A nonagenarian teacher has dedicated the last two decades of her retirement to hosting tuition-free foreign language classes and offering free meals to generations of underprivileged students in Vietnam.
One would never guess Tran Thi Be is 90 years old.
With quick wit and strong arms, both her mind and body seem at their peak despite the 25 years she has spent pushing herself to offer tuition-free foreign language classes three times a week to needy local students.
Be’s small house, snuggled in a small alley off Dien Bien Phu Street in Hue City, Thua Thien-Hue Province, is often home to a soundtrack of children speaking English and French every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night.
The smile on each of her students’ faces is the only form of payment she accepts for the classes.
Even at such a senior age, Be still teaches the classes herself, beginning each session by offering the kids candy and soft drinks accompanied by a warm greeting in English.
Be’s background is not too different from most of her students. Her own mother often struggled to put food on the table with her income as a tailor. Her father was too sick to work.
As a young woman, Be remembers nearly giving up her own studies to help shoulder her mother’s financial burden. Her father, however, talked her out of the idea, explaining the key role of a proper education in succeeding in a modern world.
Be eventually began attending classes hosted by the nuns at a church in Hue where she was taught both English and French alongside other school subjects. The love and kindness that the nuns showed Be and her peers are what serve as the inspiration for the tuition-free classes she offers to disadvantaged children.
After graduating from high school, the young woman hosted classes at her home before landing a job as a typist at a local post office in 1970.
She juggled her clerical work for ten years while cooking and selling food at reasonable prices to students who came to Hue from neighboring provinces to attend college.
A second mother
Apart from her children's classes, which provide education to impoverished kids in the neighborhood, Be also hosts sessions for college students who want to hone their skills in English and French.
Opening her first free-of-charge class in 1995, she began with teaching disadvantaged kids in the neighborhood to read, write, and do math before offering French tutoring to the college students who came to her home for meals.
Her classes have been such a success that they now occasionally receive more than 40 students at a time.
Typically starting at 6:00 pm, Be’s classes are meant for students of all ages and competence. Despite the large class sizes, she meticulously tailors her lessons for each student in order to make sure their needs are all met.
“I usually come up with catchy sentences in the form of verses that contain new English words so that the students will have some fun and remember the vocabulary longer, especially when they seem stressed out from studying,” Be shared.
“The kids, several of whom are my former students’ children, are really keen on learning. I really look forward to my classes and seeing my students,” she said. “My days would go incomplete without the sound of the kids chanting English words.”
With her gratis classes spanning nearly one-third of her lifespan, the senior teacher proudly said many of her students have followed in her footsteps to become teachers at reputable schools or doctors at clinics in Quang Tri Province, around 72 kilometers from Hue.
Many of these former students now send their own children to study in Be’s classes and make it a point to pay her a visit on Vietnamese Teachers’ Day -- November 20 -- each year.
Among these thankful students is Ho Thanh Hung, the former director of Chu Se District Hospital in Gia Lai Province, located in the Central Highlands, nearly 500 kilometers from Hue. Hung and his family painstakingly travel the long distance to visit Be, who he calls his second mother, each year.
He shared he feels deep gratitude to Be for the complimentary meals she offered him during his college years in Hue despite her lack of stable income at the time.
“She even gave me a place to stay at her home to spare me costs. She loves me as dearly as her own children,” Hung said, adding he wanted her to move in with his family in Gia Lai in case she needs their care in her old age.
Be rejected his kind offer, however, as she prefers to stay on her own in Hue and continue to run her complimentary classes.
For Be, the appreciation is reciprocal. Teaching the kids has helped her stay sharp in her old age.
“Seeing the kids thrilled to study in my classes cheers me up and keeps me healthy and bouncing,” the seasoned teacher said with a smile glittering in her keen eyes.