|A image from a clip on school violence among high-school students. Many students resort to beating others and causing trouble to hide their feelings of hurt and inadequacy. — Photo vcmedia.vn
by Nguyen Thu Hien
HA NOI (VNS) — Under the blurry street lights at night, there was something scary about Nguyen Trung Dung's bony face with its black spots.
He did not want to meet in a coffee shop, preferring to sit somewhere "outside," which happened to be a pavement near the Long Bien Bridge.
The feeling of apprehension was heightened by the big, bold tattoo on his arms and neck. "Hate life," it proclaimed. He clenched his fists as he sat in front of me, and I had to force myself to keep calm.
Dung sensed what I was feeling, and sought to ease my fears. In a cold voice, he said: "You are a friend of my closest friend at high school. So, you are also my friend."
For further comfort, he added: "I used to be the leader of a gang controlling this area. If anyone causes you any problem, just tell me."
The 27-year-old tattooed man was not joking. He had been to prison twice after he was forced to leave school in 12th grade by his teachers.
Dung's descent into a life of violence and mayhem had begun when his father left home with all the family's money, shocking the young boy deeply. Until then, he'd been a good student who had participated in the capital city's math contests.
After the father left, Dung's mother, a housewife, began selling tea on streets to look after him.
"I was lonely and in pain. No one cared about me then. And I wanted to cause trouble for anyone at anytime."
Dung joined peers who usually played truant, hung around to fight others, stole from schoolmates, and smoked and drank.
"Doing those crazy things at that time comforted me and kept me busy."
Dung's story is a case study in what is wrong about the way troubled students are treated, by the school, the system and society at large, experts say.
Nguyen Thanh Vinh, who teaches at the Yen Noi High School in Ha Noi, said teachers and other adults should study a students' living situation before judging or even trying to help him/her.
When they are ashamed of their family or living conditions, many students resort to beating others and causing troubles to hide their feelings of hurt and inadequacy, according to Vinh.
Pham Tung Lam, chairman of the Education Psychology Association, said students rarely got the chance to explain their actions or receive sensible advice from their teachers. "Schools lose no time in handing out punishments like issuing a bad behaviour report or expelling students who violate school regulations," he said.
Scores of students were expelled from schools every year, he added.
There has been no study carried out on the long term consequences of such actions in Viet Nam, so it is difficult to know how many expelled students have taken to a life of crime, like Dung, Recently, two students in a southern province committed suicide after they were expelled from school. Dung said his teachers were surprised at first by the changes in his behaviour. Then they got angry and began punishing him, including issuing bad conduct reports and suspending him from school for one week or two weeks. This only worsened Dung's attitude.
When a schoolmate told him that he was rubbish thrown away by his father, it "really hurt me." Dung hit him so hard that he collapsed and had to be hospitalised.
Dung got the highest punishment for the incident. He was expelled from school.
Vinh said punishing students who keep making mistakes was okay, but it was more important to take time to observe them and be with them as they tried to recover from difficult situations.
If teachers were reluctant about caring for their students and giving extra consideration where needed, the lives of their wards could change for the worse forever, he added.
Lam agreed, saying that when a student does something wrong, a panel should be set up to analyse the incident and determine the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, including students, parents and teachers.
The students should be helped to understand the situation, their mistakes and the disciplinary measures they will be subjected to.
"The disciplinary action should depend on the student's personality in order to be effective," he said. While it is a serious punishment for some to be suspended for several days, for others it is a welcome opportunity to stay away from school. For the latter type of students, other punishments should be found, like cleaning up public places, he said.
With regret in his voice, Dung said: "No one asked me why I beat him and how I felt. All of them blamed me and thought I deserved to be stopped from going to school."
After he was expelled, Dung became a gangster and was imprisoned for four years for injuring others. His mother had to spend a lot of money compensating the victims. "I did not feel sorry (then), because many people including my father, my friends and my teachers had hurt me."
Lam said teachers should learn to accept their students regardless whoever they are and should judge their actions in an objective way. Many teachers discriminate against poor or "bad" students, he noted.
Furthermore, students should have a say in choosing ways to learn as well as disciplinary measures applied, he added.
Teachers should consider linking troubled students with their communities or peer groups and encouraging common activities.
"For example, if students who are interested in drawing are entrusted with the task for designing the school's paper, they will feel proud of themselves and adjust their behaviors for the better," he said.
Vinh said if troubled students show no interest in subjects like mathematics, literature or physics, they could still be talented in art or football or have other special skills. Teachers should help students discover their abilities and let them have a chance to prove themselves.
"Dealing with troubled children is not as difficult as it seems," Vinh said.
"I pay attention to my students, love them, spend time with them, most of them understand my efforts and will change for better," Vinh said.
Dung said: "I do not blame anyone for my presence now. However, if I had a wish, I would turn time back and re-enter some school where I get guidance from teachers."
He said young people like him lacked education in life's values, so when they faced difficulties, they easily lost control and kept slipping towards the bottom.
Lam of the Education Psychology Association said education in morality and personal development was ineffective at present because the subject of civics, which deals with these things, was too theoretical and homogenous.
"Teachers talk about theory and ask students to follow, but the latter do not understand why they should do so.
"Talking about life values takes just three minutes but making students understand and put these in their hearts will take a thousand times the three minutes."
Dung said people would make choices in their lives based on knowledge and skills that are gathered from when they are very small. Without the right inputs, therefore, the choices could end up exacting a high price.
Dung's decision to return to a normal life was rooted in another major incident that struck him hard and woke him up. One day, his mother fell unconscious on the street after putting in endless of hours of hard work.
He said he'd just finished working at his pawn shop, from which he earned several million dongs a month, enough for him and his mother.
"My past bad reputation made this job easier." He admitted that the job was not ideal, but said it was better than thieving and hurting others.
Looking down at this tattoos, indelible memories of his past, he said: "My mother's sacrifices for a child like me taught me that I need to change my life. For me and for her." — VNS