My high school Physics teacher, Mr Nghia, left a lasting impression in my life.
I wasn’t good at Maths so my father had to give me extra lessons at home, which usually ended with him getting angry at me. I was pretty upset with his devaluing comments.
I was chosen to be in a class specialised in Maths and Physics from year Ten. For a while, I told myself it must have been a dream or a mistake made by the school.
Mr Nghia was my Physics teacher from year Ten till year Twelve. He gave me self-confidence, by particularly calling me to answer his questions in class, and giving me attentive and encouraging looks. At his house, which was five-minutes walk from school, I proudly realised that I belonged to the elite student group who frequently visited him for help in advanced Physics. My year Eleven’s annual Physics mark was a near perfect ten.
My teacher had given me the gift of self-believing in my “logical-thinking” ability.
Saigon fell into communist hands on 30th of April 1975. I was in year Eight. My father who served in the South Vietnam Armed Forces as a Signals Lieutenant Colonel was sent to “re-education camp” (actually “labour camp”) for ten years. As a seconded non-commissioned officer, Mr Nghia was only “re-educated” for three days.
I was fearful going to school in those years. The class captain was born to political prisoner parents before 1975. There were also students of pre-1975-underground-Communist or Northern-high-ranking-Communist parents. The presence of those students made us all careful of what could be labelled “anti-revolution” behaviour.
There were many dobbers on the “anti-communism” activities in the country then. Around me were capitalists, Chinese Vietnamese and those related to the old regime who were undergoing “assets inventory” (in fact “assets confiscation”) and being transported to “new economic zones” (undeveloped land) in the middle of the night.
Two months before year Twelve ended, during class one day, Mr Nghia told me, “You are building a fence and isolating yourself!”
The world seemed to turn upside down as my teacher, whose compassion for me because we both had military ties with the old regime, was suddenly criticising me in front of the Communists!
Worried that I’d have to do a “self-criticism paper” for my “self-isolating” behaviour, I stood up and defended myself. With shock, I stayed in class at school break. I was told that Mr Nghia stood on the class balcony with tears in his eyes.
My friend told me, “They wanted to savage you!” as the class captain and those “pro-revolution” students talked to the Principal to try to have me expelled for my “impolite” conduct towards Mr Nghia.
I wasn’t expelled, but my moral grade was downgraded. Unlike the previous two years I wasn’t named an excellent student for that year.
The brutal treatment those communist students gave me, and Mr Nghia’s and my distress, could have been avoided if his good-intention advice was given in private.
And so it seems that I could see
The black board, the teacher, friends and me
The grey cloud and the cool wind
Love still hadn’t yet given a hint
Saigon, I didn’t cry the day I left
The memory – me bereft
by Thiago Pompeu.