NOTES:- The following article appeared in the Lua Viet 1993 New Year Magazine. Lua Viet has been sponsoring the The Classroom of Love for the last 4 years, directly providing fund to build the classroom, purchase simple furnitures, fans, school supplies as well as some nourishments for the children.
Take a picture tour of the Classroom of Love
Make a donation to the current need of the class
Truong Ngoc Khanh is a young man, but what he's doing should give us a lot to think about, and still more to admire. At an age where most of his friends are concerned with only school or, on their spare time, going out with friends, Khanh has had to write newspaper articles and do other odd jobs to support his family. Residing in the working section that is now in Quan 4 of Ho Chi Minh City, Khanh has seen that there are many orphans or other poor children in the neighborhood, mostly around age 10, who have to gather glass, plastic bottles, etc. to make money, or who stay home and take care of the cooking, cleaning, and looking after the young ones to help the family out. These children don't have the opportunity or luxury of attending school. Even though he lives in a rundown house with his father, Khanh has transformed the building into a place of learning for these unfortunate children. What Khanh is doing has come to the attention of the local government but thay are not able to offer him anything more than encouragement in the form of a recognition plaque to decorate his wall. Lua Viet found about Khanh's situation through Sister Quynh Giao and Dan Thanh, an associate of Lua Viet's doing business in Saigon. Lua Viet has sent $US 1,000 through Dan Thanh to assist Khanh in renovating and furnishing the schoolhouse, for classroom supplies, and also to help defray living costs for Khanh and his family so he can concentrate on preparing coursework and teaching these youngsters.
During my frist trip back to Vietnam in 1994, I was asked by Hoai Chuong, one of Lua Viet's founder, to stop by and visit Khanh and see the current status of the classroom of love.
I asked a relative to take me to Khanh's house, but upon hearing the address, he said "Quan 4 Khanh Hoi? How about if we ask him to come here instead?" Seeing the surprised look on my face, he explained that Quan 4 is an unsafe neighborhood, and that the police won't even go near there after dusk, let alone anyone else. I told him I wanted to see with my own eyes the classroom so I can inform Lua Viet and we could decide how to best help Khanh and the children. Seeing that I was adamant, he agreed to take me on the condition that we go in the morning and that we make it quick, just to be safe.
Around 9:00 a.m. the next morning, my cousin drove me to Khanh Hoi. Passed a couple of large streets, we neared the marketplace, with vendors and customers crowding the streets. Perched atop a motorcycle weaving through the streets under the midday sun, we finally found Doan Van Bo street. They call it a street but it's little more than an alley, with the storefronts on both sides leaving little room for a car, but just enough for two motorcycles to pass safely. Finding the address on this street was a challenge. I don't know how many times we drove up and down the street but we still couldn't find the side street for Khanh's house. The address Hoai Chuong told me I wrote down as 334/55B but next to house #334 there was no street. I thought perhaps I wrote the number down incorrectly so we tried the street next to #336. It was a short alley that ended after a dozen houses, there was no way there could be a house #55 on that street. We kept driving up and down the streets and asking the nearby neighbors, but to no avail.
When we came back, I wrote a short not asking Khanh to come meet me with the hope that the courier would be able to tell if it was the wrong address or would be able to deliver it to the right house. Some time after noon the next day, Khanh came with a friend while I was trying to wash away the hot humid heat that permeated my skin. I don't know why it is that it never seemed to be this hot before but now, showering two or three times a day still doesn't seem to help alleviate the heat. After showering, I came out to meet Khanh. I liked him as soon as I saw him. In his late teens, he seemed older and more mature for his age, and very polite. In talking with him, I found out that the street he lived on was cut off by another street, and we had been on the wrong section. I expressed my desire to see his classroom and asked him to take me there. We went through a lot of different streets and went farther than before, to turn into an alley running the length of a plastics factory, winding around to his residence. His home was a two-story brick house about 4 by 10 meters, next to a rundown shed, with the walls of the two neighboring houses making up its sides. The front and back had disappeared, or perhaps there were none to start with. According to Khanh, his house used to be like this too. But he was lucky to have met Dan Thanh and she had brought cement to fix up the walls, saying that it was from Lua Viet, and that's how his house looks like it does today. This has enabled him to provide the children a nicer place to learn in. Khanh asked me to make sure to thank Lua Viet. When asked about the classroom, Khanh told me there were over 40 children, divided into two classes, that meet in the afternoon several days a week. The first class is from 2:00 to 4:00 and the next meets from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Sometimes after class, he and his students would go to the kitchen out back and cook rice to eat with dried fish, or would share a bunch of bananas, all in a very warm and friendly atmosphere. Two of our Lua Viet members on their visits home have stopped by this classroom. Huyen Chi saw that the earlier class was very hot and sweaty--the kids would wipe beads of perspiration off while studying--and had suggested we help him to purchase a fan. I gave the money to Khanh, $US 20 for the fan, and $US 30 to "li xi" Khanh for Tet.
I came to his house near Tet so there wasn't any class being held. While he went out, I had a chance to take a look around the house. The front was about 6 meters, the right wall was a blackboard for teaching, but today the words "Chuc Mung Nam Moi Giap Tuat 1994" (Hapy New Year of the Dog 1994) was written decoratively in white chalk. On the bottom half of the board hung four strings full of greeting cards. A bicycle leaned against the wall beneath it. In the corner was a glass case filled with books, a globe, and other instruments for teaching. The wall facing the door next to the case had a small altar with two electric candles, an incense bowl, and a small vase of flowers. Above the door to the backroom was a square clock. On the middle of the left wall hung the plaque from the local government acknowledging his work teaching the young children. Near the door to the backroom was a photograph of Khanh and all his schoolchildren. In front of the blackboard, where normally rickety wooden desks and chairs for the students were arranged, today have been replaced with a large lacquered table and eight chairs; nothing fancy, but still adequate for visitors during Tet.
After awhile, Khanh returned with four or five of his students, whom he introduced to me. He said that during Tet it was hard to find any kid at home--due to family finances--exept for the ones who have to take care of the house or the other children. The kids, some barely dressed, some with torn shirts or a button or two missing that no one mended, were shabbily dressed but very well mannered. I spoke with them and couldn't help but notice the wide smiles beneath the bright curious eyes on each of the innocent faces of children who have seen more than their share of life for one so young. I took pictures of the children and of Khanh as mementoes of my visit. I asked Khanh about the current status of the classroom and discussed his future plans for it. Currently, the children are separated into two divisions to facilitate teaching at two different levels; although the course work is not equivalent to that of the school system's. Khanh is hoping to purchase or have donated textbooks used in the traditional school so the children can follow the school curriculum. His fondest wish is to encourage the kids to study hard and take the necessary exams and be granted degrees from the local school. Khanh himself, after finishing high school in 1994, will apply to college, majoring in literature. His major concern is that he will no longer have adequate time to continue teaching once he starts college. However, he has seriously considered finding some friends of the same mind and purpose who could continue to teach the children. I promised to tell Lua viet what we had discussed and to find the means necessary to help him continue in both his schooling and the children's.
I parted with Khanh but couldn't help reflecting on the heavy load that Khanh has chosen to rest on his own narrow shoulders. Lop Hoc Tinh Thuong, Classroom of Love, what a marvelous name. Yes, only love can motivate a person to give freely and not ask a thing in return. Life would be a much better place if there were more people like Truong Ngoc Khanh, who has and will continue to give of himself to bring even the smallest yet priceless gift of happiness to those who need it.
Duong Trong Hieu