November 22nd, 2016 at 11:10 am | by admin
Sitting in the physics class, listening to my teacher’s lecture about harmonious oscillation and trying my best to understand what I am hearing, I suddenly look back to the end of my 11th grade and smile at the different person I had become. Six months ago, I was putting all of my effort in getting all the perfect grades I can , especially those of Math, Physics and Chemistry since I was studying in the honored natural science class. Most of the day passed by with me going every calculating riddle I can solve and aim for the advanced ones that just not wouldn’t appear in the textbook.
One day, my mom asked one of the most difficult questions that I have ever encountered: “What job do you want to do?” For months, I tried desperately to find an answer, I went from psychologist since I think I can understand people to a software engineer because I was kind of a technology enthusiast. However, none of the professions kept me motivated for more than one month. The day after the lunar new year holiday, my literature teacher gave every class member a red envelope that supposed to have “lucky money” inside. But instead of real money, all we could see is a tarot card, a kind of card that is said to predict your future. I was puzzled when having read my card: “When the music changes, so should the dancer.” I just didn’t know what kind of change I should be expecting, until the summer before 12th grade.
Back when I was in 5th grade, I spent most part of my day going through my car assembling kit and build small prototypes of cars, trucks, swings and so many more things. Ten years later, even though I didn’t have the time to play around and build cars, I can feel the impulsiveness and the pure joy when I took a flashback. The memory inspire me to choose the major of mechanical engineering. However, there was still some doubts about my decisions since I haven’t gained any mechanical experience besides from dealing with bolts and screws.
I decided to prepare to study abroad since I realized that I would develop more from anywhere besides Vietnam. My dad introduced me to Ms. Ngoc Tran, a women that never did I know would change my life from that very moment. She became my advisor in preparing for the college application process. She gave me tips for the SAT and the ACT. She introduced me to one of her old students so that I can learn how to write and speak better for the TOEFL test. The best of all, during the time at her center Stella and on road trips with her, I had met amazing people and together we had become so attached to each other thanks to one purpose, to experience the advanced education system of United States. Thanks to the homies (the names we called each other), I had learnt so many new interesting knowledges that I would never have known if I hadn’t met them. There was one time when we just sit at Stella for 5 hours a day, 6 days a week just to prepare for the upcoming SAT test, without my friends and Ms. Tran, I would have never accumulate enough knowledge and skills for the SAT test on time. Not only had the homies taught me knowledge but they also had supported me in so many other things. I still remembered the time when I logged into my ACT student account just to stare at the number 27 in disappointment. The group did anything they could to cheer me up and helped me overcome the obstacle. During our road trip to Sapa, we were willing to stay awake until 2 in the morning just to listen to each other’s story, our worries and insecurities, our troubles in life and so many more. The homies gang had taught me one thing that is much more important than any knowledge, that is sympathy and compassion. They had taught me to open my heart to anyone else around me, to listen to other’s stories and to lift their spirit whenever we can. We are not just homies anymore, we are one big family now.
Not only had I made some amazing friends thanks to Ms.Tran, I had become sure about my first decision of becoming a mechanical engineer. Ms.Tran introduced me a project called Dumbot where I can join a group of innovative people to teach secondary and high school students applicable scientific knowledges and instruct them to build their own prototype. During the times at Dumbot, I have accumulated so many technical knowledges, get some hands-on experience that is more valuable than anything I have learnt in school. Just over one month, I had been able to build some of the most interesting thing that I thought I would never had the chance to understand, let along invent. The major factor of engineering is not the powerful products or findings, but it’s the impact on community. At every workshops, I did my best to instruct those young kids; I paid attention to the smallest details of their products, instructing them directly about how to attach the wires or how to weld the contact point of the wires and the rotors together. The big prize at the end of the day is to see the smile on those kids’ faces when their products work properly and know that I have inspired them to be passionate about technology and robots the same way I was inspired.
In just one month, so many changes had come to me. Without that decision to study abroad, I would never know if I am truly passionate about mechanical engineering and become caught up in one big circle of uncertainty about my future. Without that decision, I would have missed the opportunity to join Dumbot, to study things that is much more useful and applicable than the plain theories I study in school, to help those kids and inspire them to pursue technical and scientific achievements. Most important of all, without that decision, I would never have the chance to meet amazing group of friends that had taught me so many things other than pure knowledges. Without those people in my life, without that road trip, I would have forgotten the feeling of family, the feeling when people around me would do anything for me and I would do the same thing for them, the feeling when I become part of something that is bigger than myself.
Angie Tran’s consciousness slips back and forth between the essay and drowsiness; the words glow as her three-year-old Macbook heats up in protest. The teacher is sleepy. She sits at the tiny school desk in the tiny room at the back of a tiny flat, reads the words, then reads them again while the night gets chipped away; the moon reluctant to rest.
This part of the night marks her ninth college essay. With waves of students applying to meet the Early Decision deadline, this teacher slash college counselor refuses to let their essays be sent unread. It’s never because she must read them: it has more to do with what would happen if she didn’t versus if she did. On one hand, you have everything that is good. Angie Tran could choose to sleep, or netflix, or read her favorite Tagore work as little Annabelle braids her hair. On the other, you have everything that is uncertain. The college application game has never been one played on merit or emotions; it is both. You apply to college with your GPA, resumé, and college essays. The admission officers glance at your scores then look into your ethnicity, parents’ background, religious affiliation. If you meet their diversity and academic requirement, checked. If not, boo-hoo. And Angie recognizes this. She accepts this in the back of her mind and it pains her like an unplanned tattoo. She acknowledges that there is a possibility that these essays won’t be given the justice they deserve. And Angie knows, oh she knows, that she would rather be drowned in work than to let these kids lose the smallest of opportunities.
The clock ticks away both seconds and her awakeness. Angie’s mind starts to wander. At one point in her life, she was supposed to be a physician, a pediatrician, a doctor, something medical, grand, cancer-curing like all the dreams she used to have. What happened along the line? Why did she drop everything for nights of grading imperfect grammar and tailoring essays of students who, more or less, write the same thing? As her eyes daze into a certain nothingness, she remembers a moonlit night like this, too. Freer, with someone who actually managed to make her feel swell. When was the last time that she felt like that: a shared sun, like the center of a warm universe. It was early winter, top of the top of the bluff, music from an amphitheatre, and red wine, the good kind. Next to her was this guy. What was his name again? It was definitely something foreign, but beautiful. Her fingers twitch. She wishes to sleep, to slumber away. Back to the time where her rest was not scarce. Away to the place where there was something to be sure of. To love with no doubt. To trust with no regret.
Darkness has always been more thought-provoking than menacing. It looms as a catalyst, not a reactant. And it sweeps in, and my god does it know how to sweep in, and asks everything to be contemplated, taken apart, and chooses or not whether to reassemble. Angie Tran is, at this point, relishing the night. Yet the darkness, a strong catalyst it is, is not made for her. A kind of resting it may be, but never a place of defeat. For her heart is made of liquid sunsets, the type that drowns the night, the classroom, the operating tables, the people. Her students. And each of these drops has been dripped not out of nothingness but the glimmers in her students’ eyes, the times when they look at her with love and gratitude, the conversations made as both their mentor and friend. Angie remembers now, how she entered this line of work as an educator may have been out of chance but she has remained due to something else. Grammatically imperfect these writings maybe, they have gotten so much better. In each of these essays, the dreams of her students laid.
It’s not all that grand. It’s not as though she’s doing this for a kind of recognition. She just does it. Because the moment she finishes, she still feels like a shared sun. Maybe not the center of a universe but definitely an anchor for other universes, these kids of hers. And for that, Angie Tran inhales in content. She shakes off the ticks of the clock, the erosion of darkness and breadcrumbs of doubt; her eyes and hands move on as there are more to read, more to perfect.
As tired as Angie may be, she works on, knowingly.
That the sun is always more forgiving in the morning.
We called our teacher Ms H, although she was old and grumpy. Many men had courted her but no one managed to conquer her heart.
She was strict. Like, really strict. More than often, she gave us a lot of homework to memorise. “Learn the lessons, and avoid making mistakes others have made before you,” she used to say. But of course, we were kids, so we never took her words so seriously. We hated memorisation anyway.
But this is not to say that her class was boring. On the contrary, Ms H’s class was always captivating, because she was a good storyteller. Like, really good. She had amazing stories that just captured our attention till the very end. We were so absorbed in her stories that we often forgot the time. And we always begged her to finish a story before dismissing the class.
Over time, Ms H stories worked through us and we became very engaged whenever her class came around. Of all the lessons I have learned from this experienced and seasoned teacher, a few bear remarkable significance, three of which I will detail below.
It was a fine summer morning when I learned from her how fragile our world actually is and how close it came to the tipping point. I remembered that it was a particularly sunny day, and the wind was breezing through the trees in our schoolyard. Ms H showed us the pictures of Nikita Khrushchev – leader of the USSR – and John F. Kennedy – President of the United States. She then told us about the confrontation in October 1962 between the two superpowers. We learned that the US was determined to prevent USSR ships from transporting more ballistic missiles into Cuba, which resulted in a tense standoff between two fleets in the Caribbean Sea. With a solemn voice, Ms H told us that on October 27, American destroyers forced a Soviet submarine that was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo to surface. The Soviet commander believed that war had started and prepared to fire. Authorization from three other officers was needed. Two were in favour, one was not. Had the submarine fired, a full-scale nuclear war would have broken out and the world would have been utterly destroyed. Because in 1962, the USA and the USSR combined had enough nuclear weapons to blow up the entire planet three times over. Humanity actually came extremely close to extinction. We were obviously scared, but very few of us actually appreciated the lesson. I was one of those few, and it has stuck with me ever since.
I also learned that humanity has a capacity for darkness. One cloudy afternoon, when the semester was drawing to a close, Ms H arrived in the classroom with tears in her eyes. She seemed inconsolably despondent. We asked many times but she refused to tell us why. That was the day we learned about the Holocaust. We learned how the human race turned against each other, how 6.5 million Jews were systematically murdered by their German counterparts. We learned about concentration camps, where Jewish people were lined up, stripped of their belongings and pushed into gas chambers. Everyone was dead within minutes, their lifeless bodies tossed into mass graves or burned. The majority of 6.5 million Jews died unceremonious, undignified and unjust deaths. They were killed and discarded simply because they belonged to the Jewish race. Needless to say, the whole class was terrified. The images of infants being ripped away from their mothers’ warm embrace and transported to incinerators will forever be seared into my brain. Ms H’s story that day was so dark, so daunting, so depressing. As the period drew close to an end, she left us with something along the line of: “Remember, humans have the capacity for darkness. We all do. And sometimes, all it takes to wake up our base instinct is a man with a microphone who tells us it’s okay to be beasts.” It was not until many years later that I learned that Ms H’s mother, who was a Holocaust survivor, passed away that gloomy day.
But above all, I learned that humanity has a capacity for light, too. The last day of the semester, Ms H came in with a stack of photos, both black and white and coloured. She showed us a picture of a lovely-looking elderly woman named Irena Sendler. Ms Sendler smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, saving them from a violent and cruel fate. Any Pole who aided Jews was threatened with death by the German authorities at the time, but Ms Sendler managed to save more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust. Moving on, Ms H showed us the wrinkled face of Adolfo Kaminsky, who used to forge documents to help Jews escape Nazi persecution. By his 19th birthday, he had helped save the lives of thousands of people by making false documents to get them into hiding or out of the country. It was dangerous and he could have been arrested any instant, but Mr Kamisky continued forging passports and saving thousands of children. There was a tiny beam of joy and hope in the eyes of Ms H when she told us about two extremely courageous individuals who risked their lives for others’. She ended the lesson with something I’ll never forget: “Remember, humans have the capacity for darkness, but we have the capacity for light too. Each of you can change the lives of those around you. Each of you can change the world.”
We had graduated from Ms H’s class for a long time, but those three lessons have stayed with me to this day. The world is much more fragile than it seems; humans are capable of terrible deeds; we are also capable of wonderful ones. These lessons, delivered in Ms H’s raspy voice, have shaped my view of the world and become my principles, as I strive to make a difference in this ever-changing, ever-delicate world.
And yes, my teacher was History.