Hanoi suburban free class brings hope to disabled

By offering lessons in reading and writing free of charge, Le Thi Hoa is changing the lives of many illiterate residents in her underprivileged community outside the capital.
By offering lessons in reading and writing free of charge, Le Thi Hoa is changing the lives of many illiterate residents in her underprivileged community outside the capital.

By the age most students are reaching the end of their high-school education, Tran Thi Khue began learning to read and write. At fifteen years old she joined a free class offered by Hoa, a woman with a commitment to providing education to some of the forgotten people in her community.Hoa.

Despite being eight months pregnant, Hoa is still trying to come to teach her students because, she said, she loves them so much.

Because of her disabilities, Khue could hardly write a single letter when she started but she always tried her utmost to write. As a result, her handwriting is pretty good and now she could learn how to handle figures as well, Hoa said.

"If Khue had gone to school since she was at 6 or 7, she would have been able to understand the lessons much more quickly," Hoa said.

Hoa first opened her classroom in her own home, in Dong Cuu, a small village in the suburban district of Chuong My of Hanoi, but it was too narrow to accommodate so many students.

She could teach only a handful of students at a time, until one day in 2007 when she went to Huong Lan pagoda. Seeing it had a large guest room, she asked monk Thich Dam Tien if she could use the room for her classes.

Hoa was surprised when Tien agreed, but from that time Hoa's beloved class moved to the more official location at Huong Lan pagoda.

Despite the recent tropical storms that assaulted the central provinces, none of Hoa's 58 disabled or impoverished students were ever absent.

Khue was the first student to come to class despite the severe weather brought on by Storm Nari.

"She insisted I bring her to class and if not she cries all day because she said she likes learning and playing with her friends in class so much," Khue's elder brother said.

"We are very poor, my father died when we were little. My mother earns a pittance from working in the fields so we didn't really have a chance to go to school."

Khue, however, is not the oldest in Hoa's class. Tran Thi Phuong, 26, was born mentally impaired and has faced difficulties speaking and writing.

Phuong's home is about 3km from her class and she, like her other classmates, has also never been absent despite the wild winds and rains in recent months, said Hoa.

Phuong's mother Bui Thi Lien expressed gratitude to her daughters' teacher, saying if she didn't organise the class, her daughter would have been forever illiterate.

"My daughter now can read and write, although not fluently as an ordinary student but that's enough."

Hoa recalled that she had two disabled students who couldn't use a pencil or a pen because their hands were too weak. But after a few years and lots of practice, these students can now read and write.

"In addition, thanks to our efforts, many of my students have returned to their normal school after two years of learning at my class," she said.

Another student who is acutely mentally challenged, Nguyen Duy Khoa, 10, has had to learn for three consecutive years just to pass first grade. However his father, Nguyen Duy Cuong, a cook at the pagoda, said since joining the class, his son, who once never spoke a word and smiled, is now responsive and speaking and smiling.

"Thanks to Teacher Hoa, my son now knows how to read and to write a little. But more importantly he has joined the community and can relate a story to us after class," Cuong said.

Teacher Hoa recalled when the pagoda agreed to let her open a class in its guest room, she felt happy - and relieved.

"In the first year, my students had to sit on old and damaged furniture which often injured the kids.

"We all are happy now because apart from myself, many monks in the pagoda also join in teaching my students," said Hoa.

Her first free class had 14 students, but soon after many people from the surrounding areas got wind of her class and registered to learn with her. Her students were suddenly so numerous that she had to divide them into five classes which are now taught by herself, her fellow teachers and the pagoda's monks.

"All of us were volunteering to teach because we thought our acts could share the burden of helping disadvantaged students, although teaching them is very difficult. We all tell each other that we must be patient," said Hoa.

Hoa said due to over-subscription and the narrow classroom, the pagoda has raised funds to build two classrooms and they are expected to open next month.

"My students will no longer have to stay at home when the pagoda holds an event and cannot accommodate us because of the influx of its visitors," she said.

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