In the Lao language reader, the last chapter is about the last day of school. “We get up early on this special day and walk to school with feelings of anticipation and excitement.” I can relate to that. I remember the irrepressible feeling of freedom on that last day of school. It marked the long and glorious days of summer to come with picnics at the beach and maybe a car-trip to Yellowstone.
I downloaded images to help visualize the text in the Lao reader. They were easy to find. Kids are throwing their notebooks into the air with joy and dashing out the school. “The last day of school!” Then I was corrected. I was told that the last day of school comes with a bit of sadness. Summer vacation is not something to leap in the air about.
It’s mid-July and we’re doing a special session at a rural school. I didn’t hear any village loudspeakers making the announcement but by 7:00 AM steady streams of children are heading to school. In a land where 8:00 means 9:00, I’m astounded to see children coming to school an hour early. They’re wearing their uniforms, which are perfectly ripped, wrinkled and soiled just as I remember them in May. It’s very possible that the uniforms have been carefully stashed away in their miserable states. One boy has the red sash tied around the collar and the effort is almost heart wrenching. For whatever reason it may be, these kids want to go to school.
They happily jostle for a bench to share with their friend and then settle down to concentrate the best that they can. The chorused response is loud enough to create the illusion of a functioning class, but I suspect otherwise. Mouths are not moving in synch, but with a micro-time lapse that follows the lead of the few students who can answer. One girl can’t take advantage of the time-lapse. She seems lost, not because she doesn’t understand the lesson, but because she doesn’t understand what one is supposed to do in a school. It is that bewildering.
Even older students can’t answer simple questions. “Are you going to continue to secondary school next year?” At best, they nervously giggle, but the feeling is that there is no shared language be it Lao, Khmu or Hmong. They are chronically shy and cannot even nod or shake their heads. Maybe they’ve never been asked personal questions like this before.
They’re best at songs. They remember them quickly and fill their lungs with air to belt them out with big smiles. They’re worst at writing, so bad that even a foreigner can see the mistakes. The ethnic minority kids are at a particular disadvantage because the complicated system of tones has never really been explained to them. Throw in some dialects, inconsistent pronunciation among teachers and the fact that they don’t hear Lao in daily lives and it really gets hard.
We finish teaching and I feel like they’ve learned a lot in a few hours. I’ve learned a lot too and can’t really swallow the realities of how difficult it is for them to get an education. They pour out of the school and file home but within minutes appear again dressed for work on the farm. I can see the cornfields halfway up the mountains, half enshrouded in clouds and way too far for a child to climb to. The sticky ankle-deep mud makes it all the more impossible. No beach picnics. No trips to Yellowstone. They look forward to the day they can sing songs in a classroom again.