A lesson from the students

a/Features by

In the bleakest days of Montreal’s winter, it’s easy to feel weighed down with the stress of school, the grey skies, and the cold that keeps us indoors. This winter, I tried to forget the seasonal gloominess and instead remembered my experience this past summer—one that reminded me about finding a sense of joy in even the dreariest of days.

On my first day in Cambodia, I was greeted with an airport about the size of a typical campus building, 40 degree weather that made it tremendously hard to breathe, and a driver who didn’t speak a word of English.

From day one, the students I taught did not cease to amaze me with their clever games, their spontaneous gifts of flowers and pebbles, their yearning for knowledge, and their laughter. With each day that I spent with them, I couldn’t help but notice how they were so determined to look past any challenges in their day. Now back in Montreal, I realize that as university students, we lead such busy lives that we often ignore the possibility of taking a deep breath and slowing down a little. When they were playing ‘tag,’ I noticed that two little girls were playing it by a different rule: whenever one person became ‘it,’ the other would run remarkably slowly, even turning around and giggling, until she was finally tagged. As they caught up to each other, they would laugh with delight. I think they simply liked playing with each other more than they cared about winning.

After I taught the kids how to play ‘duck, duck, goose,’ it quickly became one of their favourites. I always thought that being able to successfully tag the target was one of the most important parts of this game, but the kids seemed to enjoy the chase in itself so much more. Delight gleamed in their eyes as they got up and raced around the circle. Witnessing those moments showed me how easy it is for us, as college students with big plans for the future, to focus so much on the goal and lose the joy of the process. Running, climbing, falling, stumbling, and reaching are all important stages of a journey that will bring us to our final destination. The children showed me that happiness is about the chase just as much as the ultimate goal.

During one particular recess, I asked the kids what their favourite game to play was. They pulled out a long rope made of rubber bands, and set it up in one corner of the room to play. Thirty minutes later, this game showed no signs of ending.  With so many tasks on my to-do list here at McGill, I often give excuses for not doing certain things because I don’t have the ‘proper resources’, or that the timing is not right, but I know that I might ultimately lose out if I am not willing to grasp those opportunities. These kids could have complained that they didn’t have a real jump rope, or that it hurt when the rubber bands slapped against their bare feet—but they didn’t.

Something else that struck me as I spent more and more time with the kids was how openly and freely they showed their love to one another. They would shower each other with affectionate hugs and kisses, and they did not hesitate to help each other when others were in need. The older kids would carry their younger siblings on their backs to school, or the girls would come to us bearing beautiful flower wreaths. I don’t tend to see these outward expressions of affection too often on campus, but the children I taught made me realize how valuable they can be.

On my last day, the kids pleaded to end class early so they could take us around the old stone ruins of a former temple. They manoeuvred up and over the stones nimbly and laughed as I stumbled before managing to catch up. “Teacher, teacher,” they called, beckoning for me to follow. I could only climb a few levels above the ground, while they were way up high on top of the rocks. The older kids carried the younger ones, the stronger kids pulled the smaller ones along, and they were all able to reach the top. They all wanted to climb to the peak and by holding on to and supporting each other; they arrived at that goal. And that was one of the most prominent observations I made during my time in Cambodia—that even though we each have our own individual aspirations here at McGill, happiness will often come when we help others reach their happiness, too.

My time in Cambodia made me think about the way we perceive happiness in our lives and how we could find it in certain forgotten places. Now that I am back on campus, I make an effort to remember the little lessons I had learned from my experience with these children. After all, they always seemed to know exactly how to unearth happiness wherever they went.