Monday, April 22, 2013

Goodbye Cambodia....

Last week was Khmer New Year.  It is arguably the most celebrated holiday in this country as mostly everyone closes down their businesses, takes time off from work and travels home to spend time with family.  TGC followed suit and was closed for 1 and 1/2 weeks.

The first part of this time off was spent traveling with the TGC family on the annual school trip.  Each year the students vote on where they would like to travel to.  The students individually save money to pay for their portion of the trip and look forward to the departure months in advance.  This year's trip took us to three provinces: Kampong Speu, Kampot and Kep (Rabbit Island).  We departed at 5:00am on April 10th for the long drive to Kampong Speu.  From the minute we left Siem Reap the adventures began.  Here are some highlights:

-Hiking to a waterfall in the pouring rain, many of my students were dressed in new clothes they recieved for Khmai New Year....this did not stop them.
-Home Stay at Chambok Mountain
-Visiting a salt, pepper and durian fruit plantation
-Music on the bus...lots of singing.
-Windy drives up the epic Bokor Mountain
-Enormous statues
-Walking in the clouds
-Empty churches and casinos (abandon)
-Amazing views
-Boat rides on the beautiful ocean
-Bungalows on Rabbit Island
-Delicious seafood, seafood and seafood
-Huge crabs
-Nerf football on the beach
-BBQing food under the stars
-956 pictures

As you can see, the trip was pretty incredible.  In four days we covered a large amount of distance and saw some absolutely wonderful things.  More importantly, it was the perfect way to spend some quality time with my students and other staff members at TGC.  These different locations and experiences were so much more enjoyable because of the people I was with.

When the trip came to an end it was time for me to embark on my own journey.  A few months back I got together with 10 of my friends here and road 170km to a nearby province called Battambang.  The ride was spectacular and a truly fantastic way to see more of Cambodia.  After that day I had the idea to organize a bigger, more epic ride through parts of Cambodia I had not seen.  The result of this idea proved to be one of the most rewarding and worthwhile experiences I have had here.

To sum up the trip (so I can move on to some other important stuff) here is a timeline (with distances) of my trip.

April 13th, 2013- Arrive in Phnom Penh after freaking out because the delivery company didn't drop my bike off and would be closing in an hour (before I could get there).  Thankfully, a tuk-tuk driver friend in the city was kind enough to pick the bikes up, and guard them at his home.  Meet up with traveling and riding partner Clem in PP, eat some lunch and attempt to figure out how to travel from Phnom Penh to Kratie Province.  There are no buses available.  There are no private cars less then 100$.  Maybe the trip won't happen...

April 14th, 2013- Wake up early, eat breakfast and ride over to the Central Market in PP to try and find a shared van that will takes us with our bikes.  Miracuosly, a van is found within ten minutes and Clem and I have decent seats.  Let me re-iterate what the phrase shared van means: This is a 10 person van with 20+ people in it, two bikes and a ton of luggage and bags.  I sat the entire way across from a Khmai man with our knees interlocked.  It was awesomely uncomfortable but a great experience none the less.  Eventually, we arrived in Kratie province where we road our bikes 30km to see the river dolphins!

Distance: 30km

April 15th, 2013:  Set out on 70km ride to explore the area.  See many pagodas, people dancing and celebrating the New Year and eat some delicious noodles.  Prepare for tomorrow's ride.

Distance: 100km

April 16th, 2013: The fun begins.  Clem and I set off on ride from Kratie to Kampong Cham.  The estimated distance was 110km, which ended up be very estimated. However, the ride was one of the best cycling days of my life.  We rode along the Mekong River through villages on awful dirt roads that took a lot of concentration to navigate.  The highlight was getting my face and body talcum powdered numerous times by drunk Cambodia people in the streets.  The ride took 9+ hours and covered about 130km.  Covered in sand, powder and sweat the ride came to an end with a hot shower and delicious afternoon lunch.

Distance: 230km

April 17th, 2013:  Said goodbye to Clem.  Going solo for the rest of the ride.  Today would be from Kampong Cham to Kampong Thom.  This easy 120km would take me through some beautiful country side.  A bit of a hill climb for the first 70km challenged my quads a bit but the downhill on the other end was well worth it.  It only took me 5 hours to reach Kampong Thom but I got stuck in an awful storm 5km away from my hotel that caused me to camp out at a gas station for 45mins and wait for the sheets of rain to die down.  That night I stayed at the Sambor Villa Hotel and enjoyed their delicious food, wonderful service and hot shower.  I took a wonderful nap.

Distance: 350km

April 18th, 2013:  There is not much to say about the final leg of my ride.  On a map, it looks daunting.  In person it was way worse.  Following a major highway, I biked 150km from Kampong Thom back to Siem Reap.  The first 70km were alright.  The other 80km were a different story.  At around the 75km mark I started to hear a crunching sound in my left pedal.  I stopped to have a look and realized that something was wrong that I would not be able to fix. (I found out later at the local bike store that one of the bolts inside the pedal was snapped...I guess I was going a little too hard).  For the rest of the trip I had to deal with this awful clicking sound that many people passing me on moto's stopped to investigate.  Other than this, my body was extremely fatigued.  I had done a lot of riding recently...maybe too much.  My quads were saying "stop" and mentally I was starting to shut down.  I even started singing the songs on my iPod so all could hear....then my iPod died. Eventually, I did make it back to Siem Reap and was welcomed by my wonderful friend Deb with a toliet paper finish line.  I rode through like a champion...and then ate a lot of food.

Total Distance: 500km+

Now that I am all recovered, I am extremely happy that I did not give up.  I pushed through and completed a fairly epic ride. I was lucky to be able to see more of the country before I depart.

Speaking of which, in 4 days I will be leaving Siem Reap and Cambodia to return home to America. Yesterday, I started the process of packing.  It was weird to begin organizing my stuff and going through papers, receipts and clothing.  In a way it was almost like re-living the last nine months.  I found all my medical documents from my two illnesses, the receipt for my first bike purchase, business cards from restaurants that I tried the first week I arrived. Each item sparked a memory and reminded me of how far I have come since I stepped off the plane in Siem Reap back in July 2012.

Interestingly enough, about a year ago, I sat through numerous training sessions as part of my Minerva Fellowship training.  Each one focused on something different.  The training's did a good job at teaching us how to appropriately handle  our arrival in to our respective countries.  But, not one session prepared us for saying goodbye... 

Leaving this place, and saying goodbye, is going to be hard.  It will arguably be one of the hardest things I have had to do so far in my life.  Over the last 9+ months I have created a wonderful life here.  I have worked hard at my job, built relationships with some incredible people and tried to make the most of each and every day. I have tried my best to teach effectively and in return learned a lot about myself.  I have explored towns, villages and temples.  I have run a half marathon and biked 100's of kilometers. I have been sick, really sick and then awfully sick.  I have started new programs and watched them flourish.  I have started new programs and watched them bomb.  I have succeeded and failed.  I have also found myself in that grey area between success and failure.  I have grown as a person, discovering so much about who I am and the world around me. I have stepped outside my comfort zone.  I have laughed, smiled, played.  I have acted silly and been serious. I have been frustrated, let down and confused.  Over the last 9+ months, I have experienced life in Cambodia and all the wonderful things that come with it.

Maybe they don't teach you how to say goodbye because they can't....

So, it is time for me to say goodbye.  Time to say goodbye to smiling children, hardworking staff and close friends.  Time to say goodbye to dirty streets, friendly strangers and delicious food.  Time to say goodbye to bicycle rides, temples and pagodas.  Time to say goodbye to tuk-tuks, cheap beer and yummy fruit shakes.  Time to say goodbye to the city and country I love.

This experience will never be forgotten.  I will hold the memories, the people and the work I have done here close to my heart forever.  As I finish up this post, the words to explain my true feelings escape me. I am not sure that I could ever properly do justice to my emotions on this blog. For now, I leave you with this:

Sometimes in life things don't always go as planned.  Sometimes students don't want to learn or people don't want to cooperate.  Sometimes bicycle's get flat tires or tuk-tuks break down.  Sometimes the power goes out for a while when you need to finish a big project.  Sometimes a student decides to move on from school and try something else.  Sometimes you get sick.  Sometimes friendships don't last and relationships breakdown.  Sometimes you can't make a student smile. Sometimes homework doesn't get finished.  And sometimes you have to say goodbye...

If I have learned anything while living in Cambodia it's this:  Things don't always work out the way they are planned but eventually they WILL work out.

I am not sure where my life will take me next.  What I do know is, no matter what, things will somehow work out...

See you later Cambodia.


I must take a minute to thank all of the people who have helped to support me over the last year.  From the very moment I found out I received this fellowship I have been lucky enough to have supportive family and friends who truly care about my experience.  A big thank you goes out to all those people (you know who you are) that have taken time to invest themselves in my experience by talking with me regularly and being there for me when I needed a familiar person to chat with. 

Moreover, I need to thank all of the TGC staff and students.  All of you, undoubtedly, played the largest role in my experience and without each and every one of you it would not be so hard to leave.  

Finally, to my close friends in Siem Reap--thank you for welcoming me with open arms.  You are some of the best people I know and I will never forget that times we have shared.  Much love to you all. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Measuring Success

How do people measure success?

In business, success is measured by calculating sales, profit and amount of discussion about your company.

In sports, success is measured by wins, championships and trophies.

In academia, success is measured through grades, published papers and awards.

But how is success measured in the world of a non-profit operating with the single goal of changing peoples lives?

Can success be measured through calculating, winning, publishing and awarding?

I am not so sure it can.  Measuring success for NGO's like TGC is a complicated thing that can not simply be done by crunching numbers on a excel spreadsheet. The complexity to measure success for the entire organization is a difficult task to do, with no right way of doing it. On a personal level, I have attempted to measure my success at TGC and have found it to be a challenge.

Part of the experience I am having involves constantly assessing the work I am doing to see if it is successful (and should therefore continue)or if it is a failure (and should therefore immediately stop).  Of course, I have had a lot of failures.  Failures are an important part of life.  They teach you valuable lessons and also allow you to re-evaluate your plans going further.  Moreover, failures make successes that much better.  I believe it was Truman Capote (the author of Breakfast at Tiffany's) who once said that "Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor."

The easy thing about failures is that you know when they happen.  In my current life, failures are identifiable by students who aren't smiling, bad grades on exams, boredom, and written proposals that never turn in to what they propose.  My failures, for the most part, can be seen immediately.

Successes, on the other hand, are much more difficult to identify.  The problem with determining whether a program, class or event is successful at an NGO level is that the results are not always immediate.  Of course, their are some obvious successes the show up pretty quickly. Happy and excited students, high participation and attendance and positive discussion are all signs of a success.  However, when you are working in the "business" of attempting to change a persons life with your actions, successes take time to show themselves.  Sometimes it takes days, weeks, or even months to see and feel tangible successful results.

This phenomenon is incredibly frustrating while also being extremely rewarding. On one hand, not being able to know if you have been successful makes you constantly question yourself.  What am I doing wrong?  Am I good at my job?  What can I do differently?  On the other hand, when those successes finally show up, they make you smile that much wider.  More than this, I have come to learn that these "delayed-successes" are usually the ones that confirm actual change.

Earlier in my life, while the President of the Long Island region of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (BBYO), I learned a similar lesson.  Throughout the beginning of my presidency our region struggled to gain membership from Jewish teens.  As our numbers decreased so did the quality of our programming.  In order to combat this, we worked on building our region back up from its roots.  For an entire year I worked tirelessly to re-create a stronger and more welcoming organization for the Jewish teen population of Long Island.  At the end of that year, when all the hard work was done, I had almost nothing to show for it.  There was no "great" success.

Two years later, I returned to a BBYO annual convention to witness an astonishing thing.  With an attendance of close to 400 people, and a male population of more than half, the region I had worked so hard for had grown to new heights.  The programming was stronger.  The teens were more engaged. And the organization was attracting attention throughout the world...

..."Delayed Success"

So, how can we measure success?

We create something.  We implement it.  We wait. And one day we will return to see that what we have done did in fact change the course of someones life.  When that day comes, success won't need to be measured.  Instead, it will simply be felt.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What I've learned...

Before I begin this post, I must again apologize for a lack of blogging.  Sometimes life just gets in the way.  Please know that I am going to make a very large effort to blog more regularly for the next few months.  The posts may be shorter then my usual long rants but will at least give everyone the opportunity to be apart of the closing months of my fellowship.  

I've learned a lot in the last 7 months.

I've learned what it feels like to fail and succeed.
I've learned what it takes to get a struggling student to smile.
I've learned how to understand and deal with a different culture.
I've learned that it takes a lot of strength to live in another county for an extended period of time.
I've learned what foods are good and which ones will keep me close to the toilet.
I've learned how to teach.
I've learned how to learn.
I've learned how to play, laugh and make others smile.
I've learned that its possible to sweat while in an air conditioned room.
I've learned that biking is better when you do it everyday.
I've learned the meaning of the word poor.
I've learned why some NGO's fail and why some NGO's succeed.
I've learned that it's important to be honest.
I've learned that even if you intend to blog once a week, it won't quite happen like that.
I've learned that some people will disappoint you while others will always be there for you no matter what.
I've learned how to say hello with a smile.
I've learned the importance of surrounding yourself with people who understand your passions in life.
I've also learned the importance of being alone.
I've learned that books are a good escape from stressful life.
I've learned that Thai announcers will not do a good job during the superbowl.
I've learned that beer taste better when it's only .50 cents.
I've learned that in order to make enormous changes you need to first take small steps.
I've learned that you can not change the world.
I've learned that you can change a persons world.
I've learned what it means to overcome something.
I've learned a lot.

Seven months ago I set off on this journey with a desire to learn.  I've had some absolutely incredible experiences over the last seven months that have taught me so much about the world, about people and about who I am.  As I ponder what the final two months of my fellowship will bring I can not help but take a look back to all that has happened since July 16th, 2012.  As I attempt to process the experiences I have had, the people I have encountered and the job I have come to love, I must first look to what I have learned.  This experience has shown me a world of learning that I never imagined existed.  A world where, each and everyday, you can learn something new.

Two months to go before I depart for the United States.  Two months to accomplish my goals and make dreams in to reality. Two months more of learning...

"The path to our destination is not always a straight one.  We go down the wrong road, we get lost, we turn back.  Maybe it doesn't matter which road we embark on.  Maybe what matters is that we embark."  

Friday, February 15, 2013


I would like to congratulate Ariel Blum and Becca Duffy, as well as the rest of the 2013-2014 Minerva Fellows on being selected!

Ariel and Becca will travel to Cambodia in July to replace Amanda and I!

Congratulations to both of you!

Friday, January 4, 2013

"The Ian Schwartz Class for Kids Who Want to Exercise and Do Other Things Good Too..."

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday around 11:40am Teacher Ian takes off his TGC name tag, hangs up his collared shirt and puts away his white board markers.  What happens next is the wonderful transformation of Teacher Ian to Marine Drill Sargent Schwartz. And just like that, physical education class is ready to begin...

Allow me to rewind for a minute.

A few months ago our founder and director, Judy Wheeler (who is an absolutely incredible person) visited TGC for one of her numerous yearly visits.  She decided to get all the teacher's together to talk about some of the issues that our students were having.  While going around the room one thing came very apparent:  our students spend an incredible amount of time sitting in the exact same seat, in the exact same room, over and over again.  This has not only led to some attention issues but there is also a clear deficiency in out students energy levels.  The solution for me was clear.  We need to get our students moving around and exercising regularly.  Not only would it help with energy levels but many other benefits would result from such activity. Fortunately, the rest of the staff, and Judy, agreed.  This was the birth of the TGC Physical Education program.

So, I got what I wished for. But, where do I go from here?  I am not a licensed physical education instructor.  I have never actively led a physical education class.  I haven't even been in a organized gym setting in almost five years.  Uh oh...

I searched my brain to try and figure out what to do.  Usually in these situations (like learning how to teach English for the first time) I just think back to people who taught me...

Dave Gumbus is the type of person who gains your respect by giving you respect. He is a Physical Education teacher at West Hollow Middle School and also coaches Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor Track at Half Hollow Hills High School East.  I attended both of these schools and had Gumbus (as we call him) for gym three years in a row.  I also ran competitively under his guidance for four years of high school.  He also taught and coached my brother.

For 7+ years this man was a part of my life.  That is 1/3 of my current existence.  Before today, I never really thought about all that he taught me.  First and foremost, Gumbus was real with his students.  In an age where America was turning soft (the everyone is a winner notion that society feeds off today) Gumbus was tough.  Not everyone was a winner.  Winners were people who worked hard and preformed the best.  Whether it was European handball or a track meet, Gumbus reminded us to give it our all.  Besides his old school attitude he also always made sure to keep his students on their toes.  If you traveled in basketball he would blow the whistle and scream "That's a travel, next time take the bus."  Read that and tell me that if you were a middle school student competing in gym class you wouldn't stop for a second and try to process what just happened.

Dave Gumbus and his style would be the first part of my physical education class.

Mark Tjaden works hard and plays harder.  He is the staff recruiter and outdoor adventure director (to say the least) at Indian Head Camp. He is also a bad-ass rock climber, nasty mountain biker, and solid outdoors enthusiast. He is solely responsible for all the more dangerous things I do as he taught me to rock climb, mountain bike, camp, hike and work to be a better person.   Most importantly, he is my role model and mentor. 

Mark has a ton of experience in the business of changing lives.  Coincidentally, he does most of it through challenging people to step outside their comfort zone.  Some of this he does through climbing expeditions or canoeing trips.  Other times he simply just puts you through the ringer of challenging games that spit you and your friends out on the other side as stronger communicators and teammates.  I've seen these games in action and have even played the role of coordinator to many of them.  Mark is a knowledge sharer and I have been lucky enough to receive  a lot of his knowledge. Mark is also a doer.  He will never make you do anything that he hasn't done or won't do himself.  If he asks you to jump off a cliff (literally, we go cliff jumping) he will do it first.  If he wants you to tackle a bouldering problem on the climbing wall he'll do it first, make it look easy and then encourage you while you struggle.

Mark Tjaden: the second piece to my physical education puzzle.

By perfectly combining what I have learned from these two wonderful people I have been able to scratch together a physical education program.  Here are the backbone concepts to my class:

1.  Be Real: Keep the kids informed about what they should be accomplishing.  If someone does something good, acknowledge them.  If someone does something bad, explain why.

2. Keep things exciting: Change it up.  Call on different people.  Surprise them with new activities.  Make them randomly do push-ups, sit-ups or wall sits (to my frat bros out there reading, I will teach them how to rest later January).

3.  Work together: TGC, above all, is a family.  Focus on building stronger relationships between my students.

4. Challenge People: Push my students to be the best they can be by challenging them to do something they may not typically do.

5.  Be a doer: Join in. If they do push ups, I do push ups.  If they run, I run.

As it approaches high noon in Cambodia and I stand in Union College athletic shorts and a cut off "frat" shirt in a concrete courtyard in front of the Wood House. This is my gymnasium.  My students line up  in three organized lines which are spaced out in a perfect grid formation.  Three older students stand at the front, ready to begin.  They are given the go signal and  the warm up begins:

  • 1 set of 40 jumping jacks
  • 1 set of 10 push-ups 
  • 1 set of 10 sit-ups
  • 1 set of 10 lunges (5 on each leg) 
  • 1 set of 10 squats

At first, I had to walk everyone through these exercises. For some reason the jumping jacks were the hardest motion for my students.  They could not seem to coordinate their feet with their arms.  Now, I don't even have to do anything.  I just let my students start the warm up and simply fall in to the grid and participate.

After the warm up comes the core part of the class.  This comes in the form of a game or exercise circuit.  I briefly explain the objectives and rules while demonstrating how the activity works.  Thus far I have done the following activities:

  • Running Bases 
  • Circuit Training
  • SPUD
  • Relay Races
  • Team Building Exercises 
  • Simon Says: workout edition
Of course, I participate in all of these activities as a ball thrower, relay runner, facilitator and my personal favorite--Simon. To keep things exciting I change up rules, stop students in the middle of games, and, of course, if anyone travels I tell them to "take the bus".  Students who seem nervous or reluctant to participate are challenged to join in and eventually find themselves not wanting to stop playing! 

When the activity is over the class enters its final phase: cool-down/reflection.  After stretching for a few minutes I give my students 2 minutes of silent, personal time.  As they sit quietly I encourage them to clear their minds and just relax.  I slowly call different groups to lunch (all those wearing pink, anyone with a TGC shirt on, etc.). The class may only last for 30 minutes, but it is a productive and important time of the day. 

Watching my students interact with one another while participating in activities that get their hearts beating and sweat flowing has been a great edition to my week. The results speak for themselves as our students are showing signs of higher energy  and greater focus. Even more importantly they are learning some extremely powerful lessons to use in life.  In fact, I now truly understand what Dave Gumbus and Mark Tjaden have been doing all these years.  Their classes and instructions weren't about winning a game of flag football or climbing that next section of rock. No, they were about winning at life; about climbing over that challenge and succeeding.  

Physical Education is, of course, about staying active and exercising.  However, if I can mange to pass on what someone once taught me to make me a better person, well, than I guess that's what they call winning. 

And if all else fails I can always just make them do push-ups.  

Be real.  Keep things exciting. Work Together with others. Challenge Yourself.  Be a doer.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

When being inspired is better then inspiring....

The last month has been pretty tough.  As the holiday season approached I found myself becoming more homesick and yearning for my moms cooking, family and friends.  While most people prepared to spend the holidays with those closest to them I prepared to dress up like Santa Claus for our Christmas party.  There would be no celebrations with family this season but instead festivities would be with new friends here in Cambodia.  I truly do love my life here and if you have spoken to me in the last few months you know the honesty in this statement.  But, at the same time, I have begun to miss a lot of things from my past life...

The one thing that has been constant during this last month has been my students.  Somehow they always manage to put a smile on my face, even when I am really feeling down.  I have been working for the last 5 months to inspire them to "reach for the stars" and work hard to become the best person they can be.  However, it is my students, and not me, who have been doing the inspiring this month.  

Allow me to share with you the writing of one of my oldest student.  This passage is from his writing section of the December monthly exam.  The question was: 

Write 12-15 Sentences about your favorite celebrity.  Write about who they are, why they are famous, when they became famous, etc.  Also tell me if you would, one day, like to become famous.  What would you like to be famous for? 

Here is the response: 

My favorite celebrity is Plato.  Plato is my hero.  He is the person that I studied about twice in three different courses.  He is a famous philosopher with many great theories.  He became very famous for his theories and most of them work very well in the real society.  One of his famous theories is Plato's Cave.  This theory became well know and popular in many societies.  I think he is the greatest person in the Greek period.  I believe he was doing well to help other Greek people of that time.  

If one day I become famous, I want to be popular in economics of political theory.  The reason is that it may help a lot for development and peace in the world.  Also, many students will know my name as well as they know Plato.  

When I read this to grade it only one thought came through my head: "Holy Crap."  Here I was expecting to read a passage about a Cambodian pop singer or Psy (the singer of the popular song Gangam style) and instead received an incredibly well written piece on Plato.   


Here is a list of words I received from a 15 year old student who asked me this: 

"Teacher Ian, I was doing some extra reading and don't know how to make sentences with these words.  Can you help me?" 

  • California
  • Tan
  • Connect
  • Hanging 
  • Advertisements 
  • Success 
  • Portray 
  • Image
  • Afford
  • Relax
  • Seek
  • Promote
  • Expose
  • Local
After writing sentences and going over the words with her I thought I was done.  Later that day I received a note that said: 

"Dear Teacher Ian, 

Thank you for helping me with my new words.  Learning them will help me have better success in the future.  You are a great teacher! 


(name omitted)" 


While visiting a students house during our bi-yearly site visits (read last post for more information) I was informed that one of my older students voluntarily uses his stipend from TGC to pay for his younger brothers education.  His mother never asked him.  His father never asked him.  His brother didn't even ask him.  He just does it.  No one recognizes him for using the small amount of money he receives every week to pay for books, pencils, notebooks and school fees for another family member.  Instead, he simply made a decision, as a 16 year old teenager, to put his brother through school. Even if that means he can't spend money on himself. 


Sometimes, when things get dark, you need to focus to see the light.  Luckily for me, I have 23 shinning lights that help me get through those darker days.  It is them, not me, who are the inspiring ones.  

Santa Claus came to town, and DJ'd  all night long...

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Saying Thank You

She sits across from me on the floor with her legs neatly placed to her left side.  Her back is perfectly straight as if her spine is a solid piece of wood. 

 Her face is weathered.  It tells a story. Each wrinkle and dry crack in her skin acting as a different chapter, providing us with insight in to the past.  

Her eyes are powerful but also tired.  Bags hang beneath them like an unbearable weight.  

The flies are attracted to her.  She doesn't notice.  They have become a part of her movements as she slowly shifts her feet.  

There is a 1 year old baby.  He sits in her lap trying to understand the world around him.  He examines his grandmothers hand.  His fingers disappear in the her muscular grip that has been sculpted by decades of hard work.  

She breathes deep and takes her time to speak.  Each word rolling off her tongue with equal importance.  

She pauses the conversation.  Her mind is working hard attempting to discover something. 

She turns to me with those powerful eyes.  She has found what she was looking for.  

"Thank you" she says in almost perfect English...

I am sitting in a one room shack.  It is the home of one of my students.  I am accompanied by the principal and assistant principal of TGC.  We are completing another home visit to check up on the parents and guardians of our students and inform them of their child's progress.

This visit is much like the last.  Upon arrival we are always welcomed with great enthusiasm.  The families welcome us to their homes and some even provide drinks or snacks.   Sometimes we are greeted by one family member.  Other times a crowd of people gather to hear us sit and talk about the students academic and social progress.

Visiting the homes of my students is always very interesting.  Seeing the environment that they spend time in when they are not at TGC has provided me with further insight in to who they truly are.  After meeting parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and dogs I have a better understanding of what makes each of them tick.

Let me be extremely blunt about this.  My students live in conditions that most of you would consider to be absolutely awful. When I visited many of these homes for the first time 4 months ago I was placed in this world of poverty.   Although it was only for a few hours, the experience left a large impression on me.  During my initial visit I wasn't completely shocked but instead my eyes were opened to the true reality of Cambodia.  Away from the restaurants, bars and temples are a group of people struggling to get by.  Away from the Tuk-Tuk's, markets and five-star hotels are human beings living in terrible conditions.  And away from all of this are my students.  

My second round of visits last week only added to my first experience. Not only did it remind me about who my students are but it has also provided me with another opportunity to be reminded about what I am doing here.

..."Your welcome" I say back in my awful Khmer.  

What is she thanking me for?  What did I do?  She is the one who is taking care of nine grandchildren by herself.  She is the one working so hard to help her grandchildren survive.  She is the one who is inspiring, not me. 

And yet, she is the one saying "Thank You."  

Maybe she is thanking me for helping her grandchild with English.  Maybe she is thanking me for teaching him some new football skills.  Maybe she is thanking me for reaching out to him when he wasn't feeling well.  

Or maybe she is just trying to make me smile....