HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Rewarding Side of Teaching

I don't usually post so frequently, but I really wanted to write this.

This past week, my weekday afternoon class ended 10 days sooner than I expected. The class has four students in it, three are in fifth grade and the other is in fourth. I've talked about this class several times before; their names are Annie, Mary, Lucas, and Bill. I was sad to see the class end, especially so unexpectedly. I was informed four days in advance that the fifth graders would be released from class to begin studying for their extremely important national tests, which determine whether or not they will be able to attend a top-level public middle school. That would leave just Bill in the class, since he is in fourth grade. The administration saw no use in keeping me around to run a one-student class, so they decided to cancel it two weeks ahead of schedule. I informed Bill of this on Wednesday, and he immediately burst into tears; he was absolutely devastated.

Out of the dozens of students I've taught at this point, Bill is by far the one I've become closest to. There are several reasons behind this. First, he is almost fluent in English, so I was able to talk to him at the same conversational pace that I use when talking to my friends. I haven't been able to do that with any other student yet; I always have to speak at about half-pace, or maybe even slower. Secondly, he was interested in almost everything I had to say. Like me, he is intensely curious about everything, and his brain is an absolute sponge. Way back in December, when I first took on the class, I mentioned that, back in the U.S., I shared a car with one of my sisters. He brought that up last week, about five months after the fact. He also loved learning as many new English words as possible (one of his favorites was antidisestablishmentarianism), so a few weeks ago I compiled a list of some of the most advanced words I know, and he dutifully looked them up in the dictionary and began using some of them almost daily.

Another reason I became so close to Bill is that he brought out my paternalistic instincts. Sadly, Bill has some serious psychological issues, most obviously ADHD and neurosis, but he also displayed some characteristics associated with being bipolar or mildly schizophrenic. He could also be pretty demented, and he had a disturbing obsession with violence. In Vietnam, where status and the Asian concept of "face" are so important, mental problems are simply ignored. Parents refuse to believe that their child isn't normal, because to admit that he or she isn't would bring disgrace to the family. Thanks to these cultural beliefs, the field of psychology is practically non-existent. I've never even heard of a psychologist's office, even here in Saigon, the country's most advanced city. Therefore, problem children become problem adults; pushed to the edge of a society that doesn't know how to confront such issues. Bill is one of those people that, if pointed in the right direction, could solve world hunger or cure cancer, but if his problems continue to be ignored, he could end up cutting twelve people's heads off and storing them in a fridge.

Such ignorance was completely evident at school, where most of the other students barely tolerated Bill's ramblings and occasionally bizarre behavior, often calling him "weird" or blatantly making fun of him. At one point, I found out that Bill had actually tried to kill himself with a pair of scissors, in class no less, last school year. Hearing this devastated me, especially because the students that told me about it were so blase about it. From what I could figure out, it sounded like he was punished for the action; no one cared to find out why he would do such a thing. Since no one else seemed able to comprehend these problems, I took Bill under my wing, defending him when other students attacked him verbally. Sure, he could be infuriating at times, but at the end of the day I always enjoyed having him in my class, and he obviously enjoyed having me as his teacher.

Over the last couple of months we got into the habit of playing Scrabble a couple of times a week. Bill is hyper-competitive, as am I, so these games occasionally ended in anger, but it was also a lot of fun. When the time came for the class to end, he was crushed, telling me that, "Mike, I want to keep studying with you!" So, I gave him my e-mail address and told him he could contact me if he wanted to study together. Last night, I got this adorable message from him (he's 9), and I felt that I had to share it:

"Hi, it's Bill here. I'd like to thank you for the great donuts you offered us in the afternoon. Did you know that I commonly spell the british spelling more than the american's way? Ineed to ask you some questions, ok? The first thing is : Will you be teaching at another school? Or you will hang out with your friends? If you are with you students or your friends, please tell that I'm your best friend and please send my regards to them,ok ?

And if you've driven near area 51 , you might notice that there is area18 too. And I saw the saucer flying back to it's home (other planets). Call me when you can!

Best regards
your student, bill

The message also included a number of emoticons that aren't available on this text editor. A couple of things: I brought the students donuts for the last class; I had criticized him for using a British spelling during Scrabble, and earlier in the week I told him that I had driven near Area 51 when I was in New Mexico a decade ago. I was touched by this message, and it put me in a good mood after a frustrating few days. Sometimes, I get tired of feeling like I'm not really going anywhere with teaching, but things like that message remind me of how rewarding it can be. Bill, I'll miss you little buddy.


  1. wow this is very touching. Thank you for sharing with us your experience. I found your blog today from Kyle Le's blog (your blog is 10x more interesting). I think you should do a vblog about Vietnamese's foods and your students.

    1. Ha, well thank you. I would love to do a vblog, but I don't have any editing software, and I don't really have any friends who are into filming. Also, I'm not a teacher anymore, so I don't actually have any students to film.