All About Perspective (pt. 2)

(posted by Better World Books alum, Natasha Harris)

I’m currently sitting in a Los Angeles coffee shop sipping on a rather tasty latte that cost (gulp) a whopping $3.65. That’s some perspective. Just last week I would probably have been sipping an even more delicious cup of Vietnamese coffee (probably at this very moment, as it’s 6pm here, and Vietnam is 15 hours into the future – 9am breakfast) that cost all of $.33 and came from a cup that did not have a Starbucks label on it.

Since back, I’ve sat down several times to put down a few words about my experiences in Southeast Asia for all of you. It’s been difficult to find words to express all that I encountered while there, and several times I’ve put aside my notes for other things, waiting for the words to come to me.

What struck me most in this entire adventure was not the incredible temple visits that we did (see Aaron King’s January 13th blog posting entitled “Life Comes at You Fast” for an insightful and thoroughly regaling account of our trip itinerary), or the fuzzy feeling that comes from being on the other side of the world, or the inherent beauty of Southeast Asia, or the food or even the poverty (which was certainly striking) – it was that deep-rooted optimism, that trust in tomorrow that so many people displayed and felt so intrinsically. In the week I spent in Cambodia with Room to Read and the many people I interacted with while there, I saw it over and over, and the impact of it was so humbling I know I’ll never find the right words to describe it no matter how long I stare at this computer. Again, perspective.

For those of you who are unaware of what’s been happening in Cambodia over these past many decades (don’t feel bad) – here is the quickest of recaps: the Khmer Rouge was a very radical communist party that was in power in Cambodia from 1975-1979 (and thereafter, though less officially). Its main goals were to turn Cambodia into a classless agrarian society, and to that end it abolished currency, private property and religion, and forced people out of the cities and into intensive labor camps to work the fields. During this four year period, roughly 1.5 – 2 million people (about 20% of the population) died from overwork, starvation, torture and execution. Almost immediately after its rise to power, the Khmer Rouge began a program of mass executions – among the first to die were the elite, religious figures and the educated … right down to anyone who wore glasses. In a few short years, an entire generation of educated citizens was wiped out, setting the stage for a most dire situation in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of horror.

Not only did the Khmer Rouge implement mass-killings of the educated but it also destroyed much of the education-based infrastructure that existed throughout the country. In Siem Riep Province , where we spent our week with Room to Read, only one high school and twenty primary schools remained after the Khmer Rouge regime’s fall from power. Cambodia has faced an arduous uphill battle on every imaginable front to get to the point its reached today, and yes, there is still a long way to go. Today, Siem Riep boasts 56 high schools and 452 primary schools, along with 2 vocational training centers and a teacher training college. That’s quite an improvement! Ask any Cambodian and they will proudly acknowledge how far they’re come, recognizing of course how much is left to go.

As a westerner, I’m going to have to take a moment to be a realist and relay to you a few of the things we noted on our trip. For starters, resources are still so lacking that no child in a Cambodian public school attends for more than half the day. Teachers can sometimes be fairly under-educated themselves, and are always extremely underpaid (about $40 per month). The government only has $600-$800 million as its total annual budget, thus its contributions to education cannot meet demand. On a Room to Read visit to Angkor Wat High School (where Room to Read had built a beautiful library and also supplied a computer lab and language lab), the headmaster identified the school’s most imminent need as electricity – the school’s monthly electric bill is in the vicinity of $300-$350, and this cost cannot be subsidized by the government. The school lives in constant fear of not being able to keep its lights on. And then there is the issue of supplies – another school we visited (one where Room to Read is planning to build a library this year – 2008!) had 2,315 students and a current total of 200-300 books … to share … between everyone.

I think back on my childhood and on the privileged path I’ve been on since the age of two.  I’ve always been a reader – a passion that was heavily supported by my family and my teachers throughout my formative years.  In all my life, I’ve never suffered for the lack of a good book to read.  I’ve also been given plenty of recognition and offered numerous scholarships to help me achieve my dreams.  I grew up in a country where I was taught that if I think big and believe in myself there is no threshold I cannot cross – no barrier to keep me from my dreams.  How much of this have I taken for granted?  How many classes have I skipped in my life because I had something “better” to do?  I look back on myself and my classmates growing up and I realize that all of us – the richest of us, the poorest, the most clever and more challenged – we all approached our education with at least some degree of indifference, at least some of the time.  And why not?  Education was always a given, at least through high school.  I remember whining about going back to school after a long vacation, wishing I could spend my days outside instead of being cooped up in a classroom with all of its rules and expectations.  Cambodia put that all in perspective.

In Cambodia, we met students who, though they lived 15 (very rough) kilometers from home, couldn’t afford to get there more than twice a year.  These students came from very poor, very isolated fishing islands and would not have had a chance for a secondary education without Room to Read.  Room to Read sends them to school on scholarship, pays for their meals, pays for their housing.  I can’t imagine, in 7th grade, being faced with knowing that my stab at an education would come at the price of having to leave my family and everything I’ve ever known.  That’s dedication.  That’s perspective.  I’m so overwhelmed by the bravery of these students, and of the mothers they leave behind as they work towards a better future!

We met hundreds of students on this journey – students of all ages. It was wonderful to have an opportunity to speak to so many of them, and to hear their stories (video footage soon to follow so we can share these stories with all of you). No one’s story was easy, but the one resounding theme I heard throughout – from students and parents alike – was that education is extremely valuable. These students were so grateful for the opportunity to be in school – to study, to work hard, to prove their worth and to build those bridges to the better tomorrows they knew lay ahead. That utter faith, that utter resolve, that perseverance and hope and trust – it was beautiful, astonishing, uplifting … staggering. My latte has long gone cold but if you’re still reading – I’d like to end with this. We don’t all start life on the same footing, but we all deserve to get the most we can out of it. Doing something good for someone else in the world is a lot easier than you’d think – and no problem is ever so overwhelming when you break it down into manageable bits. Some good places to start? I’d of course suggest running a book drive to benefit Room to Read as a most excellent beginning step. Personally, I feel invigorated to start pounding pavement with Better World Books so I can bring on as many book drives as possible. After all, more book drives = more money raised = more scholarships, more libraries … more everything. Here are just a couple other suggestions:

– Run book drives with Better World Books to benefit Room to Read

– Donate directly to organizations that you have researched. Funding a one-year girl’s scholarship through Room to Read is only $250!

– Educate yourself on global issues and share what you learn with friends, family, your barista, your bank teller – everyone you can. I think we’ll all be more inclined towards action if we understand the world as a smaller place.

– Travel – anywhere you can, whenever you can. New perspectives will change you in wonderful ways that you’ll hopefully never quite recover from.

Thanks all, for reading this. Look for more to come from other trip companions in the next few days.

Above are some of the beautiful faces of students that we met during our travels with Room to Read.

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