Usually, I went to the river alone. I did nothing but sit and watch. I liked to be there when I was free. I was told that the river was given its name after a Buddha tree which floated along the river long ago. There were so many trees at both sides which made the river so beautiful. The green and yellow from the young and old leaves resemble life. The green represents their beauty while the yellow is like illness, sorrow, and unhappiness. There were so full of life that day. Everything seemed so fresh and fine. To many people from Pursat province, the river is their lives. They love the river and they were sometimes too proud about it. While my mind was wandering with the nature around me, suddenly, I was surprised to see Kimlin silently sat next to me. Only that moment that I realized something was wrong. Immediately, I came to her comfort. A part of me was confused and furious. A few minutes later, she told me that her family had decided to stop her from going to school at the end of this year. As 14 years old girls, what can we both do about it? It was just unpredictable and so hopeless that we did nothing but embraced each other and cried out of fear. There was a great fear for probably too many girls in the 90s. The fear for not be able to go to school. And now, Kimlin was one of them.
Kimlin and I went to the same school and grade. We had so many things in common except that Kimlin was good at Maths while I was good at Khmer literature. I kept wondering all the way home. I thought “what was she thinking? Did she think like what I was thinking?”. Kimlin kept calm all the time. She has a lovely face and a fair skin. She was pretty after all. While she was calm and mature, my mind was just too angry with her family but I still found it hard to understand how Kimlin felt. Personally, I had never been denied education at all. All I got was encouragement and opportunity my parents fully provided me so that I could have an education once they were denied.
While we were walking, we walked across a fine art museum. We often came there because the building was so magnificent. It probably was the only building in town that Pol Pot didn’t destroy. We saw a few people gathered around something. Curiously, we came and saw an announcement. It says:
“Eligibility: Children from 12 to 17 years old”
“Deadline: 25th July 1992”
Kimlin was not interested and walked away. I didn’t run to catch her but I walk slowly after her. Looking at the way she walked, I could not help but I still remember the fresh, cold, green, and the reflection from my beloved Pursat River. As I continued walking, I had an idea. I was thinking of something and I knew that I must do something to help my best friend to keep her at school with me. I padded her shoulder and she turned:
– Why don’t we bet with your parents? I said breathlessly as I tried to catch up her walk.
– How? She opened her eyes widely with a great doubt.
– I want you to go to the writing contest.
– I can’t. Kimlin replied.
– Yes, you can. Why don’t you write about Pursat River? It is an open contest, you can write about anything. Do you know what? People from Pursat are crazy about this river so the topic must be an interesting one for the judge committee!
I spent another 20 minutes to persuade her. Later, she agreed with a condition that she would go if only I go with her. We sat down under a mango tree just 30m away from our houses. We were preparing of what to talk with her parents. There were so many things to surrender. But…
With tense, we walked slowly to her house as if we were so afraid to accomplish our brand new mission. Kimlin was not the actor that day. It was me who talked. Honestly, before coming to her parents, I prayed that Oknha Khlaing Meoung* would give me the courage. The first few moments were very tense. They said the writing contest was useless. My next strategy was to tell them that Kimlin was going to write about the river and if she failed the contest she would stop going to school as they wish. As a result, they agreed to let her go with that condition. However, I was not really happy. What saddened me was not about they allowed her to the contest and accepted the bet, but they thought that Kimlin would fail anyway. That was something I wanted to prove that they were wrong.
Within a month before the deadline to submit the writing, we were also struggling with our school work. To get help, we went to our favorite and kind male teacher who was a specialist in Khmer literature. He had a warm personality and he truly loved his students. We told him about the contest. At the moment he heard our words, he turned quickly with his eyes open widely which we could see through his glasses. He put both his hands on our heads and laughed. I could feel how he laughed. I felt the laugh was like he had seen an accomplishment in his life. Without saying a word, he nodded and agreed to give his advice.
We worked very hard on the writing project. We made some outlines and lists of how beautiful Pursat river was and how important to preserve it. I also thought that describing about the trees and inform people not to cut them down were an impotant thing to do. Kimlin agreed. While Kimlin was concentrating on her project, I also wrote on “All girls should have the chance for an education” as my writing topic. Kimlin was my inspiration. From what I learn from her life my writing was not difficult at all to write.
We went to the teacher every weekend for his comments on our both writing papers. We also read our writing before other friends. We were given advice and critiques that we can later edit. We had to write it again and again with a hope for Kimlin to go to school. A few days before the deadline, we submit the writing and we prayed.
Within two weeks while we were waiting patiently for the result, I knew that Kimlin was under constantly teased by neighbors and her two younger brothers who would never had to worry about going to school. The neighbors often said that she was stupid. Stupid for going to school, they thought, why should she go to school if she will be married and would have children anyway?
Good news came just during lunch time on a typical Thursday. Kimlin ran to me and told me the news. I was so happy that I forgot what to say. We could only scream and hug each other. Our hug was clumsy because it is not part of our culture to hug but we could not help not to. Kimlin tried to calm her excitement and told me that she was called for the award day. Later, my mother also came and informed that there was someone came to invite me and her for the event too. I came to Kimlin’s house to tell her parents. They could not believe it at first but surprisingly, her father agreed to accompany Kimlin.
The award day was on a week later and it was held at the governor’s residence. My mum came with me that day and that was so important to me. I dressed my most favorite school uniform and had a Champa* on my hair. Kimlin also put on her best dress and had some lipstick on her lips. I admitted that I felt jealous though. She always had a smile on her face. I could feel the excitement and happiness she was having although we were not sure about the final result yet.
There were five judges presided the event. There was a governor, a school director, two female artists, and a man from provincial department of education. There were about forty people attending the event. I also noticed Kimlin’s dad. He also smiled and occasionally responded to people he knew. Then, it was time to announce the winner. We were told by the MC that there were 3 winners and 3 others will be each given an appreciation letter and small gifts for their participation. There was a moment we held our breath and eyes closed.
Finally, I got the second place and Kimlin was awarded the third place. The first award was given to a girl with a wheelchair. The girl came to the front desk to accept her award happily and could not stop smiling. While we were so happy to accept our awards, the governor explained the audience on how the writings were selected. He explained that the first place’ title was “How the government should take care of people with disability”. He added that he felt the writing was not only impressive but also it was written by a girl with a disability. The second place, which was given to me was due to the judges agreed that every girl and boy deserve an education and it is importance to ensure that no one was left behind the education. Before continuing to the third place, the governor told the audience that he was born at a village close to the river and how much he loved his village. Moreover, he told about his childhood game, swimming, fishing, and boat racing which he completely fell in love with the river.
There was one moment where everyone was totally quiet. It was when the governor told that he lost his entire village to the river. He remembered that many trees nearby the river base were cut down by the villagers. Thus, the village became so vulnerable to land slide. He looked at Kimlin once again and said that it is very important to keep the trees and inform people how important trees are for people. Most importantly, before he finished, he declared that he will issue a warrant to ban people from cutting the trees from the river base.
Kimlin’s dad almost came to tear but he hid it. He perhaps was very proud of his daughter. I heard he told her softly that “I am sorry child. You now have my word. You will definitely go to school!”