Prisoners of the Humanitarian (Cont.)
It was early September when I went to see my former literature teacher, Mr. Phon Bun Yann, who had become an assistant principal of Phnom Dangrek High School. I told Mr. Phon of my study at Khao I Dang camp and the couple of grade levels I had skipped while enrolling there. Because there were only a few months left on the 1987 school year, Mr. Phon suggested that I should attend the seventh grade instead of the eighth grade, which I had been attending while I was living in Khao I Dang camp. His rationale was that the eighth graders would be taking the exit exam for high school diploma by the end of the year and I might not be ready to take that big exam because my education had been interrupted, and that I had just gone through a very stressful situation in life. Mr. Phon’s advice was logically sound; hence, I went to attend the seventh grade for the remainder of the 1987’s school year. However, soon after I set foot in the seventh grade class at Phnom Dangrek High School, rumors started circulating among my former classmates who were in sixth grade at that point that I must be bribing school officials to be able to attend the seventh grade, which was one level ahead of them. By the end of my first week at Phnom Dangrek High School, Mr. Phon summoned me to his office and suggested that I should withdraw my enrollment and wait until the next school year to re-enroll for whatever grade level I wanted, as long as I passed the placement test. To make things less complicated, I followed Mr. Phon’s suggestion and said goodbye to education for the time being.
After unforeseen circumstances kicked me out of formal education, I returned to seek informal education again. This time, it was at an orphanage center in Ampil camp, where a talented young man named Chea Chamroeun taught high school level mathematics to a group of orphan youths, many of whom were my former classmates. Chamroeun himself was an orphan living in the center. So after introducing myself to him, I came to attend his mathematics class every evening. Before long, Chamroeun and I became close friends and we found that we had many things in common, philosophically.
Beside Chamroeun, my friend, Koy, with whom I lived, also helped me get a job as an assistant to a French volunteer arts teacher, named Veronique de Crope, who was teaching perspective drawing to handicapped and orphan children at the Ampil’s Technical School for Handicapped People, which was located across the street from the orphanage center. Thus, with a job and an informal study in place, I found myself some sense of normalcy in life again. Each day, I went to work at the technical school with Koy, who was also working there as a designer and silk screener. After work, I would go to study mathematics with Chamroeun at the orphanage center every evening.
Toward the end of 1987, education’s officials from the various camps within Site 2 organized an exit exam for those students who had finished the eighth grade. In a rather lucky break for me it was announced that those who worked in various institutions in Site 2 were eligible to take the exam, along with the students, to obtain a high school diploma. Using my work at the technical school as qualification, I went to see officials at Phnom Dangrek High School and registered my name to take the exam as a non-student candidate. Upon learning that I was also going to take the exit exam for high school diploma, Chamroeun was very excited. He himself was an eighth grade student and would be one of the participants taking that exam. So he created a special class to prepare some of us as well as himself for some of the subjects that might be asked in the test. For about one month prior to taking the test, we spent many hours studying math, physics, and chemistry.
The day of reckoning came in late December 1987. With only sporadic education and a fragile self-confidence, I went to take the test for a high school diploma. As a non-student candidate, I was not allowed to sit among the students while taking the test. Thus, separate classrooms were designated for non-student candidates to take their test. There were 21 people in my class. We were seated about four feet apart to prevent us from looking at each other’s answers. Once again, it took us two days to complete the test. By the end of the second day, I was mentally exhausted as many of the questions asked in the test were beyond my grasp. By the time the exam was over, I was ready to lie down in my hammock at home to take a well deserved rest. But life wasn’t meant to be easy for me, I guess. When I arrived home in late afternoon, Koy handed me a letter from my brother, Buntha, which the mailman had dropped off for me a couple of hours earlier. I opened the letter immediately to see if there was any good news my brother sent for me. Alas! My hope for good news was dashed as fast as I finished reading the sentence: “Mom has been arrested by the Thai taskforces, and she is now being sent to Ta Tum camp.” My heart sank. I sat down in a bamboo chair in disbelief trying to make sense out of the stressful situations I had encountered throughout these years. Koy’s mother, Sunphan, came and sat next to me trying to comfort me with words of encouragement. She told me how lucky I was to receive this bad news right after finishing the test. If this letter were to arrive one day earlier, it would spell the end of my examination efforts. She was right. The bad news did not ruin my chance to obtain a high school diploma.
(To be continued)