There is nothing like Teacher Day in the US and I wish there was. There is no place to put, collectively, the strong positive feelings that grow between teachers and students, no place to talk publicly about what that relationships is or how important it is, no place to honor it. Instead we get “Teacher of the Year” awards for single “top teachers” on the one hand, and on the other, a huge contingent workforce that has about as much of a socially legitimate, recognized, stable relationship as a whore and a john. Someone is going to be mad at me for saying that. But if you know “Who is Professor Staff and Why is He Teaching All These Courses?” you’ll know what I mean.I speak from experience. I don’t mean contingents are whores. I mean the relationship between a whore and a john doesn’t get any respect. I’m trying to draw a sharp contrast.
Once upon a time I tried writing down all the different students I could remember, giving each one a page, telling their story as I remembered it. Writing teachers hear a lot of stories because people write about themselves. I wrote a pile, a book’s worth of one-pagers, of students who were unforgettable. But there it lay. My memories of those students ended up as a pile of paper. They went their way, I went my way, and that was that.
On teacher’s day in Vietnam students go home to their hometowns and visit their old teachers! The schools are open and kids bring flowers. Even the bad teachers probably get some visitors, because everyone can reach somebody.
Obviously this day of commemoration awakened some strong feelings in me.
This is an annual holiday, established 33 years ago which means 1982. Madame Binh was Education Minister until she became a member of the Central Committee in 1982 so I don’t know if she had anything to do with establishing Teacher Day in Vietnam. It originated among Communist bloc countries at a meeting in Warsaw in 1957.
The reason why it might have something to do with Mme. Binh is because when she was Minister, teachers were very poor. Of course, most people were poor – starving, in fact. She had a lot to do with raising teachers pay and getting schools built out in the mountains where there was high illiteracy.
Teacher Day at TDTU involved:
Meeting Vinh at the office at 6:50 am, wearing our white TDTU shirts and baseball caps. Going to pray at the gold statue (bust) of Ton Duc Thang at the front of the college, placing incense sticks into the sand-filled vase below it.
Going up to the giant auditorium called Room A and hearing many speeches, seeing traditional dances on the stage and hearing traditional songs.
Changing into our sports clothes and going to the gym where all the teachers (the full-timers, called lecturers – adjuncts seem to be missing throughout) lined up by faculty, marched across the gym, were saluted by a traditional teacher’s song, a waltz, in which the gray hair of an old teacher is credited to chalk dust. Then we played games. Each faculty was a team. Bag races were at one end of the gym. Leanna and I were invited to join the International Business Faculty team to play tug of war. We lost, but it was fun. Then came races. Swimming, which I had signed up for, was cancelled for lack of people signing up. Maybe I was the only one. I found myself in the Older Women’s Running, and actually made it around the course running or at least shuffling. Leanna and I finished last. She waited for me.
Then I went quickly to change into my ao dai and go to another ceremony in Room A.
At 11:30 Joe and I accepted the invitation to the Accounting Faculty lunch, where fabulous food, especially a mango/guava/carrot/cabbage salad was spread out in their office. These people in the Accounting Faculty, as I have mentioned before, have really good chemistry with each other. They are almost all very young, too. They keep suggesting things we can do with them, like go on tours. I hope these plans work out. One woman offered to ride us all over HCMC on her motorcycle.
After lunch, still wearing the ao dai, I walked across the terraces, looking at the art. The whole campus was decorated for Teacher Day, with giant posters that the students had been making all week, plus baskets of flowers everywhere. The poster art has many images of children, trees, floating clouds, boats heading out into the ocean. On a nearby terrace is a display of very high-end, techno-sophisticated art produced by the design students, so I have to presume that the teacher day poster art is intentionally naive.
Everyone was saying to me, “Happy Teachers’ Day!” Even the security guards said it. My “You’ve got to be kidding” function was on high alert. I was having very mixed feelings.
Add in the omnipresence of top-volume music coming over loudspeakers and the fact that our seats in Room A were just 15 or 20 feet away from the speakers.
I have to insert something here. There are two things I do not like, which are inconvenient peeves for someone living in Veitnam:
One, large demonstrations of semi-military or completely military discipline, especially ones that involve people standing in line in the sun for long periods of time. I don’t mind the way a band marches out at half-time at a football game and makes patterns on the field. That doesn’t bother me. That’s partly a joke, anyway. But one step beyond half-time drills and I am on my way gone. Since a lot of celebrations in Vietnam involve precision marching in military formation, there is room for a problem here.
I actually made a silent vow about this years ago when I was teaching in Laney Community College in Oakland. The Gulf War had started. It was 1991. I had been teaching some English 1-A class that allowed me to use WWII materials for essay prompts. In my class were Vietnam vets, Vietnam “boat people”, Oakland high school kids (African American), Africans from the wars in East Africa, poor white kids, battered women, some brainy college dropouts, etc etc etc – the usual wonderful mix. The perfect cast of characters to make someone say, “I will never go to war again.” For some reason, I showed the famous photo of white men with crew cuts sitting in four or five lines of Adirondack chairs. They are wearing what look like hot weather uniforms – khaki shorts, open shirts. If you know this photo, you already remember it. The Adirondack chairs, which are wood and do not belong on a boat, are nonetheless spread out in lines on the deck of some boat. The men are looking off into the distance with serious expressions on their faces. They are looking at an H-bomb test going off. The vow I took was about standing, marching, sitting in line: Lines should be banned. No more lines, ever. Let no one ever stand in line again. This was a personal vow, for me only.
Or course, forswearing military display only earns you points if you are a citizen of a powerful country with a big army. If you are a small country in danger of being invaded by a big country, forswearing military display or military training and preparation is stupid. But I’m talking about myself: a citizen of a big country that invades other countries.
The other thing I don’t like is loud music, especially amplified music coming over loudspeakers. I do not enjoy that at all. Period. Many times sitting in a Vietnamese auditorium where the MC says, “Enjoy the traditional song of Vietnam” and then the music blares up, my deepest wish is to be able to leave. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, we went to a show called “TDTU Has Talent,” and since as foreigners we get ushered to the front row, we were stuck there for the whole thing. I sat with my fingers in my ears.
I have very good hearing. I can hear birds sing. I can hear footsteps. I can tell what’s going on when an orchestra is turning up. I have used my good hearing to enjoy and play music. I love my hearing. I feel like calling the police on someone who turns up the sound so loud that it hurts my ears.
So I spent the whole TDTU has talent evening suffering the pain of loud noise. Leanna and Hollis were next to us. In Room A on Teacher Day we watched videos of previous events, which included many shots of Leanna and Hollis loving every minute of it of the TDTU Has Talent show. The camera carefully did not catch me with my fingers in my ears.
The day finished with a fabulous banquet in the gym, with more food than I have ever seen anywhere. White floors, white walls, white table linens, all the chairs covered with white, with great gold and bronze bows.
But the high point of the day for me was mid-afternoon, when I was crossing the canal, a boy whom I had never seen before (maybe) started talking with me out of the blue. He was a handsome but very young-looking guy.
He said, “Happy Teachers’ Day!” I smiled back and said, “Thank you! How are you doing?”
He said, “I am so happy! I am going home to my family. I miss my family so much. I have a grandmother and a grandfather who are in their 70s’ and I have two little brothers younger than me, and I miss them so much! I live in a province that is about 100 K from here. I will go home on the bus and come back on Monday. I will see my mother and my father! I haven’t seen my family in five months! I am so happy!”
I was blown away by this warm, happy confession, and especially because he seemed to feel that I wasn’t a stranger at all even though we had never spoken. I was “a teacher” and therefore one of his teachers.
I attribute this moment of openness to Teacher Day.