As a high school English teacher, I don’t often feel the tangible satisfaction of other professionals. Although teachers have great impacts every day, many of our efforts come to full fruition years later, as our students grow, mature, and go on to impact the world. This is one of the joys of teaching, but also one of the challenges.
Because of this, I relish any opportunity to recognize my own teachers and my own influences. Such an opportunity fell in my lap recently, when John Burt—a great artist and supporter of the arts, as well as a good friend—emailed to see if I could introduce Arn Chorn-Pond for his presentation at Hamilton College, my alma mater.
Arn is the subject of the documentary The Flute Player, and his life story inspired Patricia McCormick’s novel Never Fall Down; he is co-founder of the nonprofits Cambodian Living Arts and Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development; and he is most recently working to promote Cambodian music through the Khmer Magic Music Bus initiative. He is also the initial inspiration for my own involvement with Cambodian music.
It was over ten years ago that I saw The Flute Player, dreamed of following in Arn’s footsteps, and with the help of Lydia Hamessley, Heather Buchman, and Ginny Dosch at Hamilton College, earned a Watson Fellowship to study music in Cambodia.
Last Thursday night at Hamilton, it was Lydia who introduced me. I spoke about my instrument—the one-stringed kse diev—my Cambodian teacher Sok Duch, and the fragility of Cambodia’s artistic traditions, before performing the song Bot Haom Roung, which honors the spirits of those who have come before, asking for their support and guidance. I then introduced Arn.
Arn, of course, was brilliant. He spoke with the conviction of a survivor, at once vulnerable and confident. As he unraveled his life’s story—one of horror, pain, and ultimately healing through music—Arn enraptured the audience and brought many of them to tears. He has a unique ability to empower others and involve them in his work and vision, and that ability was on full display Thursday night.
It may sound self-centered, but for me the evening’s most powerful impact was personal. Ginny Dosch put it well: In her sixteen years of working at Hamilton College, she had never seen a Watson Fellowship come full circle like this, with the fellow and his project’s inspiration returning to campus together.
After the presentation, the event’s sponsors—as well as Ginny, Heather, and Lydia—treated me and Arn to dinner. Steve Riege, who is working with Arn to support the Khmer Magic Music Bus and who drove from Connecticut to hear Arn speak, also joined.
It was one of those rare moments in life when past and present merge in an almost mystical way. I am not sure what will come of the dinner conversations and the renewed friendships, but in this wild and precious life that too often flows uninterrupted, the evening seemed to become an important, seminal marker. It was both a thank you and a gift to my teachers, and I am excited to see where it leads.