by Martha Adams, 10×10 Producer
Choet did not stand out at first. She was hidden in the very back row of a packed classroom. Richard and I were visiting a Room to Read program at the Nokor Pheas Lower Secondary School near Siem Reap in rural Cambodia, on our first production trip to the country. We had just asked the 75 teenaged girls in the room: “Is there anyone here who would like to tell us their story?” Choet stood up quietly, head held high. I thanked her (via the translator) and told her she could wait until we were one on one. “No,” she said, “I’d rather tell my story right now.”
All eyes locked on her. I was nervous. Kids began to giggle. I secretly wished she’d wait until the two of us could find a quiet corner. But Choet had something she wanted to share that couldn’t wait.
She told us that she was the youngest of nine kids and the only one from her family to go to school. Her father had died of a heart attack when she was five years old and her mother simply couldn’t manage to send her siblings to school; they had to work.
Choet works too. Every day she starts at 5 am in the rice fields, then travels eight miles to school, and eight miles home, then evening chores in the fields, late-night homework, and starting the whole thing over the next day. It’s because of help from Room to Read that she is able to attend school at all.
She talked about the hole in her stomach. She told us how she wished she could have enough money to buy crackers, like some of the other girls in school.
She talked about how her mother resents her going to school and constantly pressures her to quit. “She doesn’t understand. She just tells me, over and over, how my studies mean more work for her in the fields.”
Tears dripped off her chin. Choet was buckling under the weight of it all, right there in front of us. I looked around. Most of the class sat sniffling, feet shuffling under the desks, gazes on the floor. All the challenges we read about –and the reasons why we’re making this film - access to education, hunger, school fees – were right there in front of us.
That night, I talked about Choet when I skyped with my dad. When I was kid he had told us over and over – always stand up for what you believe in. That day, his words took shape in front of me in the form of a malnourished 15 year-old girl struggling to survive.
The next day Richard and I headed to the store to buy crackers – LOTS of crackers. We traveled first by van, then by motorbikes, to visit Choet at home. I sat down with her mom and shared how all of us think her daughter is a hero. And that she is the reason we’ve come half way around the world to tell the stories of girls who are determined to stay in school.
You can help Room to Read help girls like Choet stay in school. Donate now to their program that provides girls with bikes to use to travel to school.