by Sharon H. Chang
SOKHA OUK, fondly called Mrs. Sokha (pronounced SO-kah) by parents, staff and students, holds the official title of Office Support at Hawthorne Elementary School. But that title doesn’t do her justice. Really she’s everything from family support assistance, field trip chaperone, to reading help and crosswalk guard. And she does it everywhere from classroom-to-classroom, in the front office, to the nurse’s office and on the playground.
“Happy, happy Friday!” Mrs. Sokha chirps joyously. I’m waiting and taking pictures. She’s standing mid-crosswalk. One of her hands holds a stop flag while the other high-fives children rushing to catch Hawthorne’s early bell time.
Some students meet her encouraging smile with their own. But none come close to matching Mrs. Sokha’s bubbly enthusiasm. She’s wearing the huge grin she wears every day at school crossing and whether the sun’s shining or not – she’s always the brightest thing around.
Except, that is, when she sees reckless drivers and unprepared students. Then her sunny smile drops. She scolds freely and spares no one. A woman on a cellphone drives distractedly through the intersection. Mrs. Sokha shakes her head irritated and exhales “every day she does this!” loud enough for all to hear. A late student runs toward the playground. “Uh excuse me!!” she yells after him. “Come back here please! Go in the office and get a late slip!” She gestures broadly. He runs up the hill. She tells me to hold on and scurries to lock the playground gate. It’s time for school. Time to get serious.
Mrs Sokha has done this work she loves in Seattle Public Schools for a long time. About twenty years in fact. She’s been at Hawthorne Elementary over a half decade. Before that she was at Concord International in South Park for fourteen years first as a parent volunteer then as an employee. Mrs. Sokha started volunteering at Concord when two of her own children (now adults) attended kindergarten and first grade there. “I decide to stay all day long at school to see what is going on for my kids life,” she explains simply as if this remarkable act were something any parent might do. Eventually school principals took notice of her intense commitment and offered her a job.
Based on just this much it would appear Mrs. Sokha’s important role today is one she built from scratch as an invested public school parent. And that in itself would be an exceptional story. But as it turns out again such a boil-down doesn’t do her justice at all. School work for her holds so much more than just the last two decades. Mrs. Sokha’s “job” is her tale of rescue, resistance and resilience; a story spun not only from a deep love for her children and for education, but the extraordinary story of her own childhood survival.
Mrs. Sokha is a refugee and survivor of the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) which claimed the lives of an estimated one and a half to three million people. She was pre-adolescent at the time but orphaned when her Cambodian father, who was a soldier, and Vietnamese-Cambodian mother were among those murdered. The violent and horrific past haunts her to this day. “All the memory I had in my mind is still [a] struggle,” Ms. Sokha tells me of the constant mental anguish, admitting it’s often too much for her. “I never been back yet because I have no family back home…I don’t want to see all the pain that I had all my last forty years already. I don’t want to see that.” The torment is etched across her face yet she doesn’t shed a tear.
“That’s why I try to keep myself to be happy all the time,” she pulls herself up straight and explains, “that’s why I try to helping the parent not struggle with their kid.” Her eyes are veiled but her body is resolute. Mrs. Sokha never wants to see a child struggle as she did. Ever. If she has the power to help students behave, she says firmly, she will.
To that end Mrs. Sokha sees herself as responsible for everyone’s children because young people, she says, must be supported by whole communities. “Doesn’t matter it’s my kid [or not]. You know it’s a whole kid.” This conviction comes from a beautiful place. When Mrs. Sokha’s own parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge decades ago she was adopted by a Cambodian couple who had recently married and no children. In 1979 the young family was able to escape Cambodia and enter Thailand’s Kaho-I-Dang (KID) refugee camp during a small “open door” window.
The holding center opened at the end of October and abruptly closed in January during which period an average of 1,600 Cambodian refugees arrived each day. Mrs. Sokha and her adoptive parents lived in KID for several years before they were chosen by church-affiliated sponsors to come to the United States. They were then transitioned through another camp in the Philippines for six months before being resettled to America. After just a handful of months in the midwest Mrs. Sokha’s parents migrated for job opportunities to their final stop, Seattle, Washington, which has the third largest Cambodian population in the nation.
Mrs. Sokha’s love for these parents who took her in during desperate times and journeyed with her to new hope obviously knows no bounds. “They don’t treat me like I’m a foster child,” Mrs. Sokha relays proudly and now tears are starting to brim. “They say ‘she is my own daughter.’” Mrs. Sokha is living proof of the vital role community can play in a child’s life and she is passionately carrying on that legacy today. Further, the same parents provided her a life’s inspiration for how to do it – through education.
Mrs. Sokha’s adoptive mother came from a family of teachers and was actually principal of the 400-500 student school at KID while they lived there as refugees. But being principal was demanding and busy and did not allow her to spend the time she wanted with Ms. Sokha. So the mother dropped herself to a lead teacher position. A year later she dropped herself again to a regular K-12 classroom teacher position. “She decide ‘I have to spend time with my family,’” Mrs. Sokha explains, “because she want me to learn more.”
Knowing these pieces of her past adds so much to understanding Mrs. Sokha’s devotion to school work today. And when she reiterates yet again in her interview how much she loves being in schools (she says this many times) her proclamations suddenly stand in a new swath of multi-dimensional light as holding way more meaning. “Whole of my life I been thinking about I want to help the parent to get the kid through the school for their good education,” she tells me. “It’s very important to the parent, to the kid, to the future.” Indeed.
In fact Mrs. Sokha has long dreamed of becoming a teacher herself. Yet that goal has been very difficult to realize in the United States as a refugee who speaks English as a second language.
She laughs remembering being resettled to the U.S. as a teenager in 1984 and knowing only two English words: Yes and No. But then she gets solemn. “When I came to Davenport, Iowa, I think my life is still struggle,” she reminisces, “because we don’t know how to speak any English, we don’t know how to put ourself into the school.” Over a period of many months, she underwent a litany of testing and classroom changes to determine grade and ESL placement. “I understand,” she says, “But I cannot speak and read and write.”
English remained and remains a challenge. “I want to become a teacher someday, I want to follow my foster mom’s steps,” she says, “but I don’t have my degree.” When Mrs. Sokha graduated from high school her adoptive parents wanted to support her dream of going to college but it was expensive and the family didn’t know how to apply for scholarships. Instead the parents, who owned a little grocery store at the time, wanted Ms. Soukha to stay and help with the family business.
Mrs. Sokha agreed. She worked as cashier in the store and married shortly after. Her and her husband, who is also Cambodian, raised four sons together. They lived at Greenbridge low-income housing in White Center for a while and eventually were able to purchase a home in South Park close to their children’s school, Concord. It is still their home today. They have been married almost 26 years.
“He is a good husband, good father. He always support me. I always support him.” Things are good, Mrs. Sokha confides, but they’re tight. “Right now we a little bit struggle [financially].” Despite having worked so long and hard for the district, Mrs. Sokha is at present an hourly Seattle Public Schools employee staffed at less than full-time. She is hoping for full-time work with good pay and benefits soon. In the meantime Mrs. Sokha’s not giving up on her teaching dreams and – after our time together – I’m pretty sure she never will. Why would she?
Even in hardship the well of her strength runs deep through the past. Mrs. Sokha has become, like her adoptive mother before her, a force and inspiration at the schools lucky enough to have her. She’s fierce, she’s a fighter, and I have no doubt she’ll keep forging ahead in every way she can.
“I love education…I love my job,” Mrs. Sokha repeats one last time also (as if she’s read my thoughts) reminding me again determinedly that she plans to become a teacher someday. “I really care about everything, I really care about the parent,” she emphasizes, the full meaning of her words now unmistakably clear, “[and] I really care about my community wherever I go.”