|Lessons of life: Senior Lieutenant Tran Binh Phuc and his students on the island.
Soldiers on a very small island found local children were illiterate and decided to do something about it. Viet Ha and Trung Hieu check out the results.
Hon Chuoi (Banana Island) of Tran Van Thoi District in the southernmost province of Ca Mau has only 34 households with 115 people.
The small island is located nearly 36km from the mainland and takes three hours to reach by boat.
The low-roofed houses are beside a mountain, overlooking the sea with floating cages to raise fish, which is the main occupation of the locals.
In these substandard low-cost houses, there are flickering lights from oil lamps and the sound of children's sing-song voices reading every evening.
The children, whose brown skin and bright eyes are like stars, crossed their arms and greeted visitors with a loud: "I greet you, Uncles."
The oldest resident, Doan Thanh Phong, who has been in the island since the time it had been uninhabited, smiled and told us: "The kids are so good, thanks to the classroom of teacher Phuc. All residents here respect him."
His "class" is a small cottage, 120 foothills steep, far from the fishing village. Every morning, the teacher, Senior Lieutenant Tran Binh Phuc of the border station on the island, waits for the children at the foot of the mountain. Once he gathers enough students he leads them up to the classroom.
After the school hour, Phuc leads the 21 children down to the foot of the mountain, because he is afraid that the playful children may hurt themselves going down the foothills.
At first sight, his classroom looks like any other classrooms, with a blackboard, some chalk, and the students wearing uniforms, sitting neatly.
But the teacher wears a green military uniform, and the black board is divided into three parts because the classroom actually has three different classes.
The island has only this class, so the teacher has to teach a multi-grade class, giving three different lectures.
"My 'secret' is to be fluent in subjects of the three classes and to ensure the contents of the lessons don't overlap, which would confuse the students. For example, the 1st class studies Math, the 2nd studies Vietnamese, and the 3rd learns History," he revealed.
As both, the teacher and students are used to this way of teaching and learning. The lessons take place smoothly and effectively, and are not too different from regular classes.
"On my first day at the garrison in this island, I was shocked to hear the children swearing. I spoke to them and found that none of them were literate," Phuc recalled.
"I asked my senior officers to allow me to teach the children, telling my superiors that I would take a test to teach for a month only. If I succeeded I would continue. The class has been on for more than four years now," Phuc said, happily.
In fact, the first class by soldiers on this island was held in 1995.
But for a long time, the classes were not regular, and sometimes they would be interrupted because those "soldier teachers" were transferred to other locations. Since not every soldier had teaching skills, the classes were stalled until they found a replacement.
So far, Phuc's class is the most regular, and the oldest student has reached 5th grade, though both the teacher and students have encountered numerous difficulties.
At first it was hard for Phuc to persuade them to go to school.
"There was a kid who went to the class but had no interest to learn. I told him: 'Now do you want to learn or do I beat you on your buttock?' I thought he would be scared, but I was surprised when he climbed onto the table, lay down on it, and said: 'Teacher please beat me. Then I will go home to go fishing for squid'," Phuc recalled with a broad smile.
Such situations were common, but because of the love for children Sen Lt Phuc was determined to teach.
He felt sad when seeing the kids, like new "green shoots" without anyone to tell them what was right or wrong, how to read and write, to learn about life, and about the world around them.
That was why the first lessons he taught the children were not reading and writing, but lessons on how to be a real man.
For one year, Phuc trained his students as strictly as new military recruits, from how to greet, speak politely, and not to swear.
He thought the most important task was to educate students for dignity and the most effective method was to first understand their thoughts. Then he could gradually convince, orient and teach them.
With his perseverance, enthusiasm and dedication, the class was gradually put into order. His students are not only literate, but have also become well behaved and more confident.
Phuc's love for the "green shoots" of the island made him start the class. Also, the love from his students and the people on the island is a source of energy that helps him overcome difficulties.
|Guidance: Phuc helps a pupil. — VNS Photos Viet Ha
His students now study very hard. Every evening they study beside their oil lamps.
Talking about the day November 20 of last year (the Vietnamese Teachers' Day), Phuc smiled.
"The children here even didn't know what the day meant. Most families are poor so I did not want them to know about the day or they would have given me some gifts," he said.
"I just told the students that 'Tomorrow is Teacher's Day, so I allow you to be off school'. And I told them stories about teachers and students. My pupils silently went home without saying anything. The next day they arrived together and surprised me," he said, becoming emotional.
The students brought some candy, some bottles of mineral water and soft drinks. He gathered all his students in the class and let them have a party together. Some of them had a soft drink for the first time in their lives.
"Such memories will be with me forever," he said.
In the last four years, Sen Lt Phuc has become very attached to his students for these very reasons. He said he would do teaching until he left the island, because each day he does not go to class he misses his students.
His biggest concern is that the class still does not have anything to certify their qualifications. If the children go to school in the mainland, they have to start from Grade 1 again.
"I just wish there's a way to help my students to be recognised, and I do hope their families will become more prosperous so the kids will be encouraged to study further," he said. — VNS