School at Thuan An starts each week with a 7 am Monday morning flag ceremony. Students line up rank and file by age on the cement drive– bright-eyed and uniform in appearance with their pressed light blue and stark white-collared shirts and matching dark blue pants. The choice of footwear is by individual design and that is where true personalities leak out – there’s everything from pink florescent flip flops to Superman plastic sandals to staid black shoes. After the female teachers, dressed in pastel business suits, congregate alongside the children, they all join in to sing the national anthem and the flag is raised on the tall pole in front of the school. That is followed by a recitation of Ho Chi Minh’s creeds – five simple statements to live by – love your country, support your community, protect the environment, live with good intentions, and be courageous. The ceremony always starts with a lot of pomp and seriousness but that usually dissolves as classmates begin to poke and elbow each other in warm familiarity.
The 300 children, ranging from 4 to 20 years of age, then scatter with fluttering hands and excited voices to their classrooms housed in four large, airy buildings. The older children rely completely on sign language while the younger ones are getting their education through the spoken word. When these two groups converge in social settings, sign language is the communications mode of choice.
Vietnamese sign language, like the American edition (ASL), has its own syntax and sentence structure unique to the local spoken language. Its development was influenced by the French, which in turn, was derived from English sign language. Hence, many words and letters in Vietnamese sign are the same or similar to the American version. Since some of the older students understand basic English, I’ve been able to converse with them in a creative combination of rudimentary ASL, and picture drawings and written English on a pad and paper.
The older children sit on plastic stools behind wooden desks as they learn via sign language from the state-designed deaf education curriculum. Their studies end after the 5th grade – effectively eliminating any opportunity to get a high school degree or attend college. Thuy recognizes that these students are fully capable of acquiring more than just five levels of education, and for the past few years, she has arranged for mainstream teachers from secondary level and high schools to visit and teach.
I always try to sneak into the back of the younger children’s classrooms, but these 4 to 7 year olds have eagle eyes and jump at the chance to stand up, bow, and in exaggerated unison, greet me with a boisterous “Chao Co”. If the smiling faces, glowing eyes, and enthusiastic welcome from a group of 6-year-olds doesn’t put you into a good mood, well then, nothing will. Each of the three young teachers work with about 12 of these children at a time and its admirable to watch them captivate, entertain, and teach – all while managing the kinetic energy that these little guys have. Something unplanned happens every single day in these rooms as a result. Just yesterday, I joined a spontaneous train of kiddos as we hopped, shimmied, danced, sang, and laughed our way around the room and through the hallways in an effort to burn off some of their pent up liveliness on a rainy afternoon.
Across the way are small therapy rooms where 4, 5, and 6 year olds sit with Ms. Tam and practice speech and listening skills. They scrunch their faces in concentration as they listen to words and sentences said behind them and then attempt to repeat or answer questions. Ms. Tam is patient and kind, wrapping her arms gently around their shoulders as she encourages them to listen to her voice or say a word correctly. She celebrates each tiny success, and her young stewards respond with radiant smiles. They end the 15 minute sessions with a carefully chosen sticker, a hug, and a bow before the child rejoins his or her peers in class.
Upstairs, infants and toddlers engage in Early Intervention sessions. When you’re born without hearing sound and are amplified with hearing aids later, the brain has a lot of catching up to do in terms of auditory mapping and language acquisition. Ms Lan helps them do just that, coaching family members as they play, talk, and encourage speech from these youngest members of Thuan An.
At 4 pm, a cacophony of motorbikes converges on the school as parents pick up their children. Since 100 of the students are boarders, the day doesn’t end with the last class, but rather much later. After dinner, games, and homework, a staff of nuns leads them upstairs to bed. The boarding school environment and shared experience has created a strong bond among the children here. The older kids look out for the younger ones. It’s a real family environment.
Overseeing this complex operation are Ms Thuy, the Executive Director and Sister Dao, the Education Director. Sister Dao is a Catholic nun with a dry sense of humor and a comfortable-in-her-skin vibe. I can’t help but find myself waiting for her to break out into some Sound of Music song with the devoted and warm “Maria” way in which she interacts with the children.
There’s a lot to deal with but these women have multi-tasking down to a science. It’s a bit of a throwback in some ways. There is no inter-school conferencing system – teachers call each other on their cell phones. Faxes are popular. Email is not widely used. There are no credit cards. Food staples are purchased in bulk at the farmer’s market in the village and a large team of cooks prepares scores of meals fresh daily – no Lunchables here. Perhaps most striking is the fact that whenever Thuy makes a service telephone call, she gets a live person on the other end – no automated menus or voicemail.
Just like those weekly flag ceremonies, the school combines order and principled living with a whole lot of personality and charisma.