As a huge part of his upbringing lacked intellectual stimulation, Daniel Peou esteems each chance to instruct impressionable minds.
The 44-year-old figure has devoted most of his professional career to bettering the lives of South Philly’s youths and is enjoying his new role as the principal at Horace Furness High School, 1900 S. Third St., an institution that helped him to establish a different identity after harrowing years in his native Cambodia.
“No matter where I have been as an educator, I have tried to relate to everyone and to act as if each child is my own,” he said Monday from the Pennsport site, where he previously served as an assistant principal. “Here I am continuing to honor my commitment to getting to know kids and being approachable.”
The Northeast Philadelphian desired the same camaraderie as a boy, but the Khmer Rouge, followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, made four of his formative years nightmarish by confining him and his family to a labor camp.
“Prior to 1975, I had a carefree existence, but changes came so abruptly,” Peou said of his kin’s removal from Battambang and placement in a village. “The government wanted us to have no interaction with the outside world.”
At 7, he faced almost total separation from his siblings and sporadic time with his parents. The tyrannical rulers denied laborers education, their Buddhist religious practices and other resources but offered them a stunning ultimatum.
“We had a choice to work or to die,” he said, adding decapitations and staged executions proved his captors’ severity.
Peou assisted with livestock and retrieved rice to secure pitifully small rations. His clan’s dearth of nutrition caused him to lose a brother, whom his father buried and whose departure left his mother devastated.
“Every day was just another day of trying to survive,” Peou said. “What happened in 1979, though, came as a blessing.”
Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia that year, and his matriarch, seeking no further endangerment, inspired an escape to their former home. Though it provided a renewed sense of self, the abode possessed no assets. His patriarch planned a venture to Thailand and counted on friends to finalize a trek, but it, too, involved risk.
“Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese and Thai troops could have killed us,” Peou said of their travels, which included viewing floating corpses and avoiding land mines.
Time in Thailand’s Khao-I-Dang refugee camp helped him to acquire some formal education, including an introduction to English. He and his friends received a beating over supposed mistreatment of Thai money on one occasion but experienced no major misfortune among their fellow Southeast Asians.
Little did Peou know that South Philly would yield his first United States residence following relocation to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center, which bolstered his English and placed him in a predominantly Roman Catholic country.
“It was there that I became familiar with Christmas,” he said, with his fascination with a decorated tree leading someone to strike him with a stone after supposing he had tried to swipe ornaments.
Shortly after that incident, a sponsor secured space for his family, and a new life began Jan. 5, ’81 with settlement at Third and Shunk streets.
“We had no choice for our destination, as we had to accept any country that would take us,” Peou said. “Anywhere was better than where we were.”
Their local existence began modestly, with struggles to adjust to a new culture, language and cuisine dominating the days. His sparse education led to difficulties at John H. Taggart School, 400 W. Porter St., where he later returned as the Whitman facility’s climate manager. Fate eventually landed him at Furness, where he befriended other ex-refugees and three inspirational teachers, including Valerie Nelsen.
“She essentially taught me the language,” Peou said of his current colleague.
“Did I luck out or what?” Nelsen added between finalizing rosters for three of the school’s 575 enrollees. “Most of his classmates said very little, but he was somewhat talkative and so inquisitive.”
As Furness was then a junior high school, he studied at South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., too, yet despite experiencing a confidence boost, he found himself asking little of his ambition.
“My goals were to graduate and to become an auto mechanic, nothing fancy,” he said.
He eventually reconsidered and enrolled at Temple University. Dropping out, he knew he needed more to thrive and, after growing bored with marketing work, decided to acquire more schooling to pursue education as a vocation. The School District of Philadelphia tabbed him as a bilingual counseling assistant, with Eliza B. Kirkbride School, 1501 S. Seventh St., then welcoming him as an apprentice teacher. While at the Passyunk Square site, he sought to exert greater influence on youngsters, with a day interacting with Cambodian youths who had forsaken their education proving instrumental. The Taggart position followed, along with enrollment in a principals academy that garnered him the acting assistant principalship at Edward Bok High School, 1901 S. Ninth St. His climb continued with installation as a Furness assistant principal and reached a peak two years ago with appointment as the principal at George W. Childs School, 1599 Wharton St.
“Each place has been rewarding, especially Childs, where we had some challenges, many successes and lots of hugs,” Peou said.
The well-liked head broke hearts with his June announcement that he would be leaving the Newbold/Point Breeze spot, as he had taken the advice of then-Furness principal Timothy McKenna to try to become his successor. Penny Nixon, the district’s chief academic officer, gave Peou favorable news, and he looks to make his position a reflection of his passion for compassion and familiarity.
“I have yet to find it intimidating,” he said of his job. “Great people surround me and we are committed to making the best situation possible for these learners.”
His growing résumé also has helped Peou, who lives with wife Sokhanthi and sons Patrick and Timothy, to understand his past a bit more.
“I have had difficulties discussing my background partly because I have thought nobody would care,” he said. “However, I have decided to let people know the real me.”
Next week will offer two chances to divulge, as Furness will hold Back to School Night Sept. 20 and a free noon screening of “Lost Love,” a film on the Khmer Rouge’s devastation, Sept. 22.
“His is a great story,” Nelsen said. “Nothing is better than seeing one of your kids succeed.”
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 124.