It can take years to teach the alphabet to her students with intellectual disabilities, but 78-year-old Nguyen Thi Coi has been taking the trouble for 26 years.
“Here comes the teacher,” yells a 1.8-meter tall student, running into his classroom at the Tan Mai Community Center No. 2 in Hanoi’s Hoang Mai District. The teacher’s routine never changes.
Coi began to teach homeless children for free in 1994, when she was principal of the Hoang Van Thu Primary School in Hoang Mai District. In 1998, when she retired, she decided to open a free class for children with autism and intellectual disabilities.
Most of the 23 students in Coi’s class, from 8-30 years old, are intellectually disabled. Some have spent five years in primary schools, but still cannot write. Some have been with Coi for 15 years and are still learning the alphabet. Some can read and write, and are trying to learn to add and subtract.
The walls of the classroom are filled with posters of the Vietnamese alphabet and syllables. Coi divides her blackboard into three parts: the left column is for letters of the alphabet, the right one for Vietnamese rhymes and a small corner is reserved for questions from her students, which will be answered later.
Seeing a student who has not taken his books out, Coi comes to his seat and reminds him.
Nguyen, looking far younger than her 25 years, has been a member of Coi’s class for more than a decade. Often skipping the class to go to the hospital, Nguyen is still trying hard to learn the alphabet. Her biggest improvement to date is that she can hold a pencil to write.
Coi asks her “advanced” students to come to her table one by one and spell words out loud. This is time-consuming, but it helps students to remember, she said.
Coi teaches Khanh Linh, 14. A frequent recipient of her teacher’s praise, Linh keeps saying that she will become a teacher to help Coi in the future.
Coi sews a book for her students. Many active students ruin their books and lose their rulers and pencils. The teacher uses her own money to buy them school stationery, clothes and sometimes, even helps with hospital fees.
A first-aid box on Coi’s table has flu medicines, medicated oil and hand sanitizers, “in case the students or I get sick.”
“Going to the class makes me happy. I love my teacher,” says Tung, 25.
After class ends at 11 a.m. students rush to the yard and wait for their relatives to pick them up. Till the last student leaves, Coi remains at the community center, keeping an eye on them and telling them to behave. She has no thought of retiring from the onerous task she has taken up.