Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Dancing at Angkor Wat

Back in 1990, after I'd returned from Japan and needed to stimulate both brain and wallet, I did some substitute teaching (supply teaching for UK readers) in the Memphis City Schools. Some of this consisted of gigs at my alma mater, Central High School, which was a strange experience, having not set foot in the building in nine years, and now returning as "The Man". It was in this context that I first met a teenage Steve Selvidge, who still refers to me as a substitute teacher.

On my first morning I was signing in in the office when I saw in the corner of my eye one Elizabeth "Libby" Williams, the Spanish teacher that I and many of my friends had teased and generally tormented for three years. I smiled at her, but she completely blanked me, walked across the room to punch her time card, and back turned, said loudly amid the buzz of teachers and students, "They must be scraping the bottom of the barrel on substitutes these days." Then she turned, strode towards me and said, "I hope they give you hell," then abruptly walked off. I approached her with caution later in the break room, but she smiled and explained that she had only sought to deliver a small fraction of the payback I was due. We actually developed something of a friendship over the next few days while I was there.

One other place I did substituting was at Sheffield High, which was a hub for English-as-a-second-language instruction, which was something I was interested in and vaguely suited for, having just spent two years doing it, or attempting to do it when so allowed, in Japan. Most of the kids in the classes were from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, countries Memphis had seen steady immigration from since 1975, when Fort Chaffee, Arkansas was converted to being a processing and relocation center for refugees from the war. The kids in this class were later arrivals, and some of them were of mixed parentage (local with black or white G.I.) and had probably seen and experienced things which don't bear much thinking about. There was a Cambodian kid in one class who seemed a bit older than the others (my guess was 19 or 20), and had a couple of tattoos, which were not fashion statements among most teenagers in Memphis in 1990. His English was also much better than the others', because he had come through Thailand and then Hong Kong, where he obviously had a chance to learn some English. He was very outgoing and told me that as a young boy he had swum across the Mekong River in his escape from Cambodia - a feat comparable to swimming across the Mississippi at Memphis, not to be advised. I wonder what ever became of him.

I've always been fascinated by Cambodian musical culture since first encountering it, particularly the lost cousin of the blues now epitomized by Kong Nay, who appears in the excellent film "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong," which I saw recently and highly recommend. I recently stumbled across this gem from 1965, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performing at Angkor Wat, which is amazing, if a little long-winded. A reminder of the time before everything went so spectacularly and savagely wrong.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Mrs. Williams. Spanish teacher. I had her. You had her. Many kids, including my sister had her, and that was during the Nixon admin.