Class starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ?’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Qu?nh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).
Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.
I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.
The morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.
The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ?i (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.
The afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Qu?nh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“th?a bà, con v?”, “th?a cô, con v?”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.
Eleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.
Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.