The Vietnam War, from 1955 to 1975, left Vietnam in ruins, with the North overtaking the South and faced with the task of creating one nation under communism. In the 50 years since the war’s end, Vietnam has worked to rebuild itself so it can find a place in the world market. However, it has a long way to go. One area where Vietnam struggles is education, which in theory is free and open to all, but in reality, excludes many because of life circumstances.
We are in the landmark city of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. We are staying in the volunteer house or with a host family, whichever one is of our choosing, so our basic needs are met, meals are included and the beds are not on the floor. This is not the case for so many of the people here, and we find that the poverty of city meets us on each street.
Upon arriving at the school, I get a first hand view of the people with whom we shall be privileged to work. On this, the first day, one of our students has no shoes on his feet. When I ask, where are your shoes, he tells me he has one pair of shoes, flip-flops, but he saves them for Tet, the New Year, and the celebrations. Outside our little center, a six-year-old girl is playing alone until her father gets a customer who needs a ride somewhere. When that happens, the little girls joins her father and the customer on the motorbike and off they go to wherever it is. Her father knows she needs to be in school, but he cannot afford the costs that go with free school: books, uniforms, paper and pencils. On my of my first daily walks, I see many school age children helping in small stores or cafes or out on the streets selling chewing gum or whatever else they have. It is these street children, as we call them, we want to gather into our school. Though school tuition is banned by the government, the things the children need to be in school must be paid for by the parents, but the life circumstances of the people we are here to help interferes with their hopes and dreams for a better future. Such hard workers and very aware of the need for education, they are squeezed out of the main stream because earning enough money just to survive is a problem for them. The only bright spot in all of this is we have no trouble getting children to come to what is truly a free educational opportunity. We have books, paper and pencils and teachers so ready to help. No uniforms required just your smiling face and your willingness to try. We encourage parents to join us, to stop in, to sit in the class because we also know if the parents can learn some skills when we are gone, the parents and the children can help each other and the learning will go on.
By the second week of our teaching, we see so much progress. Because our little center hosts children as well as adults, the children are sharing small English conversations with each other as well as reading very simple books to the older folks, who identify the pictures and repeat the words. It seems so simple but it is the way we learn, small, baby steps, repetition and practice.
Outside, where our little friend still waits with her father for customers, she no longer plays with sticks in the street but she sits, reading the whatever she has to herself and to her father, who tries to listen while keeping a lookout for anyone who needs a ride. She reads to him and with him. We know that practice makes perfect, and the eagerness of this little family fills us with joy. It is a step, a huge step, towards meeting our goal of leaving here the children with skills to keep them learning on their own. I learned the following quote early on in my teacher education, and I paraphrase: don’t tell me show me, then involve me and let me teach others for I shall learn best this way. This teaching component of the recipe for learning is what fills me with hope, as our students are becoming the teachers to those in their families who cannot read or speak English. It is wonderful and it makes me so happy to see this wisdom in action.
On the weekend we volunteers take a trip to the Mekong River Delta, and the beauty of the country stuns us. The people are so friendly and welcoming, wanting to help, sharing stories if they some ability to speak English, asking to take selfies, and welcoming us into their culture. So many volunteers have come, as I did, with some trepidation of this warring country, but we are all falling in love it and cannot imagine ever missing coming here. The openness of the people makes what we do so much easier and with the common goal of leveling the playing field so no one is left out of getting an education based on income, we are assured a support and the beginnings of the seamless transition needed when a new team comes into a situation. No, our little friend does not have two pairs of shoes yet, but I am confident, with the skills he is acquiring, he will not be in such a position when it is his turn to find a job.