After leaving my two-week teaching assignment in Cambodia (which is after I left my 17 year teaching assignment in Oregon), I neglected to write about The Silent Boy, though his story continues to weave itself through my own being ever since meeting him. Just yesterday, at the fragile point of tears, I thought of him again and his immense strength; I wished then that I could have borrowed some of it.
In January of 2016, our small team of 5 adults taught English at a Cambodian public school for almost a week before we travelled to an orphanage in the Southwestern part of Cambodia. We were thrust into this day and tasked with “making the students speak English as much as possible.” I jumped into this task with as much enthusiasm as any introvert could and found myself at the outskirts of conversation as my team members, who knew more about the orphanage than I did, tried their hardest to dive into conversation with everyone.
The January climate in Cambodia is mild, if you are from Cambodia. If you’re from the Willamette Valley of Oregon however, it’s quite hot–90 degrees F with killer humidity. As initial bursts of conversations died down, we gathered under the gazebo in the center of the lawn. I found myself watching a very young boy (5 or 6 years old) who was walking by himself out in the lawn. “Who is that little one,” I asked. An older boy answered, “We call him Silent Boy. He doesn’t talk.”
Maybe because it appealed to the teacher in me, maybe just because I love challenges, I went to him with the intent to strike up a conversation with this ‘Silent Boy’ immediately. When we first met, he was near a little flower garden, observing something. It turned out to be a giant seed of some kind. “What is that?” I asked, not sure how much English he understood. This Silent Boy looked up at me and smiled. I continued, encouraged, “Is this a seed?” He pointed across the lawn to a tree growing along the edge. “Is this from that tree?” This was enough encouragement for him to begin walking toward the tree, pausing to look back at me; inviting me to join him.
We stood near the large tree and the Silent Boy looked up, pointing to the large fruit growing high above our heads. “Is that where this seed came from?” I asked. My new friend was busy looking for a stick, which he found and was already using to try to knock the fruit down. Clearly, the lower hanging fruit had already been knocked down and he would not reach the remaining fruit without help. I asked to borrow the stick and easily knocked the fruit to the ground, which the Silent Boy immediately collected, biting into it with the clear purpose of showing me the seed inside. The same seed I observed earlier.
We walked back across the hot lawn to the cooler gazebo, and the crowd gathered there. I showed everyone the seed and the fruit, which I learned is called Jack Fruit and is delicious when ripe. My friend and I had just happened to knock down an unripe fruit, but he continued to nibble on it. The American adults in the crowd informed me of Silent Boy’s traumatic past and I marveled that he had any smile left to offer anyone. He continued to stand near me and to offer up his toys for the crying babies, held by adults who didn’t know them.
The tenderness in my heart recognized the tenderness in his and I continue to be moved to tears by his kindness and compassion. He was a child and had already learned that the world is not a kind or easy place to be, and yet he offered kindness and tenderness back. I wondered at which point in his young life he had become silent, or if he had ever been able to express his voice at all.
As our van load of adults prepared to leave, I found an excuse to go back group of children now in the cafeteria for their lunch. I wanted to say goodbye to my new friend, Silent Boy. I tried to communicate this to the servers, but I didn’t know his name. “I want to say goodbye to the one they call Silent Boy,” I said. Finally, someone realized who I was looking for and went over to the line to get him. He looked startled as he walked over, but smiled as soon as he drew closer. I said goodbye the best way I could and offered a brief and gentle hug.
I walked back to the van, full of love and I wasn’t sure why. This tender sprout of a boy had spent time communicating with me and I enjoyed every listening moment. Our tender hearts had spoken.
Often, my tender heart only wants to communicate like this, silently; words get in my way at times, but silence can be hard to understand for some.
There’s so much more to say on this subject of silence–this is all for now.