I anxiously watched the swollen tangerine sun slip behind the peaks of Annamite Mountains. There had been another storm that afternoon, which felled another power line—another day where I would be teaching my evening classes by lantern-light. In a few moments, the English Language Center of Hoan Lao, Vietnam would become a haunted house—pitch black—where children shrieked and lamp-toting teachers hovered through hallways like apparitions.
On the third floor, my class of adolescent English learners was waiting in a perfectly dark and humid room. Slowly, I made my way up the stairwell, splitting the formless tide of pupils descending downward in two files. With a slow creak, I opened door number 301 and held my lantern high. It revealed twenty-four teenage faces beaming with nervous enthusiasm. “Hello, class,” I said, smiling.
“Hello, Teacher!” they laughed.
* * * *
The town of Hoan Lao, not far from the DMZ, lies in the middle of one of Vietnam’s poorest and most obscure districts. There, one did not have to visit a museum to appreciate the devastations wrought by the War. Any given day you might hear the far-off sound of dormant landmines detonated or find yourself chatting with a student’s grandparent with extracted bullet wounds up and down her appendages. Even in 2015, there were many there who suffered from the residual genetic defects caused by the herbicide Agent Orange. Times were never easy.
That spring, news had broken that a Taiwanese steel conglomerate had illegally discharged millions of gallons of chemicals, including cyanide, into the South China Sea. It was not long after that that the Quang Binh province’s fishing industry near collapsed. Thousands lost their income and many more fell ill from ingesting contaminated fish erroneously marketed as “farm-raised.” Many of my students had stopped coming to class, too sick to leave their houses or hospital beds.
Some time passed and Mrs. Duong, our school director, paid me a visit at my home. She informed me that there was cause for hope. There were lakes in the district where many of the fishermen had found a way of making a subsistence living. Determined to see for myself, I borrowed her husband’s 2014 Honda Win motorbike and a map he scribbled onto a damp napkin. The next morning, I set course for the inner countryside.
A few kilometers inland and the paved roads gave way to winding gravel paths. Tall fruit-colored houses became short mounds of brick with cement slathered over frame and floor. The people behaved differently too. Little children towing water buffalo pointed incredulously at me as I drove by; middle-aged men rushed into my bike path to inspect my face and feel the hair on my forearms.
When the villages could no longer get any smaller they became orchards teeming with fowl. The gravel roads became dirt paths so narrow I felt the trees on either side of me scrape me as I passed. Another kilometer and the path opened again, revealing a small shimmering lake, no bigger than a few football fields, resting at the foot of a huge dome-shaped viridian mountain. It was exactly where the napkin said it would be.
Down by the water, an old man in a conical straw hat waded in the shallow reeds. His skin was bronze and his face was covered in a patchwork of bristly white and black hairs.
At first startled and then delighted, the man beckoned me in Vietnamese to approach. He knelt down into the water and removed a fish-cage that he had made from sheared strips of bamboo woven together. Inside it was a spackled green snakehead fish. He smiled a toothless smile as I offered my congratulations.
The old man then took my wrist and pulled me along the lakeshore behind a wall of vegetation where he had set up a small campsite. He invited me to meet his family and together, the six of us sat until the sun waned, slurping fish parts, laughing much and saying little. Once darkness fell and I was preparing to leave, I looked out across the lake a final time. Dozens of twinkling lights shone from its reflective surface: Not stars, but campfires: fastidiously maintained by determined fishermen.
* * * *
In spite of the challenges they faced, the people of Hoan Lao had in them an irrepressible optimism that seemed to flourish most when times were toughest. In getting to know them, I became convinced of how exceptional they were and how important it was for them to tell their stories. I gave each of my students the task of researching their personal and ancestral histories and present their findings, in spoken English, to the class. That night, with no electricity, students took turns holding the lantern. Out of the orb of light that hovered in the darkness of 301, tales of bravery, tragedy, and survival emerged.
Our experiences are precious to us. They are the stories we hold on to and the activities we relish. Each week, my goal is to provide my class of 5th graders with new learning experiences—developing historical thinking skills through fictional crime scene investigations or fraction-sense through rationing supplies on a deserted island. But just as important, it is to encourage my students to appreciate and communicate their own experiences with one another. They learn geography by mapping their memories in their neighborhood—journalism, by writing articles about their peers.
If my own experience has taught me anything, it is that we learn best when we live what we learn and when our lives are what we learn. I am so grateful for the fact that in no other place is this philosophy so much a reality than at Yavneh Day School, where teachers sing in the hallways and students chase their dreams like moths to a flame.