“I like to read about histories and dinosaurs and the universe!” she says wide-eyed. “Teacher, remember the video we watch? The universe is getting bigger and bigger as we talk!” Her arms stretch high over her head as she illustrates the vastness of the cosmos. Then she collapses into her chair, exhausted by the mysteries of our existence.
“There could even be aliens,” she exhales.
I see Hang three times a week, Saturday through Monday. I tutor her privately and in a group lesson. She’s also my Teacher’s Assistant for a raucous bunch of six-year-olds. Although she’s only one or two years their senior, she speaks and reads like a proper fifth-grader.
Sometimes she takes her role as a TA very seriously, marching around with a ruler and throwing the students stern looks. Other times she makes a fort in the corner of the classroom and reads a book. I occasionally ask her for help with clarifying directions, but in general I regard her as a free agent.
Hang’s house is also a school. Table and chairs occupy more square footage of their downstairs than actual free space. The walls exist simply as backbones for the towers of books leaning against them. Every evening, dozens of students of all ages work diligently on arithmetic and calculus problems, and Hang’s mother, Trang, flies around, correcting and advising.
“I must separate my brain,” Trang says. She must go from basic algebra to space-time mathematical models that trouble her most brilliant Master’s-level students in a matter of seconds. All the while wrangling her one-year-old son, a blundering pudgeball who leaves aftermaths worthy of tornadoes in his sorry path.
It’s a known fact Vietnam is notoriously hard on its students, all competing for funding and university placements that are elusive at best, but its teachers can suffer as well. Trang is working all the while she’s awake, and there’s really no such thing as vacation when her students have exams to pass and futures to seize.
“I want to be a teacher like my Mum. And, Teacher, I want to speak English like you.”
We study together in the attic of their house, in a small classroom with glass walls all around like a makeshift atrium for fake plants and dusty curtains. On the edge of Hanoi proper, the windows frame grasslands, farms and construction projects, alive and abandoned. Funnels of smoke peppered throughout the fields rise into the silver sky.
“When I am old and brilliant I will go to America to see you. They will give me money.”
“Who will give you money?”
“I will get IELTS paper, TOEFL certification, and I will be brilliant in maths and English, and they will give me money so I can study and live in America!” she exclaims.
“That’s great, Sweetie, and know that you already are brilliant!” I say in a sad voice that I can’t help.
She covers her mouth with her hands, hiding her gap-tooth smile.
“Oh, Teacher! I tell you I read there could be water on Mars?!”
“Wow!” I say. “Perhaps there is.”∗