This is just a quick follow up to yesterday’s post about respecting your elders. As I reflected on what I had written, I was reminded of a conversation I had way back when I was a teacher in Texas.
The janitor who worked in my part of the building was an older Cambodian man, and we always exchanged pleasantries, though not necessarily much more. He came to me a few times to ask if I could help concerning the bathroom that was right next to my classroom. The boys in our high school (at least some of them, I should not overgeneralize) were absolutely disrespectful in terms of how they acted in that bathroom. They would often throw whole rolls of toilet paper and paper towels into the commodes, leaving an absolutely disgusting mess for the janitor to clean up. Many of my students would not even use that bathroom due to how it was treated.
One night, I was at the school working rather late. Actually, I think it was in the days leading up to the Feast of Tabernacles, since I often spent many extra hours the week before making sure the class would run smoothly without me.
The janitor stopped by that night and ended up sitting and talking for sometime in very broken English. While I knew I had much work to do, it wasn’t long before I was engrossed in his story and felt almost obligated to listen.
He told me of his time in Cambodia and of the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities he had experienced. He spoke of being forced into service and serving as a general and the struggle to avoid the horrific punishments and cruelties of Pol Pot. He spoke of friends murdered and abducted. He asked me if I had seen the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, and I had not. He said that movie was very accurate in his eyes.
He then said that there were others working there at the school who had lived through the same experiences. In fact, one of the janitors had actually been a governor of one of the regions back then.
He eventually left the room and I went back to my work. The next day he came by my room again, and didn’t talk much. He just handed me a VHS copy of The Killing Fields and said he really wanted me to see it. It seemed very important to him. I took the tape home and watched it, returning it to him the next day and thanking him.
The things he had said haunted me a bit for some time afterwards, and they still do to some extent. The idea that someone so near and so sadly “invisible” in our society as the school janitor had lived such a life was a shock to me. Knowing that when I looked at him going about his daily “menial” tasks I was looking at an individual whose life I could scarcely comprehend forced me to think differently than I had before. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that there could be more to a person than meets the eye. I did know that. It was just that I had never understood until then just how much more there could be.
It seemed important to him that someone there at the school know his background, and I hope telling me served him in some way or brought him some comfort. For my part, it changed me. Sometimes when I pray “Thy Kingdom come,” thoughts of what he had experienced come to mind and add an urgency to my request. And while it’s seductively easy to slip back into shallow thoughts when seeing strangers around me, I try never to forget that there is an entire life behind those eyes — in some cases, a life I could never have imagined.