“Is This How Society Sees Me?”: While media has begun to include a larger representation of neurodiverse characters in their stories, these characters are often portrayed in a less than positive light. The neurodiverse character is the atypical and viewed as a tragic character, generally serving as a teaching moment for the neurotypical characters. When the media does this it allows audiences only a limited view (as accurate or inaccurate as the depiction may be) of how neurominorities are and perpetuates the misconceptions about neurodiverse individuals. However, characters such as Julia, an autistic character recently introduced by Sesame Street, sheds a more realistic light on the lives of neurodiverse individuals and serves as a positive example and a step in the right direction towards better representation in the media.
The morning my group set out for the two-day journey to the southern jungles of Cambodia, I awoke feeling more sick than I had ever felt – more sick than I have ever felt since. I said nothing; I was determined to see the elephants no matter what. Over the next few days my health continued to deteriorate, but before I was hospitalized I fulfilled my dream and saw the elephants. Though it was an exhausting hike up one side of a mountain and down the other, it was worth pain. Seeing the elephants awakened in me a sense of wonder, a sense of spirit, a sense of adventure.
One of the reasons that Cambodia appealed to me over the other countries mentioned by those very chipper volunteer recruiters was the promise to get up close and personal with some elephants. Since I was a young girl, elephants have been my favorite animals. So when I heard it would be possible to work with elephants at a sanctuary, I knew Cambodia was the right choice. However, getting to the elephants was much harder than making the decision to see them.
Sitting by the lake at the center of Angkor Wat, I took a moment to reflect upon where I was now, and where I wanted to go from there. A fire had been lit within my soul, and I had developed a deep unquenchable thirst for adventure. I knew that Cambodia would just be the first stop in a long line of stops; the beginning of a wonderful adventure that would be my life. I think about that moment often, especially when I get discouraged. I had never been so sure of who I was at that moment, and getting back to that has acted as my anchor when the seas seem rough.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable temples in the world, Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The UNESCO World Heritage site is close to a thousand years old and being there was like a walk through history. There were many amazing sites to see, the various temples with their intricately carved walls; the monks, new and old, in their brightly colored robes; women who would give you a blessing; and of course the wildlife, everything from water buffalo, to elephants, to curious but pesky monkeys. After doing some exploring and climbing about a million steps that I swear were at a ninety-degree angle, I got to gaze over the surrounding temple lands and it was an absolutely breathtaking view.
Not only did I get the opportunity to teach English to the kids, but I was also asked to give a few lessons to the local teachers as well. I felt honored that they asked me to spend extra time to help them. The teachers were young, most in their early twenties, and they were very passionate about their careers. They felt it was their responsibility to help children in need, so that each would have the better opportunities in their futures.
One of the things that all of the children seemed to enjoy was playing with all of the volunteers technology – phones, cameras, and in this case my iPod which had the game Temple Run on it. They had never played the game before, but in a matter of minutes the kids had mastered the game. I am always amazed at how intuitive children are.
One of my students sits in the corner of the schoolroom, taking refuge from the monsoon. Monsoon season was underway when I had arrived in Cambodia, which brings the country seventy-five percent of its annual rain. While it gave us the opportunity to dance in the rain and wrestle in the mud, it can also cause significant damage to infrastructure and produce floods and landslides.
I loved all of my students, but I can honestly say these three boys were my favorite. Each day they would come running to the school and greet me with a wide smile. They genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to learn and they made my entire experience amazing. They were enthusiastic about every subject, even Math, and we had fun playing games inside the classroom and outside – we played basketball and soccer and rugby. Their love of learning reminded me to appreciate my own educational opportunities.
Besides the elephants, the biggest thing that drew me to Cambodia was that I was going to get the opportunity to build a schoolroom (more of a school hut really) and teach English to students. The students were from different villages around the area of Siem Reap. For many it was their only opportunity to get the amount of education they deserved; many families could not afford to send their children to school all day, but this school opened their doors to them. I wanted to make a difference in the world and in a small way I feel like I did. My wonderful students made this so easy. The way they treasured education was very inspiring and I am so thankful for everything they taught me.