I am a racist.

Sonal stood in the middle of the class, his small hands nervously twitching at his sides, waiting for me to validate his sentence and give two points to his team. The rest of the class stood in stunted silence, awkward and embarrassed.

It was a simple vocabulary game. I had written about 40 review words up on the board and each group had to construct a grammatically correct sentence using one of the words. If they gave me a proper sentence, I awarded the team 2 points and erased the word from the board. If there was a major error in use or structure, the group lost one point and the word remained for another team. This made my otherwise inconsistent and uncaring students think about their sentences more carefully before throwing them out.

It was the kind of activity I most enjoyed. It got my class working in groups, correcting one another and learning from each other's mistakes. I got to mix up the students and encourage talking in English, something which occurred rarely otherwise. Mostly, though, it was a drastic change from the type of learning activities they were used to in their regular public schools; namely rote learning and memorization. They just thought of it as a silly game, but they didn't see what I saw; that the fierce competition imprinted the new vocabulary words in their memories and their marks, not to mention their confidence, improved after only a few weeks.

Letting my students think aloud for themselves and think independently without their text books and pens and dictionaries also enabled me to learn from them. The most important lesson I learned in my 18 months of teaching, was that I had as much to learn from my students as I had to teach them. It is my theory that the learning process is a two way street. Without hearing the mistakes they made, I would never have known what to review. Without listening to their stories, I never would have known what readings were appropriate. Most importantly, I would never have known or understood the cultural boundaries that influence learning.

Take for example the following sentence: If I won a million dollars, I would get a better job. It is grammatically correct; a second conditional sentence structure denoting an imagined event in the future. However, it does not make logical sense, does it? Upon winning a million dollars, you would not go out job hunting. You wouldn't unless you were in Cambodia, where the only way to secure a decent paying job is buying your way into it. Most Cambodians save money not to go to school or buy a car, but to bribe their way into a government position. My students never saw anything wrong with that sentence and, after some time, I had to concede that they had a point.

After Sonal told me he was a racist, I had to do a quick assessment of the situation. The word racist had come to be part of the vocabulary list through my own intervention rather then from the text book we were following. A week earlier I had asked my students to write a report about the Khmer Serei attacks on the Ministry of Defense the week before. The situation had been a violent one, spreading panic throughout the country, but the uprising (if it can be called that) was quickly stopped. It was reported that the motley crew of attackers had been assembled by an accountant in southern California and all were quickly arrested.

I had asked my students to write personal reports about their feelings of the event, what they might have witnessed and how they had reacted. I received 35 perfect copies of the front page story from the Cambodia Daily and one original essay. The plagiarism didn't surprise me, I was quite accustomed to it, but the personal story shocked me beyond belief. The student had obviously not been paying any attention to the follow up reports and had conjured up in his mind something completely different and baseless. He wrote that it was the Vietnamese that were behind the attacks, and that basically, they were the source of Cambodia's woes.

In the future, I hope Cambodians have more power to kill Vietnamese.

I showed the essay to the school Director, the Director of Studies, and the Programme Coordinator asking for guidance in the matter. They looked at it, at me, at one another. They agreed unanimously and without hesitation that I should ignore it altogether. I was there as an English teacher, not a race relations educator. It was not my place to judge and I was informed to stick to the text and avoid the subject altogether.

Instead, I taught my class the words "racism" and "racist" to put definition to what otherwise were inherited ideas and beliefs, misconceptions passed on from generation to generation. I didn't try to judge, but to expose, to analyze and to put into words what otherwise might just be assumed as correct. I never mentioned racism in Cambodia specifically, but gave examples from history and from other parts of the world. I wanted to initiate some analysis, however superficial.

So here was a young boy, telling me aloud, that he was a racist. I had to step outside of myself, my beliefs, my understanding of right and wrong and reevaluate my role, my influence and my actions. The sentence, after all, was grammatically correct.

I gave Sonal's team two points.