What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been


This is Raksmey.  Raksmey just earned her high school diploma through the National External Diploma Program.  She hammered her way through it while pregnant with her second child and working full time.

This is Sophi.  Sophi was informed she’d passed the NEDP as well, earning her diploma at the same time as her classmate, Raksmey.  Sophi also works a full time job at a factory, and takes care of her two year old son, Rithy.

This was supposed to be the end of the story, but apparently, it’s not going to be.

Lets jump back a few months.

Our class, which started out with eight or nine Cambodian dropouts from another class, has shrunk and swollen several times since we started.  Sophi was there the first day.  I could count the number of classes she’s missed on the fingers of one hand, but I wouldn’t need all the fingers.  She took time off when Rithy was born, but since Sophi has a magnificent family, it was easy for her to return the moment she felt ready.

Back in April, we dwindled to three people.  Plus a teacher.  I’m not certain a teacher actually qualifies as a “person”, making the headcount slightly puzzling.  I guess it depends on the day.  Sokkeang and two others had to start working more hours, so we experienced a tiny exodus.  But we three plus whatever forged ahead for a few weeks, until one day we found ourselves talking about how small our class had become.

Sophi’s sister, Muni (which means ‘intelligent’ in Khmer) said she felt a little awkward being in a class of three.  Didn’t seem much like a class.  It was feeling more like teatime, but I like teatime.  I like teatime quite a bit more than I like tea.

Few people could be so consistently riveted by my classes as Muni. It surprised me to know she would have preferred more students over more direct attention, but I suppose that urge to be part of something more definable is never too far away.

We started to talk about whether or not to recruit a couple more people to occupy the two empty chairs at the table.  Being April, and anticipating we’d jump off the bus for a summer break in eight or so more weeks, the question whether it was the right time to invite newcomers also came up.

It was one of those slow conversations, where everyone’s thinking about what to say next, working at coming up with the next bright idea.  Unearned diplomas and enjoying the distinction of being a class of dropouts hung palpably in the air, so I had to ask about the one thing I’d been adamant about saying I could never help them do from the very beginning: Were they still concerned about getting their diplomas?

They said yes.  It was one of those quietly low moments in a person’s life.  They’d all given up seats in “real” schools because we liked what we were doing on our own.  I owed them in a big way.  They gave me a kind of trust I never earned, and they very nearly succeeded in turning me into something better than I was before I knew them.  The least I could do was make a couple of mildly bothersome phone calls.

It’s good luck to know an angel or two, and since I had Nancy Fritz in my phone’s directory, I called her for ideas.  Nancy always has a good one.  She put us in touch with Donna Chambers, angel-warrior and director of the NEDP in RI.  Raksmey and Sophi’s names were still knocking around in Donna’s not so recent memory, but after explaining their situation, Donna told them to show up the following Saturday.

After the call, I looked at Raksmey and Sophi and asked them if they really felt ready.  Raksmey said she wanted to get her diploma before her baby was born, which gave us four and a half months.  I told them it was going to be like getting on a roller coaster – no getting off until the end – but if they were ready to climb on, I’d climb on with them.

It meant no new students.  It meant we were going to be more deeply entrenched with each other than ever before.  No room for distractions.  No time for any more guesses.

There were two spots still open in the program, and anyone else would have to wait a few more months before they could be accepted.  That following Saturday, Raksmey and Sophi sat in the waiting area outside Donna’s office along with several other candidates.  When they got to my apartment a couple hours later, they were almost breathless.  They were in.  They said Donna walked out of her office and asked the group, “Who’s here from Jon?”  Apprehensive, Sophi and Raksmey identified themselves, and Donna sent all the others away, telling them they had to wait until August.

Raksmey and Sophi practically felt like celebrities on the red carpet.  They came back acting as if I’d performed some kind of miracle.  They each had a book full of instructions for projects to complete, and we got started right away.

The pony was through the gate and running it’s hind quarters off.

The ensuing four and a half months became an unexpected whirlwind of effort and commitment.  We started meeting at least three times every week, working together over the phone when schedules got dicey – urgent questions and answers by text message, sometimes pretty late into the evening.  The table was covered with take-out and papers every other night.  There were easy victories and a few pitfalls.  We went from the honeymoon to divorce court and back again.  There were tears and sweat.  At one point, Raksmey fell and went through a brief period of fear for her unborn baby’s safety.  She was distraught and in pain, and had to take a few days to follow her doctor’s advice to lay low.

Much of the time, Sophi was nearly convinced she was completely beyond understanding the instructions she was working to follow.  The level of complexity seemed at times to make her feel as if her language skills had regressed, rather than the other way around.  Muni came along to quite a few of our meetings and watched what her friend and sister were going through.  When Sophi or I asked her if she wanted to try the same program next year, she instantly shook her head no.  But there was never one word spoken about stopping or failing.  It wasn’t an option.

There was a period of uneasy calm in the couple weeks after the last of the projects were finally submitted. There were a few loose ends to tie up, but mostly we called each other back and forth on the phone out of habit.  It felt strange there was nothing left to do except wait to hear if there was anything else left to do.

Raksmey’s daughter was born.  The birth was arduous, but intensely anticipated and welcomed.  Then the word came from Francine, Raksmey and Sophi’s exemplary assessor in the program.  There was nothing left to do.  Francine had submitted their names to Central Falls High School to have diplomas printed with their names on them.

I’ve begun working with other candidates for the NEDP, and I have no doubt there will turn out to be people who will spangle my life and imagination with all manner of joy, despair and surprise.  I’m looking forward to it, too, but find it impossible to expect any kind of lightening strike at all akin to the last several months.

Raksmey drops hints now and then about working her way toward college, and I like to encourage such subversive thinking, especially in someone who can get off a plane in the hometown of the Superman building, and in seven years, learn a completely new language and alphabet, become fluent enough in the language to earn a high school diploma, earn promotions at her job and begin a family.

Sophi isn’t interested in college yet.  She just wants to keep studying because she wants to swim more gracefully in this ocean we used to call The Land of the Free and the Brave.  How can anyone tell?  How the hell are you ever supposed to define a country that produced George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Edward Hopper, Barack Obama, Marvin Gaye, Ted Bundy and John Coltrane?

I know a few of us are free, and a few of us are brave, but I couldn’t begin to know if you can be both at the same time.  But because of people like Raksmey and Sophi, I’m holding aside a small piece of faith that maybe a few of us still are.

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