|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Hien Luong
The Hanoi-Saigon SE1 train would set off from the Ha Noi station at 7pm, so I still had a lot of time. I stepped into the lounge to idle away my rare moments. Opening the The Thao-Van Hoa (Sports&Culture) magazine, I began reading. All of a sudden, I was startled by a greeting.
"Good evening, Sir! You're Mr Lam, aren't you?"
"Yes, ma'am," I answered, looking up in bewilderment. By my side stood a woman of about 40 with her little daughter in hand. They were staring at me attentively. After a few seconds, she introduced herself to me.
"Sir, I was your student Toan in the Department of Literature and History, Course K8, under teacher Quan's charge. Do you remember?"
I felt a bit nervous, for she was making me recollect a heart-rending matter over 30 years ago. I wiped my glasses with a small cloth to get the seriousness of a collegiate lecturer and spoke to her.
"Oh yes, I see, I see: Toan of Course K8, coming from Van Yen district, Yen Bai province," I answered. "Now, please sit down by my side, both of you. I'm lucky enough to have an old friend on the same North-South train. But, where do you live?" I went on.
"My dear little daughter, say good evening to him, there's a dear. He is my former teacher," she urged her child.
"Sir, I live in Vung Tau. We're coming back home after a visit to my native place. Where are you going, Sir?"
"Vung Tau, that far!" I blurted out, not answering her immediately. "I'm on my way to Vinh. By the way, why and when did you settle down there? You're a factory worker, aren't you?"
"No, sir…!" she stopped short. Her voice sounded choked a bit, eyes in tears.
I felt utterly embarrassed. It turned out that what had happened to me on a Saturday afternoon, a long time ago, when I commenced my teaching career, was now conjured up in my mind.
That afternoon, while I was packing my belongings to return to my hometown before going to Ha Noi to attend a half-month refresher course, Mr. Quan, the dean of the Department of Literatue - History, Course K8, came to me.
"Mr Lam, please mark these essays carefully before they go to our Department's Board of Examination early next week to check if they might meet our requirements or not," he said to me.
Receiving the papers, I took a glance at them and then read them over. Both were nearly four pages. In terms of number of words, they were ok. As to their contents, I found their wordings uninteresting, but eligible for a pass. While I was going to give each of them a 5-mark score, the indecisive norm, Quan turned up again.
"Mr Lam, please spare me a few minutes," the dean insisted.
"OK, what's the matter, Brother Quan? Is there anything so serious that you have to condescend to me about it? High points for one of the papers?" I asked him. "Take it easy! I've just given both of them a five although they aren't up to our standard. Honestly, I don't want either of them to repeat the class," I added, showing my generosity.
"No, no, far from that! I wish to do otherwise," he replied bluntly.
"What d'you mean? Let them both fail?" I asked worriedly.
"Oh no, just one dropout is enough. Between ourselves, the unlucky student is Toan. Can you recognise her handwriting?"
"Why? But what's the matter with her? Perhaps you've got a deep grudge against her?"
"Oh no! The reasons are as follows," he began disclosing a secret. "Rumour has it that she's a prostitute for she goes to a rest house every evening. The collegiate board told me to investigate her case, find out the truth. If it's true, we'll hold a caucus for the whole class, then come to a conclusion that she should be expelled from campus before sending her back to her clan. If we waver, we'll be bothered by the police and our college will get a bad reputation."
Sometimes I heard about her night work at a certain rest house. Yet I found it rather common because her job was, among other things, to do the laundry or to tidy rooms and so on, not a dirty job at all, on the grounds that in daytime she was busy studying, but she needed to earn a living to support her family. "But why does Quan wish to punish her groundlessly?" I asked myself. Between the two jobs - prostitution and housework - there was nothing in common. When I asked Quan, he explained to me, "If she fails, firstly I don't have to see into her secret activities any longer, secondly she'll have to stop her studies and return to her native place with dignity. Therefore, in her home town she might choose another suitable job and get married as usual. Otherwise, if she is found guilty by the police, she'll be sent to a reformatory with a bad record, resulting in leading a shameful life for good. In your opinion, which of the two is better?"
I had to recognise that Quan's argument sounded reasonable, but I was still anxious and worried.
"However, have you investigated the issue carefully?" I asked him. "Are you sure that she has sold her honour for money? If we assess her conduct wrongly, what will happen to her and will we feel repentant all our lifetime?" I insisted.
"Don't worry. I've got a secret informant," he assuaged me. "Moreover, in your abstract subject, you'll be able to find fault with her essay easily," he concluded.
At that moment it was already four in the afternoon. The coach that usually left Yen Bai township for my home district of Luc Yen would make the last trip. No more time for hot debates! Consequently, I gave Toan's paper three marks and handed it to him.
When I was back at the campus later, the Board of Investigation had finished its work. Everything took place in the way Quan proposed. Toan was sacked for not meeting the institution's requirements! Curiously, his measure was highly appreciated!
On second thought, I deemed that I had abused my power and accused her of this behaviour wrongly to some extent. "Anyhow, the die is cast," I assuaged myself.
Without that encounter on the train, my misdeed would have been forgotten forever!
"All aboard, please," echoed the voice of the train mouthpiece.
I sat in the fifth carriage with an ordinary seat, for I only went to Vinh, whereas Toan's destination was the Vung Tau station, nearly three times further than my distance, so she bought a ticket with sleeping births at the end of the train.
In a hurry, we said farewell to each other.
Surprisingly, a few minutes later while my mind was still wandering somewhere with both joy and sadness, she approached my seat.
"Excuse me, would you like to change my birth for your seat, Sir?" she entreated an elderly man sitting next to me. The man agreed at once and Toan sat down beside me with her little one. "I'll take advantage of this opportunity to talk to you since I'm afraid that we could hardly meet each other again," she told me.
On the way from Ha Noi to Vinh, she let me know briefly what had happened to her when she was expelled. Her lifetime was full of ups and downs, misery and disappointment, bitterness and shame. Finally, feeling unable to bear it, she followed one of her elder cousins working for an oil and gas company in Vung Tau. Thanks to that kind-hearted woman's recommendation, she was recruited for a seafood processing company for export with a basic wage. With the passage of time, her grief was gradually burnt out. Soon, she was promoted to a higher post: assistant to the teaching staff of a kindergarten in charge of keeping the building clean and orderly. Discovering her flair for singing, dancing and storytelling, they encouraged her to attend an examination to the nursery department of the Vung Tau College of Advanced Education. Being a successful candidate, she was admitted to the institution as a part-time student. In sympathy for her hard situation, the dean accepted her as an adopted daughter so that she might join the canteen staff of the school. After three years' assiduous study, she graduated with honours and was admitted to the elder cousin's place, the oil and gas company, as a nursery teacher. It was there that fortune smiled upon her: she fell in love with an engineer of Northern origin, and soon became his wife. Now she had a cosy nest with two children and a magnificent building.
Hearing her narrative, I felt deeply moved. Holding her hand tightly I said in a soft voice:
"Congratulations! Your living conditions are indeed beyond my expectation," I told her.
However, I found her face sadden a little. Then in a highly emotive voice she said, "Thank you, Sir! But living far away from my native place and my mother, I felt terribly homesick. Moreover, I prefer the career of a literary teacher."
"But you have your occasional visits to your mum," I assuaged her. "There are also a lot of people who stay away from home, and living far from home doesn't matter much to them. Besides, you're lucky to get a job in a major urban centre. Every type of education has its own pleasure as far as we do our best for it," I went on.
"Yes, sir!" she said softly as she had often done formerly. Then after a long silence, she hesitantly put a question to me.
"Dear Sir! Might I ask you one question, just one? It's about my paper at that time. Frankly speaking, after studying the subject very carefully I did it with all my efforts. I thought that Huong also did the same. Yet, she passed while I failed," she blurted out slightly.
Being upset, I tried to find a reasonable justification.
"Sorry! I almost forgot it," I said in a regretful voice. "Nevertheless, the outline of an essay is one thing, like a skeleton, but its full contents are another matter. It must be illustrated amply with the writer's wide gamut of emotions. In a word, the plan is fairly different from the full text," I added.
Once again, her soft "Yes Sir" made me confused. I bent down my head to evade her glance.
Silence! She looked out attentively. She was lost in thought.
"What's she thinking about? The campus in Yen Bai? My deadly marks given to her?" I asked myself. I felt as if hundreds of tiny insects were crawling on my body. All of sudden she wiped away her tears with her handkerchief. My mind seemed to turn empty. All the efforts for my educational career now turned meaningless simply because I had been deprived of the right to learning of a young woman and to respect her, as well.
"Sir, did you know anything about my so-called bad behaviours those days?" she suddenly asked me.
"What was that?"
"About my alleged prostitution in a rest house near our college?"
"But why do you ask me so?" I asked her to evade her question. "On the other hand, if things appeared otherwise, why didn't you prove it?"
"A long time later, when I had been back home, Oanh, the prefect of my class, let me know the truth," Toan said to me. "During that period of time I did work for that rest house in the evenings because in the day I had to go to college. Frankly speaking, I wasn't a whore, not at all! Just a young girl in charge of tidying the rooms and doing the laundry with an income of 50 dong per night. Sometimes, the landlady suggested that I should have done something else with a higher pay, but I refused point-blank. Believe it or not, it's up to you. Anyhow, this is the first time I have dealt with that matter and you're the only man I dare to pour out my heart to."
"Is this the naked truth?" I asked myself. Looking into her eyes, I realised that she had told me the truth.
"Yes, I believe in you. Today, you are a woman teacher who was brave enough to lay bare the truth for me. But why did you have to work overtime then, and why didn't you clarify your problem?" I asked her.
She wiped away her tears and looked squarely at me.
"My family was in trouble," she told me in a moved voice. "My father was in so serious an accident while he was felling forest trees that he had to confine himself in bed. My mother was then a worker in a State-run tea farm. She had to accept its produce instead of wages, which cost half of her monthly income. My parents knew that they could hardly afford money to cover the school fees and other items for both of us. My mother intended to force my younger sister to leave school. However, I didn't have the heart to face such a dilemma, so I made up my mind to help support the family. At last, I worked for a rest house in the district. I knew that my job there might be wrongly assessed, yet I was unable to find a better job. Moreover, I thought that if I earned money honestly, I wasn't afraid of anyone. Clearly, things went bad for me, beyond my imagination. What I regret is that I had no opportunity to clarify my difficult situation. On the other hand, the college let me know that I was expelled because of my poor results in my study, not because of my immoral conduct. When I came to know that my essay got three marks I tried to look for your help, but you were away. I resorted to Mr Quan's support in vain. He told me, "The die is cast, we can't do anything else."
I stared at her. Instead of having given her a five that day, I just put down a three which would fatally put an end to her beautiful dream. Unexpectedly, such a bad record had invited a lot of trouble for her in her future. Poor us, we only deemed that we would have opened a humanistic way for her during her lifetime after her hard days in the campus.
"Really? I was then…" I said hesitantly because the issue was related to Mr Quan, who passed away two years before with the title of "Excellent Teacher" and I didn't want to hurt his soul in the other world. At that moment I only wished that the train would reach Vinh Station as soon as possible. I would get off and avoid Toan's inquisitive look. In other words, I might put aside the past in order to keep my soul sane, although I was not worthy of that bad reputation. When the train crawled to Vinh, I hurriedly got off before saying farewell to her as if I was trying to escape the chase.
Back at the college, I kept my encounter with Toan a secret. Nevertheless, her image, especially her eyes, always turned up in my mind. "Come what may, her dream of becoming a teacher has been fulfilled. Furthermore, she has a happy family with two nice children and a decent-looking house in one of the most beautiful coastal cities of our country," I told myself.
Finally, I wrote a long letter to express my heartfelt apology to her on the one hand and to lay bare the truth on the other with our so-call goodwill to save face for her at that time.
A few days later, she sent me a reply in which she advised me not to think much about my wrongdoings. "To the final analysis, your decision came from your good idea to save my honour and dignity, and to pave the way for a reasonable outlet for me. That fatal underrated mark took me to Vung Tau, where I was able to put my teaching career into practice and to enjoy a life of plenty," she said. "In reality, I knew Quan's motive through my dear classmate Oanh's account about the guy who had spread the bad news about my work, and also one of my unsuccessful suitors, with a view to getting revenge for his failed attempt to woo me. To tell you the truth, I've kept the rest house owner's certificate of my job as an honest helper, not a whore. Yet at that time it was too late for me to show it to the college principal. In the eyes of everyone, I was a dropout because of my failure in study, not because of my bad conduct. Come what may, I'd needed to turn over a new leaf. That would be the most meaningful verification of mine."
"Anyhow, that problem is a useful lesson for me, although it isn't inclusive in any syllabus," I consoled myself.
During the next summer, I paid a visit to Toan's family in Vung Tau, where we had a good time together. It was their warm welcome that got rid of my guilt complex. I requested her to jot down her whole story, not to support me, but to provide any teachers with a good example to avoid such a disastrous mistake of mine.
Translated by Van Minh