Kori Jones visited with children from the Karen Hill tribe. (Submitted photo)
Kori Jones visited with children from the Karen Hill tribe. (Submitted photo)
Southwestern teacher Kori Jones read "The Clay Marble" along with her seventh-grade English class, yet she had trouble demonstrating to her students how bad the period actually was for Cambodia.

The novel tells of the horrors in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in the early 1980s. During a three-year period, an estimated 2 million Cambodians - close to 30 percent of the country's population - died. Many of the bodies were left in mass grave sites that became known as killing fields.

Jones couldn't find supplementary material for her students except for photographs, and they all looked the same, she said.

"When I was trying to explain it or describe it or show them, when you haven't been there and you don't truly understand it either, it's very hard to convey it to them how serious this was. I taught this at the seventh-grade level, and I had students that would cry during the course of reading the book," Jones said. "They've heard of the Holocaust, but this was new to them. The killing fields to them were very emotional."

Jones applied for and received a Lilly Foundation Grant that allowed her and her husband, Southwestern Middle School Principal Trevor Jones, to travel to Tokyo, Thailand and Cambodia for two and a half weeks during Fall break to see what the country is like nearly two decades after the regime fell.

"I've always been very curious about what Cambodia was like today after everything they've been through," Jones said.

When they arrived in Cambodia, they stayed in Siem Reap but traveled to the more mountainous regions between Cambodia and Bangkok.

They were immediately struck by how much of the city had not recovered after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown.

"We were shocked at how it looked. I had pictured it as how I would see it in 'The Killing Fields' movie. It's the same. It looks the same," she said.

Trevor Jones said that one guide in Cambodia had family members who had to escape the country to survive.

"Only the elite or the educated were rounded up and executed. His older brother had to leave because he had an education," Trevor Jones said. "Most of the educated that did escape the genocide did not come back," he said. The cities, which are now being repopulated, were emptied during that time, he said.

One school the couple saw during their trip belonged to the Karen Hill tribe, where the women of the tribe start to wear rings around their necks as 5-year-olds. The students of the tribe only knew a little English. Just enough to sell products to any tourists or visitors, Kori Jones said.

They also saw the schools of the Hmong tribe.

"That school was interesting because this one was government subsidized," Trevor Jones said. "They are actually refugees themselves. They came from Burma and they didn't know where they ended up. The reason the government subsidizes education is because they are the ones who run the opium and cannabis trade."

They agreed to stop exporting drugs and changed some of their crops to seasonal fruits. Because of the exchange, the school now has technology that rivals some American schools, including iPads.

The students there also spoke conversational English, which the couple said they did not expect.

Aside from the Hmong school, Trevor Jones said that most of the schools in the area were still poor.

"The school system there is very basic. Still very third-world," he said.

The third-world status is one of the things that Kori Jones most wanted to convey when she returned home and began talking to students about "The Clay Marble" and Cambodia.

"The book is called 'The Clay Marble' because the children have nothing. Literally. They're basically starving to death in this place," Kori Jones said.

Children in the area would make marbles out of clay because they needed something to play with. Kori Jones said that she told their guide that she would like to make a clay marble on one of their tour days to take home.

"Our driver pulled over later, and he speaks no English, and he pulls up beside this tree on the side of the road next to this rice patty and he squats down and he reaches under the branches of a tree as they're running through a ditch," Kori Jones said. "He knew exactly what we were talking about because they still make them for their kids and it's still a toy. We had absolutely no idea what was going on, and it absolutely floored us. We thought what we were asking for would be such a strange concept to them, but in reality it's still a part of their world."