Viet Nam News
by Nguyên Hương
One morning Mrs Yến received a phone call from a number she didn’t recognise. “My dear Aunt Yến, do you remember me? I’m your niece Khanh.” While the old teacher was searching her mind, the caller continued, “My pet name is Bon. Remember after leaving college I asked you to help me get a job teaching English at a school in your village? Unfortunately, I was sacked only six months in. Do you remember?”
The old woman smiled. She had been so used to calling her niece Bon that she forgotten her given name was Khanh. Of course she remembered.
Her merry voice must mean she’s found a good job, the old teacher thought. “You’re working for a foreign company, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Oh no, far from it, Auntie!” Khanh burst into laughter.
“My God!” she exclaimed, blinking. Suddenly, she remembered her niece had moved to a city far from her.
“How crazy I was that day I got sacked! I reached your house and cried like a baby,” Khanh said, giggling.
“I’ve heard that girls who work in the city change their jobs frequently. How many trades have you plied?”
“Not as many as you’d imagine, Auntie. Now, do you want to hear my job offer for you?”
Yến couldn’t believe it. Six years before, Khanh was happy for one and a half million dong a month from teaching, but now what she could was hiring employees.
“How much can you pay me?” she asked her niece.
“Oh no, you misunderstand. You’ll be an independent teacher, not an employee of mine. I’m only the manager of a teaching business.”
“So, you’re a headmistress?”
“Oh no, just a tutor!”
“I see. You go to wealthy students’ houses to teach them. At my age, I can’t do that.”
“Gone are the days of the governess, Auntie. I run a tutorial centre in a hired building for secondary classes. Teachers work here on the contractual basis.”
“You mean that…”
“I do business based on my experiences after being fired,” Khanh said. “Most other centres run exam-training courses with experienced teachers. I learned that those classes only work for very good pupils; whereas the weaker ones choose centres like mine, with less experienced teachers. The less able always make up the majority of our students.”
* * *
Retired teachers in rural areas had long struggled to find work. Persuading parents to send their kids to tutorials was tough. And Yen needed money to fix her house up. After retiring, she and her husband had tried their hand at a few odd jobs, growing vegetables, knitting jumpers and they’d even had a go at stock trading. But she still needed money. Maybe city-dwellers would pay high fees for their children’s schooling.
She made up her mind to take the job in the city. She had never seen any of her schoolchildren win a medal at the local competitions, never heard the congratulatory music and frenzied clapping for one of her charges.
From the bottom of her heart, she was deeply envious of those who had.
After collecting her textbooks and packing her clothes, she headed to her niece’s place in the city, full of hopes. On the train she told herself she’d be happy if her pupils won any medal, gold silver or bronze, it didn’t matter.
* * *
“I might go sightseeing soon, you told me there’s so much to see here,” the old teacher said to her niece.
“I think you’re tired after the trip, so you’d better rest. This afternoon, I’ll take you round the city,” Khanh to her.
“No need for the rush! We’re not on a package tour,” said the old teacher. “I’ll stay here for a few more days and I still want to find a proper job. By the end of each week, we’ll visit one place of interest,” she added.
“No no, Auntie! We’ll be busy every weekends,” Khanh said. “The kids go to school on weekdays. The weekend is the best time for us to work; three classes per day from dawn to dusk, with at least 100 students in each. You’ll need a microphone.”
“Oh dear, how can I give each of them the education they deserve?”
“What do you mean?” Khanh stared at her, eyes wide open. “Remember, teaching here is quite different from the country.”
She looked at Khanh in her brown power suit, high-heels and bob hair like a Korean actress playing a company manager. “How wonderful she looks!” thought Yen. “But what’s the difference between teaching here and the country?” she asked herself.
* * *
It was half past five in the afternoon.
A yellow car stopped abruptly in front of Mrs Yến’s class. A child in decent clothes got out. His backpack was swollen like a huge toad. He was carrying a plastic bag with a carton of fresh milk and a loaf of bread.
“Good afternoon, my little learner!” she greeted him. “Take off your coat and put your backpack on the table,” she said.
Her pupil responded with a puzzled look.
“Aren’t you going to say hello?” she asked him with a frown.
“Good afternoon, lady!” he mumbled.
Khanh whispered something in the old teacher’s ear.
“Auntie, some might say good afternoon or good morning, whereas some won’t. Leave him alone. If you annoy the kids, they will not come back to the centre. We’ll have let him down.”
Yến kept silent.
“I know how you feel,” Khanh told her.
“We aren’t real teachers,” Khanh remarked. “We have no authority over the student’s marks. Frankly speaking, we need them more than they need us.”
A few minutes later, Yen’s class was bustling full of students.
“You’ve got only five minutes to eat and drink. Do it quickly,” Khanh told them.
In the wake of her niece’s order, Yến could hear the rustling of bags opening and sucking on straws. At first, she found the racket unbearable, but she knew that she would have to be sympathetic as they had just left school to come to this English centre. “With their eagerness to study, they will soon become top students,” whispered the old teacher. Looking at Khanh’s management, she knew that their classes would soon reach a new level of prestige.
Taking a peak at one of the student’s books, she realised he was grade nine. Khanh had vanished while Yen was distracted. She had left her aunt in charge of this class without any direction.
Khanh appeared at the doorway and signaled that she wanted to talk to her aunt.
“I was hoping you could observe this class today, but the teacher is missing, damn drunken foreign teachers, so unreliable! You’ll have to substitute for him,” Khanh whispered to her aunt.
“No problem at all, my dear niece! I used to teach ninth grade in the country.”
“Good, thank you. From tomorrow on, before teaching you’d better look over the student’s lesson book and go module by module each lesson,” Khanh told her.
“Actually, I think I’ll just go over what the kids have just learnt at school,” Yến replied.
“Just do what I’ve told you. Later, I’ll explain it to you more carefully and in detail,” said Khanh, glancing at her watch.
* * *
At the end of the month, Mrs Yến returned home. Her clothing haversack had been replaced by a big suitcase.
Her husband and son warmly welcomed her back at the coach station.
“How long are you going to stay at home this summer?” asked her son.
“Until early June at most.”
“So, urban kids have to go to school all summer?” he asked, incredulous.
“They don’t have to. They do it so they will perform well when public school starts back,” she explained.
“How many medals have your kids won then?” asked her husband. More than anyone, he was fully aware of his wife’s deep craving for triumph.
At once, she turned away as if she was enjoying the beautiful landscape around them. Actually, she was afraid her husband might discover her blushes.
Unfortunately for Yen, teaching had changed a lot.
Translated by Văn Minh