Christmas 1962, I was ten and in the fifth grade when I found out we were poor. Sugar beets didn’t payout as expected that year. Daddy took a job roofing and hurt his back trying to keep a roof over his own family. We had pork in the freezer and what my mother had canned last summer to eat. I didn’t know all this at the time. I just knew my Daddy was far away at the VA Hospital and my Mama had to learn to drive the Chevy.
Mama had brought a few Christmas ornaments from England, Made of glass, finely wrought in jeweled colors, they must have been from the Victorian era. We had a little artificial Christmas tree, about two feet tall, made of paper and wire that could be taken apart and fitted into a narrow box after the holidays. Mama was particular in decorating the tree. Small, multicolored electric lights and tinfoil tinsel with the glass ornaments were allowed. Not too many candy canes. Angel hair at the top—to lengthen the angel’s skirt.
We lived six miles out of town, a mile down a dirt road. We never had visitors, except for cousins or working men who scraped their feet on the porch, but didn’t come in. School was out for the holidays. Mama was cooking pork chops in the kitchen, Daddy convalescing from his back operation on the couch, when we heard a truck come up the drive and a knock at the door. Two neighbors with bags of groceries and a big live Christmas tree bustled in. “Merry Christmas!”
My father had a lumberjack’s red beard at that time. He must have been around 33 then. He blushed as red as his beard. When the neighbors left, my mother and father were silent with embarrassment. My brother and I dug through the groceries, pulling out the biggest family-size can of pork and beans I’d ever seen. “Are we poor?” I asked. “No,” my Daddy replied, “We’ve got two Christmas trees!” But I knew we were, and that it was shameful.
Cambodia is a poor country. Less than 40 years ago it was brutalized and starved nearly to extinction under Pol Pot’s despotic rule. Cambodians know how to survive on very little. The Ministry of Education has promised raises for public school teachers in 2016—a primary school teacher will soon make nearly $200 a month. My students have no memory of what their grandparents endured and their parents don’t want to talk about it. Cambodia is a county with a long history, a shaky democracy, and emerging economy.
I teach in a poor, rural community. Some of the students come to school barefoot. Some come every other day because the family only has one school uniform and the siblings have to trade off. The clever students sit at the front of the class and already know the answers because their parents have paid a couple of dollars for tutors or private lessons. The students at the back of the class share books and forgot their pens. The boys have outgrown their pants; the girls can barely speak above a whisper when I ask a question. These students are from poor communes, the ones who live in the tin shacks, who have to help their families at harvest time, who stop coming to school at all after sixth grade. But inside the classroom I don’t feel any judgment from the clever classmates up front or shame from the barefoot kids in the back. Poverty is shared. They’re growing through this together.