by Amanda Schnell
I was exhausted, frustrated, but refused to release the smile on my face. For two hours, I repeated the words "circle", "triangle" and "square" as I stood before a classroom in a small school in the Floating Villages of Cambodia. I was overly ambitious, thinking I could move onto colors after an hour. I soon decided that the lesson plans just weren't going to work, and instead quickly improvised. In teaching body parts, I started the class with singing and dancing. It was a crowd-pleaser. At the beginning of the class, they could not pronounce the word "toe", but by the end we had successfully taught them every single body part in the "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" tune. I owe this moment of adaptability to the way I grew up.
I am the middle child--the only girl in the family sandwiched between two brothers who love to punch each other. Growing up, Justin and Casey sometimes excluded me, forming "boys only" clubs with private jokes. I'm not looking for pity; I had my diverse collection of stuffed animals and my diary to keep me company! Looking back, though, I see that this sibling dynamic has created a strong sense of individuality and self-sufficiency in me.
I even owe the diet I love to the independent streak I formed growing up. My brothers love steak and hamburgers, but in fifth grade I was moved to take on a new diet after reading Fast Food Nation. I will never forget the description of how each animal is killed at the McDonalds slaughterhouses. I have nothing against carnivores; in fact, all my friends are meat enthusiasts. But I was so moved by what I had read that at the age of nine, I stopped eating fast food and became the only vegetarian in the family.
Being the middle child has helped shape my life in so many other ways. My little brother Casey loves getting attention from Justin, so he rarely complains even when Justin contorts him into a multitude of painful looking positions. When Casey isn't around, Justin likes wrestling with me. Learning to fight back thickened my skin, and ultimately made me even more adaptable.
When I met my Cambodian family last summer, we naturally bonded despite the language barrier. We exchanged warm smiles and found ways to express ourselves beyond our native dialects. Every morning I would walk out of my homestay house and watch neighbors washing their clothes and bodies in the river, which was filled with trash and human waste. After hours of teaching, I looked forward to my bucket shower. The water was always cold--which was perfect after a long day in the hot and humid Floating Villages. On our trip I would continuously say "It's not weird or gross, it's just different," to other students in the program who complained. I lived comfortably by these words.
I particularly enjoyed the commute to the Floating School because it was nearly an obstacle course. A boat outside the house carried us to another floating house. We then balanced from the house to canoes, which finally took us to the school. One morning I could not stop thinking about the farm animals I saw on this journey. The students grew up around chickens and cows. Why not focus a few classes on animals while teaching English? We did so and the students mastered the topic with ease.
I loved my experience in Cambodia, but was happy to return home and see Justin and Casey, my occasional adversaries and my constant motivators. Now that we are older, our relationship is changing. Justin is no longer living at home--which has strangely prompted a closer (and less violent) relationship with both of my brothers. Yet, there are still times they throw me into the couch or try to twist my arms into unimaginable positions. Of course, I fight back without hesitation!
Amanda Schnell, a 2015 graduate of Riverdale Country School, will be a freshman at the University of Michigan in the fall.