by Peter H. Le

Vietnamese Teacher Mr. Nguyen Trai

The Heart of a Teacher

What if you have the passion to teach, to pass on wisdom to the children of the future, but you do not have any formal training, no financial support, a physical disability, and absolutely no recognized certifications to allow you be part of the educational system?

Well that is exactly the story of Mr. Nguyen Trai.

In the small rural village of Phu Da, in Thua Thien Hue province in central Vietnam a little schoolroom buzzes with life. The teacher shares his knowledge and skills, guiding his students to give them a fighting chance at life and the foundation to create, think, and learn. Whether it’s math or writing, everyday, rain or shine, the teacher shares his learning with his eager class.

Now why is this unusual, you might well ask?

school vietnam

Well this isn’t a school, it’s Mr. Nguyen Trai’s front room. And these children are from rural areas and remote villages whose families do not have the money or institutional assistance to give their children what the world calls a “proper education”.

Here, in this small central Vietnamese village, near the former capital city of Hue, volunteer teacher, Trai, has spent his life breaking through numerous barriers to give children a chance to learn.

Although these kids cannot afford to attend a formal school, this teacher offers his true gift to his students, his heart. His class is free to all students. The parents of these young minds exchange food like rice and potatoes, for his service.

In a classroom that is 8 meters by 6 meters, which is part of Mr. Trai’s home, he teaches over 25 students. By converting his own living quarters, he provides children with an education and basic skills to which they otherwise would not have access.

But, officially, he is not a “teacher”.

Paralysed and poor, but still wants to give to others

mrtraiHe accomplished this feat despite growing up with disability and becoming paralyzed at 15. Born to a family of farmers in 1961, his parents could not afford basic medical equipment like crutches or a wheelchair, as items such as these were available only to the affluent in Vietnam.

One of his darkest moments was lying in bed thirsty for water, but unable to bear waking his parents for help, so as to not burden them further in an already hard life of never-ending survival.

Forced to contemplate an uncertain future as a young person, Mr. Trai managed to harness enough strength to walk a short distance of 6 feet within a year.

After years of struggling through his ongoing physical challenges, he decided to focus on the power of knowledge and in the late 1990’s started educating the poor children that could not pay to go to the local school district. To keep his class free, he lived on his parents support until in the early 2000s. Then, his father died and his mother suffered a stroke months afterward.

Life became even more harsh. On many days they would survive on only water and spoiled potatoes shared by his students. Regardless of his suffering, Mr. Trai took in a single mother and her 3-year old daughter and sheltered them during the cold winter. Eventually this single mother would become his wife and she would provide a sporadic income of a few dollars per day to support his relentless pursuit to teach.

Given such adversity, they all make do with whatever they have or even don’t have, since poverty is a common backdrop to their lives. It is a prevalent story in many remote areas of the countryside, and throughout the globe. However this teacher brought his spiritual wealth to these children, birthed within his essence to be shared and unleashed.

Overcoming obstacles

Mr. Trai most likely has kyphosis due to scoliosis, which gives him a hunched back, and a cross-legged walk. A medical diagnosis is needed to traiatboardsupport this theory, but a picture is worth a thousand words (see top photo and photo on the right).

Notwithstanding that he has no teaching degrees, and despite the hardships, his passion to help educate kids breaks through the physical and societal walls, which we, as people, unnecessarily place before our minds and ourselves.

Inch by inch, baby step by baby step, Mr. Trai pushed and fought his way out from being bedridden to walking and eventually to teaching, crashing and shattering through many insurmountable barriers. For him, it was not enough just to acquire learning. He wanted to share his learning and transformed his knowledge into action, through teaching.

To be driven in such away is truly a testament to what the human heart can do and what it means to listen to your heart and allow yourself to follow deeper within the soul, diving through the dark chasm of emotional and physical pain.

Questioning the status quo

traiandstudentWhat he has done and achieved raises questions for us all. How do we measure a person’s ability to perform a skill? How do we judge if a potential applicant is qualified for a type of skilled labor? The typical avenue is through conventional or socially accepted methods, like the education an individual has acquired, what school he or she went to and its associated reputation, and what degree(s) that person earned. Basically the world is looking for credentials that follows the standards that would deem a candidate qualified or worthy of performing a certain job or role in society.

Take becoming a teacher, for example. Educators must go through certain training to earn and be certified to teach on the school systems. But what happens if one does not have the necessary means to become a bonifide teacher? And what if the children you see around you will never have the means or support to achieve a formal education? What if you could give those who have an almost guaranteed failure rate, the chance of a bright future. What is a soul to do?

Mr. Trai didn’t stop to think. He just acted from his heart. In this case, should we really require a piece of paper to tell us if one is worthy or capable of performing acts of kindness and giving? When we have expertise or experience in certain facets of life, the act of sharing openly and freely without condition smashes all boundaries of what society thinks as acceptable qualifications. Perhaps his example tells us that we should all give more without worry and without limit to see what the human potential could be.

So I ask again and more importantly, how ‘should’ we really gage a person’s capabilities? How do we determine the limits of the limitless heart? How can we help this teacher and his students? How do we help a human being follow his or her heart? How can we change knowledge into action for the benefit of others?

For me, the first step is writing about this compelling and untold story that needed to be heard loudly through all of our hearts, resonating across the world and through the universe.

What I see and feel, is that I could have been those children, easily and instantly. And the act of unconditional giving by this man inspires me with a sense of abundant hope, to do more unequivocally, and to help more fearlessly.

What do you think?