At one elementary school, the children have basically been abandoned. The students take it upon themselves to hit the gong to signal that class should begin, but it’s rare if the teacher is there. The gong rings hollow with a class unattended. The reason one teacher is not there is because she does a brisk business of selling snacks outside the school and even after the morning rush, she seems more content to sit in the shade of her umbrella and count her profits than to stand in the classroom. Left on their own, eight year-olds wreak havoc in the classroom. Some run and scream and some jump on the desks. The naturally quiet ones try to ease their suffering by seeking refuge by scribbling in their notebooks.
Before the students start creating chaos in the classroom, they are happily self-managed outside in the schoolyard. Maybe it’s because they’re used to having so much time on their own. Children play shuffleboard with sandals, flick marbles and rotate among a number of other games. Sometimes they argue, but it’s usually about their rules. Their sense of social order is in stark contrast to unmanaged classroom.
New games appear in the schoolyard. Most recent is the emergence of a popular game using tamarind seeds, maybe because tamarinds are now in season. Cupped holes have been scraped out of the hard dirt surface, sometimes with Nazca-like patterns or those reminiscent of modernist earthworks. I found one pattern in the outline of a girl with holes dug for the eyes, mouth and other anatomically appropriate areas. The holes work as a kind of cribbage pot. The seeds are scattered and flicked expertly into the hole. I’m not sure what the rules are, but it’s obvious that they are being followed. Groups of five or six children huddle around in quiet concentration surrounded by an outer ring of spectators. Quick calculations are being made to keep track of who is winning. Of course, there are no adults hovering over their shoulder to order them around and tell them what to do. Self-management is the essence of good play.
Little does the teacher-cum-vendor know that her brisk sales are not from the tamarind paste but from the seeds. A mere 1,000 Kip package has exponential value in terms of inventiveness and students know the value of play. I have seen students count the seeds in the plastic packages before making their purchase just to be sure to get the best deal. Once they have enough seeds or move on to another game, the teacher will lose her sales.
It’s hard to help the teacher understand the tremendous effect she has on the students. We’ve pointed out that the primary source of garbage in the schoolyard is coming from her merchandise, but she just laughs. She may not have experienced how difficult it is to teach children when they’re stoked with sugar and MSG. What she also doesn’t understand is that her pocketed profits are coming from a desire to play and a desire to learn. Has she ever considered selling books? Before that happens, we might find ways to get her daily sales translated into more learning games, but do we really have to go to all this effort? Will there be a day when she simply enters the classroom, working for the pay she gets and educates the children in a friendly, playful and productive way? She might be on the right track since it can all start with a handful of tamarind seeds.