The twelfth grade boys have disappeared from my high school English class. After the break for Khmer New Year in April classes were reconfigured and a new schedule set. On the first day of our Wenesday English class we counted 18 girls and 12 boys. The next week only two boys showed up. For the past month we have had no boys at all.
We are about two months from graduation. English is not a requirement for a high school diploma in Cambodia, so perhaps the boys are spending their time on Khmer studies and math. Yet, nearly every teacher at our school, regardless of their discipline, extols the necessity of English language skills. Fluency in English means a better job with future potential in Cambodia. English is the language of commerce. Still, the boys at our school do not come to English class on Wdnesday. My co-teacher thinks that some may have dropped out to take jobs at the garment factory or to drive a truck or to work at the family business. My co-teacher is concerned and diligent and visits the families. Most families offer vague responses: “Maybe he go to work for his uncle.” Maybe. We cannot say for sure.
At our school, and in most of Cambodia, boys sit on one side of the classroom, girls on the other at long wooden benches attached to heavy desks. As we slog through the English For Cambodians textbook, we often direct questions to one side of the room or another. “Who is the Clever Boy?” asks Kru Chetra. “Who is the Clever Girl?” Usually, no one is eager to claim the title, although there are at least a couple of clever students on each side of the room. When asked directly by the teacher, a student must stand and deliver. Boys slouch and grin and look to their seat mates for the answer. Responses are always collaborative. Like a prompter at a school play the Clever Boy will feed the lines to the Less Clever Boy.
What has happened in the classroom with the absence of boys is a change in how the girls respond. Often when a girl is asked directly by the teacher she will first shake her head and say she does not know. Then, if we are insistent that she make an attempt, the girl will stand, but first she must untangle herself from her school bag, look at her friends and giggle, then slowly, reluctantly, stand and whisper the answer to the floor. Or she will stand but hold both hands in front of her face, stopping her words from going too far.
Now, without the boys in the classroom, the girls are not so self-effacing, not so silly. I ask a question and half a dozen hands go up. I choose a girl and she stands up eagerly. She replies with confidence. “Excellent! That is correct.” She smiles at her friends. She knows the answer. I like this new found confidence in the girls. Maybe they would have found that in a classroom with the boys, it’s hard to say.
I do not advocate separating students by gender at school. I think boys and girls need to learn to work together, need to appreciate each other’s contributions. Gender bias is so ingrained, so familiar that it is taken as a natural fact, even by those who suffer from the effects. And we all suffer from the effects of inequality. I miss the boys in the twelfth grade English class, but I am happy to hear the girl’s voices grow louder and more confident.