What is the Meaning of School? by Fiona Mahurin

The determination that children possess to go to school is perhaps the single most defiant act that we’ve witnessed thus far in Cambodia, a place that is often wrongfully characterized as having no will to act. Contrary to stereotypes of docility, children we’ve encountered have suffered abandonment, left caretaker roles over siblings, slept in libraries, walked for days, and even threatened suicide, all in the name of school. It is too early for me to decipher what school means to local youth in Cambodia, especially for those who have never attended, but it is certainly a very different space than what we’ve considered back in the United States. Here, school can be a safe space that combines multiple elements aiding in providing basic needs such as food, water, healthcare, and security.
Dr. Kim, the medical care provider at Koh Ker school, after having gifted us with a collection of local fruits, set aside a portion of his busy day to speak with us this past weekend about the history and current situation of the village, including an overview of how the village was resettled after the Vietnamese occupation in 1979. Our conversation made clear that Dr. Kim sees the social issues facing Koh Ker through a much wider lens than from a simply medical standpoint. Important services provided at school, supported and encouraged by Dr. Kim, include breakfast, hygiene, and clean water. Basic services such as these have enormous outcomes that impact attendance, retention, performance, security, and confidence. Other structural decisions keep these factors in mind as well, such as dividing up school days over twelve, rather than ten months. By doing this, children are less likely to return for the new year with new diseases that have to be treated, and can quickly resume their studies after short, periodic vacations.
Dr. Kim had recently received word that eighteen students from grades second, third, and fourth were being pulled from school by their parents and will take the investigation of this matter upon himself, “This is the principal’s work, but I want to know. If they stop [school], the principal doesn’t care because he works for the government.” Dr. Kim’s passion for his work, which takes him beyond the medical field, was made starkly evident over the dinner table. “It makes me crazy,” he said, referring to the lack of parental support. Regardless, Dr. Kim views the students defiance and enthusiasm with admiration. “I am very proud [of the students] because they can think by themselves. They want to learn.”

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