Let the Paper Bird Fly

posted by Kaitlyn Weber

Define the word helicopter. Use only the simplest English vocabulary. Do not rely on the use of illustrations as an aid. Remember that the education of a group of five young students lies temporarily in your hands.

It is not easy. Sitting in a classroom enveloped in the rush of humidity that follows an afternoon shower, ten fervent eyes fixed solely on their volunteer instructor, I had the task of defining “the flying machine with a spinning fan on top.”

The obstacle of defining several words that I take for granted in my everyday vocabulary was presented to me when I signed up to volunteer at one of Journeys Within Our Community’s (JWOC) conversation courses. During this time students are encouraged to attend and improve upon their English speaking skills. Unlike in America and other developed countries, in Cambodia the prospect of a sufficient education is not a right afforded to every young person. Public schools are inadequately staffed and underfunded. Students who wish to receive a proper education must seek out instruction elsewhere. This is where JWOC comes in, providing free classes for people of all ages in various subjects including the two I volunteered for, English conversation and art.

I have had a firm grasp of the English language since I mastered “Hop on Pop” in my pre-school years; however, I have never attempted to teach my native tongue. It was much harder than I ever could have imagined.

After being placed in my small group I found my hand trembling as I filled in the correct answers on my worksheet. Fears of being a bad teacher suddenly seemed very real and all of my English speaking abilities left the room. At the moment of utmost panic one student looked at me and asked a question that immediately made me realize why I had come to that classroom.

“Can you read it to me? I want to hear all the words.”

This was something I could do. For the first time since entering the country I did not feel like a tourist, unaware of the lives unfolding all around me. I yearned to help these students to the greatest of my ability. Driven to this place of learning by their own desires, not by outside force, these young adults represent the heart of a developing nation.

In their company I developed a strong admiration for the work they had put into their futures as well as an appreciation for the difficult yet rewarding job of teaching.

The second class I attended was a Sunday afternoon art lesson. Stepping through the doors of the newly built library, where classes are held on rainy days, meant stepping into a world of childhood imagination. A circle of children and adults suddenly became a menagerie of elephant, dog, tiger, and cat impressions. With little notice the animals transformed into a session of “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” followed by “the hokey pokey” to the joy of all involved.

Next it was story time. Read in both English in Khmer, we were told the story of a little bird that left his home, had adventures, and finally found his way back to his family. The story led to the craft of the day, the construction of colorful paper birds complete with feathers, moveable wings, and googly eyeballs.

Having not stepped inside an art class since the end of my fifth grade education, I found myself a little rusty. Not only did my crayons wander frequently outside the lines, I had to sneak glances at the young boy sitting next to me in order to properly assemble my bird. In the end I was pleased with my product, enough so to hope my parents will find a prime spot on our home refrigerator to display my handiwork.

I left the school, bird in hand, and wondered if I had in fact done anything to help the children I had volunteered to assist. Their art skills far surpassed mine, my offers to help with the difficult parts of bird construction were met with silent stares, and attempts to take photos of their work resulted in frown-filled poses. As the wave of futility began to subside a new thought entered my mind: perhaps I was the student in the class.

Across all cultures, as innocence is lost and maturity sets in, nothing is ever the same. In a country where people are often forced to grow up too fast, moments of childhood enjoyment are the most important to preserve.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to stop being an adult and take the time to make a paper bird fly.

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