matter what culture or country they come from, when given feathers, to put them on their head. Be it stuck behind the ear, in a ponytail, or glued to the forehead, kids will always find the simplest ways to entertain themselves. And in a third-world country lacking structure and intricate forms of entertainment, that’s a good thing.

Last Sunday, a couple of the girls in our group walked next door to the Journeys Within Our Community school, to join some local children to do just that. JWOC as we call it, is a non-profit group that reaches out to the surrounding area through many programs, including microfinancing, educational classes and clean water initiatives. On Sundays during the year, they offer a free arts and crafts class for local children, a group that ranges in size from 30 during the rainy season to upwards of 70 during the dry time.

It’s not a big compound—a couple sturdy, beige buildings surrounded by a tall wall. But in the open center, there’s sinks with footstools and colorful children’s handprints on the walls and a grassy area showcasing a vibrant yellow mural that bring the place to life.

When we arrived, we were directed into the recently established library; a small group of children, staff and a few volunteers were already in a circle eagerly chattering. The library is made up of two rooms that are open to each other, one open area with posters on the walls and the other with a small table, toys, and shelves of books. As the group gathered into a circle, I stood behind them, waiting to snap the shots of their happy faces. Above my head were decorations made by the children, strung across the ceiling in an X. Out the glass doors, I could see the grassy area and mural, a stark contrast to the gloomy sky. The rainy season is just beginning here so the kids were inside, but that didn’t stop their overload of energy.

After a couple words in Khmer, the volunteer in the middle spoke English: “Fish!” and the circle erupted into movement—sucking noises, pouty lips and hollowed cheeks, and flapping arms walked around, one behind the other. Then the elephant, swinging arms and shouts, and then the dog, panting and barking and wagging tails. This continued for a couple more animals and then it was time for “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”

It’s been a while since most of us ladies have done the dance; I’m pretty sure the kids had it down better than we did. We went straight from that to the “Hokey Pokey,” children and adults linking arms and spinning around after sticking their left feet in and shaking them all about. These exercises help get the kids focused and learn English at the same time.

We’d missed the hand-washing session prior to class, but we’re told the JWOC teachers help the students and children that come to the school learn proper hand-washing and basic hygiene techniques to take back to their homes. The JWOC staff, including the students they aid with scholarships, give back to their community through their outreach programs. At home, my service sorority, Gamma Sigma Sigma, does the same thing. There, it’s a group of girls that are well-educated at a public university, not exactly struggling to feed or clothe ourselves. Here, it’s so different seeing these people who already don’t have that much finding ways to give back.

To calm the kids down but keep the English lessons flowing, the staff have a story time—a children’s book read out loud, page by page, first in Khmer and then in English. The kids interact, interjecting their presumptions about what’s going to happen, or at least that’s what I think they were saying. I’m not exactly fluent in Khmer. I sat behind the group, watching as the kids laughed and smiled at each other, trying to take in the story and repeat the English words. After taking four languages myself, it was refreshing to see enthusiasm in their eyes. Most people my age are burnt out and just say, “Ugh, English please?”

And then the feathers came. One of the staff got up in front of the group and pulled out a carefully constructed paper-bird on a popsicle stick with feathers across its body and a paper-fastener in its wing to provide movement. After a few minutes explaining how to make the bird in Khmer, holding up the varying tools provided, the kids grouped themselves around cardboard lids full of crayons, gluesticks, and scissors and went to work. Kaitlyn and I sat in one group of particularly quiet kids who were extremely focused on making the best birds. Kaitlyn actually had to look on to the little boy on her left, following his moves to get hers done.

I’d resigned myself to just take pictures and observe, provide my help if needed, but the little girl to my right had on a sad look and gave up after her first cut into the paper. No more than 5, she’d obviously grown bored with the process but longingly watched as everyone else started to bring their creations to life. Despite my reservations and the language barrier, I took the paper from her and began cutting out the shapes. She gave me a little smile. After I glued the circles and rectangles together and put the metal fastener in the wing, I got another smile.

When I picked out the feathers and tried to glue them on myself, I got a frown. She wanted to do that part.

With the popsicle stick and googly-eye as the final touch, she had a bird to run around with like everyone else. She wasn’t a very emotional girl, but I got enough happy faces from her to call it a success. As I turned away from her to check out the crowd, that’s when I realized that I miss the simple joys of being a child. If I could just glue feathers to my forehead, maybe some googly-eyes and laugh with my friends about it, I’d probably be happy as a clam too. Needless to say, as the group rushed outside in the emerging sunshine, I grabbed a yellow feather and stuck it behind my ear, just for good measure.

The kids danced around the yard, flapping their birds, poking each other and smiling, and then hamming it up for my camera. When I hunkered down to get eye-level, I got ambushed. Paper birds and little hands whacking my camera, falling off balance but still trying to catch every moment.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much happiness from children, and I’ve volunteered at countless summer camps. They were all so excited to see their picture when I opened the screen for them—I assume most of them haven’t ever seen themselves captured like that before.

As we walked away to shouts of good-bye and many skinny, tan arms waving, I was reminded of why I came here. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to study, to help, to tell a an entire country’s story, and I can’t believe how much of it I’ve already experienced in less than two weeks.

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