We all play favorites. Whether you admit to it or not, you can’t come to a children’s center and leave without creating a connection that’s stronger with at least one child than the others. For me, it’s a girl named Ally*.
She’s about 12 years old (no one knows their actual ages), and is the oldest of five. When someone first meets her, she’ll throw her sass at them, convincing you that she hates you. I think it’s a defense mechanism that comes from spending her days in a place that has a revolving door of volunteers. Of course, if she wants something, she’ll hook arms with that person and put on her best pair of puppy dog eyes. When answered with a defiant “no” multiple times (sometimes, the first one doesn’t stick), she’ll give the Cambodian sound of “I don’t like that”: “OOOOOWEE!” Then storm away in a huff.
During my first months here, I played lunch lady. After the kids finish their first serving, they come around for seconds. Ally would come back for fourths and fifths. I noticed this trend during my third week here. Her siblings would have two or three, but she finished each bowl at lightning speed, then hurried back into line until the food officially ran out.
Later, I visited her house on a routine home visit. She lives in what some here call a “nice house.” It was funded by a sponsor and is a one-room shack with tin paneling, measuring about eight square meters. Her mother and littlest sister were asleep on the floor next to an empty double bed with disheveled bedding and a mosquito net, probably because it’s much cooler than a mattress. The walls were lined with clothing and pictures of their family. In the corner was a single gas burner with a rack of all the condiments one would find in any self-respecting Khmer household.
Her mother is chronically ill and her father is a known drunk. Her little sister even went to the province for several months with their grandmother and didn’t want to come back because she didn’t want to be around their fighting. We learned that their father normally abstained from hitting their mother as long as the kids were around. At any given time during the day, one of the siblings is sleeping because it’s likely they didn’t sleep through the night. This happens more so during rainy seasons because of the midnight thunderstorms.
One day, her youngest brother (about 6 years old) threw a tantrum – a common occurrence because he’s comparatively spoiled — and tried to leave the center during lunch. I ran out after him and had to physically bring him back. One of our teachers came over to talk to him and when he kept struggling, she called for Ally. Ally immediately put her food down and ran to his aid. All I could do is think that she’s missing her lunch. Her other siblings soon joined, and finally got him to calm down. The rest of the day, he was near her side, holding on to the back pocket of her over-sized jeans.
From what I can tell, the reason she eats so much is because, like a lot of our kids, it’s her only meal of the day. Her family is part of our food program, but I believe that she gives her dinner portions to her siblings. After realizing it, I acted like any human who’s picked out a favorite: I started giving her larger servings during her daily lunch rounds.
I often see her and her siblings on Serendipity Beach Road. If it’s past 9, I ask them where their parents are. Normally, their dad is on his way to get them. After a few months, they’ve finally started trusting me with knowing their whereabouts because I’ve sworn I wouldn’t tell my higher ups – which I don’t, unless I see them carrying bags of plastic bottles.
It’s that trust that lets them know I won’t pass judgement or ridicule them for not being at home. Every morning, Ally runs over to me to have a conversation and practice her English. Today, I sat next to her while she drew a picture of a flower and spoke to her like I would any student in the United States. She could converse just like any of the 5th graders I taught. In fact, it’s better than most English teachers in this country, allowing her to translate what I say to other kids.
If she had been born anywhere else, she’d be Ivy League bound. Unfortunately, like most people here, the only thing holding her back is that she were born in Cambodia.
I imagine if I had a little sister, she’d be exactly like Ally. She reminds me of my older sister in that she’s fiercely independent and will attend to her younger siblings at the drop of a hat. However, she has my attitude,which, like her, got me into a lot of trouble while I was in school. I feel protective of her. If anyone in this town gave her trouble, I’d kick their teeth in. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure she has the opportunities I had; pulling strings, taking advantage of every relationship in this city, and facilitate after-hours tutoring sessions to make sure she can go to university.
Our favorites are our favorites for deeply personal reasons. It’s favoritism that’s given these children their meals, sends them to school with a new uniform, and pays for their higher education. Granted, we’re walking a thin line that if crossed could alienate the other children who come from similar (if not worse) backgrounds, who just might not be as cute or personable. All we can do is pour our hearts into our jobs, ignore the cynics who will use their energy to discourage us, and put on a smile and share a laugh with the kids. Because, their right to happiness is far more important that our overwhelming feelings of doubt. Making our hearts open to them gives them the opportunity to find their place inside.
*My lil’ sis’ name has been changed for her protection. And yours. Like I said, if you mess with her, you mess with her older sister.