“No concept of past, present or future”

Beth Green (UK, AC 08-10)

As I sit here trying to write my UCAS personal statement, I am finding it hard to explain why I want to study the course. It is horrible to think that in just a few months time someone will be reading these words and judging whether or not I deserve to go to university. I want to study Linguistics, and to be honest I’m not so sure why. I love words, but that doesn’t sound very convincing on a personal statement, does it? I love how in Khmer there is no concept of past, present or future tense, how ‘ph’, ‘gh’ and ‘f’ can sound the same, how in Turkish a pause or hesitation such as ‘umm..’ might cause serious offence, and how a poem could mean a thousand different things depending on who interprets it. How do you put that into 4,000 characters without sounding a bit dramatic?

I spent a month of my summer teaching English in Cambodia, as a part of a summer project organized here at AC. Cecilia, Sophie and I arrived into the sweltering heat of Phnom Penh, greeted by our Cambodian second year, Kesey, and went straight to “Pour une  sourire d’enfant”, the NGO that we would be spending the next week at. We were met by the English teachers who dropped the first bombshell directly into our laps. We had been told that we would be helping university students with their English by casually chatting, and encouraging them. We found ourselves the next day, after a sleepless night, standing in front of our own class of 30-35 students, many of whom were older than us, and had very low levels of English. I have rarely stood at the front of a classroom before, never mind one bursting full of Cambodian students who stood up as I entered the room. After realising that they would not sit down until I gestured that they could, the sweat was soon pouring down my back and my heart was thumping in my chest as I wondered what on earth to do for the next 4 hours!  I spent the first day trying to be someone I was not; a qualified teacher, and the room was soon full of bored, unenthused stares and I got stage fright. I realised that night as we were kept awake by the mosquitoes and horrors of our day, that we were not there to do the same thing as the teachers were already doing. We were there because we spoke English with proper pronunciation and a clear accent – something that the teachers did not have as they may never have been to an English speaking country. I was also of the same generation as many of them, and in no way superior, so maybe if I walked into the classroom as myself I could make the week more memorable and valuable to everyone. Instead of writing an obsessive lesson plan that accounted for every second, I thought of the ice breakers that we played endlessly at Camp during Induction, the tongue twisters that would leave me and my dad in stitches and the word games that never got boring. 12 hours later I was stood at the blackboard again getting the bench-fulls of uniformed students to say “She Sells Sea-Shells on the Sea Shore” getting curious looks from the teachers that passed by.

Try saying this to yourself as quickly as you can:

“Susie sits in a shoe-shine shop. Where she shines she sits, and where she sits she shines”. I’m sure you can imagine what happened, and what I ended up trying to explain with a crude game of charades which was met with shrieks of laughter and immature chatter…

I’m sure that is not what a qualified TEFL teacher would do, but I soon learned to love the fact that I was completely unqualified and underprepared. If I had had a book of approved games and activities I would have clung to it for dear life, but all I had was my experiences and my imagination, and however stressful that was, it taught me so much about myself and everyone around me.

As I walked into the classroom on the last day, with the impending sense of sad goodbyes to come, I pinned up a map of the world on the blackboard and asked someone to come to the front and find where Cambodia was. I then pointed out all the countries in the world that speak English in order to prove to the students that yes, there was a point in learning English, and it would probably better their chances of a good job and quality of life later on in life. Many of the students there were already taking part in vocational training programmes such as catering, mechanics and beauty treatments – being able to speak English along with these skills is one way in which the organization can ensure that these teenagers will have good opportunities once they leave and have to make it on their own…

I managed to talk for about an hour about the most bizarre things – the twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, lion fish in Thailand, kayak rolling in the freezing Bristol Channel and the mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan. I learned the importance of the tone of your voice, facial expression and gesturing, as sometimes it takes a bit of acting and singing and dancing around to get someone to understand something. By the end of the hour I felt like I was on top of the world – the students were all asking questions and laughing and seemed curious and enthusiastic.

We knew from the beginning that a week in these classrooms wasn’t really going to improve the students’ English dramatically, and at times we were incredibly frustrated when someone couldn’t make a ‘th’ or a ‘sh’ sound, but by the end of the week, when saying goodbye to the teachers we realised that they had learned to. This made our efforts seem so much more sustainable, as the teachers can use the hilarious tongue twisters, the loud games of ‘Whaa!’ and the countless replays of ‘My Love’ by Westlife – very popular in Cambodia despite the fact that it was the first ever CD that I bought when I was about 8! The teachers were very thankful for our efforts, and even though I know that I learned more than my students, I felt like even if I had encouraged just one of the students to want to continue learning English, then I had made a little difference in someone’s life.

The rest of our adventure through Cambodia involves a cloud of nausea due to anti-malarial tablets, a Montisorri school set up by a German lady in the middle of the countryside, pool parties with floating candles in coconut shells and plastic elf ears – but that’s a whole other story.

I guess the message of this one is that a piece of paper will never do your story justice, but that doesn’t mean that they are irrelevant. This month of my life was the most stressful, craziest, rewarding, life-changing experience and it will stay with me for the rest of my life, and it’s a scary thought that my future lies in the hands of an admissions officer who might have read another hundred statements that night and is feeling a little tired.

-United World College Student Magazin-

One thought on ““No concept of past, present or future”

  1. Beth, I think this article is wonderful…it’s real, and funny, and the nicest thing I could have accidentally stumbled on to.

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