THE SHORTEST ROUTE
Xuan ran to school, knowing he was late. The teacher looked up from the small table where she was sitting when she heard the door.
“Xuan!” she exclaimed. “Late again! Why are you never on time? That’s more than ten times now, and I know your house isn’t far. Go and sit down.”
She sounded upset, but she cooled down when she thought about his family’s plight. This was going to be his final year in this elementary class, which would end sometime after Tet. His father had been sent back to reeducation camps six months ago, leaving his mother alone to sell chicken noodle soup for a living. After that final class he would probably have to stay home to help his mother feed his numerous siblings.
The teacher started writing out an arithmetic problem in chalk up on the green board. The pupils scrawled it down in their dark yellow notebooks. One student, who had not finished yet, tried to snatch at the pencil of his classmate next to him as if he needed help to solve the problem. They exchanged whispers, and then pinches as a result of supposedly accidental arm or leg contact under the table.
Xuan bent over his book, busily copying with his taciturn face and lazy eyes, his hair falling on one of his cheeks. He was over 12 years old, and had been a good pupil since the beginning of the school year. But during the last few months he had become absent-minded, sad, and careless about his class work.
Chin, the young teacher, surveyed her little pupils and recalled the various upheavals of the last nine months. A period that had flown by, and which had changed her perception of adults in the capital and had a significant effect on the minds of her innocent pupils. Many were now uneasy, and their once nice and cute behavior had perhaps vanished for ever. One would turn up without pen and ink, clutching a solitary pencil; another forgot his notebook; another had lost his school bag and all the important papers issued by the Socialist Education Office, through the teacher, for his parents to review and sign. When the bell rang at the end of class many hurried out to stand in disorderly lines to get home as fast as they could. They had to help look after their little siblings, cooking, or watching the box of candies set up for sale on the sidewalk so that their mother could go and buy foods at the store. They were more worried about their daily lives than they were with their schooling.
Being a ‘‘puppet’’ teacher who was lucky enough to retain her job, Chin was also tremendously affected by her own family’s poverty and a dark future, so much that she herself could not perform her revolutionary education duty as “adequately” as required. How could her little pupils become the sort of models Uncle Ho demanded? Among them was the son of a ‘‘puppet’’ public employee who had escaped the country alone; others had seen their army officer fathers forcibly sent to reeducation camps, or their mothers sick while their fathers, newly released from these camps, eked out a living by driving rickshaws from dawn to dusk under the constant, strict supervision of the local authorities.
One Sunday morning, while Chin was cycling to a comprehensive review meeting at her Tran Qui Cap intermediate school, she caught a glimpse of two students, a brother of 11 and a sister of 7, standing in rags on the pavement on Phan Dinh Phung street selling cigarettes. The boy held a small plate containing 5 Giai Phong [Liberation] cigarettes and a matchbox that he held up earnestly to the passers-by invitation. On the girl’s plate was a small candle, its flame flickering in the cold morning wind. Chin had known their father, an army captain, and she thought of him carrying them to school on his gray Vespa scooter. The change had been so total and so fast that she couldn’t help feeling lost, unable to comprehend it in full.
The class became increasingly noisy… She looked over the kids with pity. Nothing had happened. They were still docile, obedient, and no one dared to be late. Xuan stood up at the back of the room, raised his hand, and asked to speak. She wanted to tell him to sit down and continue with his work, but it was too late.
“Teacher,” said Xuan politely, “please explain this to me. In the problem, how come an ambush squad of our ‘bo doi’ can totally kill nearly 100 well-armed American and ‘puppet’ soldiers in a convoy of trucks, take all their weapons, then withdraw safely without suffering a single casualty? And how come, in all your problems, only American and ‘puppet’ soldiers die, and there are practically no casualties on our side?”
She ordered him to sit down. “Do your problem, and no more questions. Keep quiet. Time’s up.”
Xuan was still standing when the teacher told the class to hand in their work. She wanted to divert attention from his remarks, much to his disappointment.
Chin recalled an event a few months earlier during the ‘Small Project’ campaign that the school had trumpeted so loudly, in which the children were to collect pieces of discarded paper, used plastic bags, scrap metal and plastic items and hand them in at the Deputy Principal’s office. Dung and Yen, two pupils, had complained that while they were trying to carry a heavy iron pole to the class for a reward, Xuan had followed them with a bag of plastic items and had insulted them for digging in a dirty heap of rusted iron for tiny pieces of metal and glass, and risking cut and infected feet. He had shouted about unexploded ammunition and how they might get fatally wounded, before reminding them about other children who had been victimized on Ly Thai To street. He’d wound up telling them they should stick to a lightweight bag like his own.
Chin stared at her pupils absent-mindedly. They filed by one after another and put their papers on the small table in front of her. Xuan was the last, and before he returned to his seat, Chin bid him come to her side.
“Listen,” she said softly, “I forbid you to ask questions like that. Remember what Dung and Yen told me about you in the “Small Project” campaign? You keep asking me silly questions that cause the class to judge your mind wrongly and, if you carry on like that you’ll get your low grades for bad conduct. Keep your mouth shut, OK? And don’t you have a clock at home?”
“Yes, we do.”
“What time do you normally leave for school? Why are you late so often? You know the class begins at 7:30, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. My mother always gets up early and tells me to leave at 7:00 for school. And I always do.”
“It should take you 15 minutes at most to get to school. How come it takes you half an hour? I know where your home is. If you go straight to school, you can’t be late, not all the time. Do you have to help your mom before leaving for class? Tell me.”
“No, I don’t. I always take my own route, the shortest one, but I don’t understand why I’m always late.”
“Do you take route 16 that passes Lan’s bread shop? Past the district police office at 434 Tran Quy Cap, and then turn towards the school?”
“No, that’s the long way. The shortest way goes round the neighborhood behind my home then crosses the Ban Sen to Tien’s house near the school. I’ve taken it for months now.”
“What? You walk at least two and a half kilometers that way, instead of only one kilometer the straight way I told you about. Next time, you take my short way and you’ll get here on time. Don’t be foolish, OK?”
“I can’t. My route should be the shortest one. I’ll ask my mom to let me leave for school much earlier. I want to keep that shortest route of mine.”
“You’re such a stubborn boy. At the parents’ meeting this month, I’ll tell your mom how you play around and come late to class. Now, go back to your seat. And no more silly questions.”
On December 25, Chin made her usual visit to each of her pupils’ parents at their homes to offer them best wishes for Tet and tell them how their children had worked and behaved during the first semester. One of the radical changes under the revolutionary education!
Xuan was playing with his siblings when she arrived. When he caught sight of her, he ran to tell his mother and take her place selling chicken noodle soup and cigarettes at the end of the neighborhood alley. Chin sipped a cup of flat tea, and looked at Xuan’s mother rather sadly.
“I don’t really know what’s happened over the last five months,” she said, “Xuan’s performance has significantly worsened. Perhaps he’s not eating enough, or he’s worried about something. Have you noticed that?”
“No, I haven’t. Everything seems normal in my family. Our needs have always been the same since the “liberation” day, especially after his father, a former administrative officer, was forced to return to reeducation camps. I keep telling him he has to do his best at school.”
“Well, it’s turning out badly. And he often asks silly questions that are insulting to the state policies and wrong from the revolutionary standpoint. And I can’t seem to stop him coming up with them.”
And she began to list his every statement and deed in class, from his underperformance in the ‘Small Project” campaign to his recent questions about American and ‘puppet’ soldiers being killed without reaction in the arithmetic problems.
“Luckily, I am a ‘puppet’ teacher and I can tolerate anything, but, you know, there are in my class many children of North Vietnamese revolutionaries who are boastful and inquisitive about ‘puppet’ kids. I’m scared of them. They exaggerate, report, and even slander each other. I pity Xuan, because he hates those kids but they hate him too. He could have been reported for many things; that’s why in the recent meeting of the school’s elementary teachers, the principal and his deputy together with the master teacher, all decided to expel him from school. Their excuse was his overall low performances, while in my class, many kids were given high marks for progress…”
The woman was taken aback.
“What can I do? In the past, when his father and I worked, we took care of everything together, his education, paperwork, our family money. But now I’m jobless, his father is in jail, and his grandma has just died… I work hard to feed the kids and I’m exhausted. I keep telling myself his father will return. Everyone around here is in the same boat, and I hope we’ll be right. But it’s so hard to survive under this harsh regime. God knows when his father will be released. Now you’re saying he’s expelled. I’m very worried.”
“One more thing, by the way. Xuan has been late for class for months, and I know it takes only ten minutes for him to get to class. When I asked him, he said he left for school at 7 o’clock. Do you need his help early in the morning?”
“No, not at all.”
“He didn’t go directly from here to school but, as he told me, he took the route behind this house, around Ban Sen and the neighborhood to school. I showed him the straight way, much shorter, and he knew it, but he refused to listen. He said his route was the shortest and he liked it. I don’t understand.”
“He must be a fool. He really must be, taking a route maybe two or times as long. I don’t understand either. How could I have given birth to such a bad boy! And yet he wasn’t so bad before.”
Xuan wanted to learn what was going on between his mother and his teacher. He had asked his sister to look after the chicken noodle soup and cigarette box.
“Xuan, come here,” called his mother when she saw him. “Did you know you have been expelled? What have you done? Do you realize the trouble you’re causing to me and your teacher?”
She paused to calm herself down.
“Tell me,” she continued, “why didn’t you obey her and take the short route to class? Why? You’re such an ill-educated boy. Why did you claim that your route was the shortest? What have you been up to? Tell me.”
He moved next to his mother. “The route that passes the District Police Office,” he started, “is no longer my route. I hate looking at those yellow uniformed policemen. I’d rather walk a bit further… I miss my dad… I love him very much…”
“So that’s it,” gasped Chin.
“That afternoon,” his mother recalled, “about six months ago, it had been raining lightly and he was about to take the broom to school to sweep the yard and clean the class when five policemen stormed into the house and took his father away, even though he had been kept reeducated only a few months before. He held his broom and followed his father to the police station where they shouted at him and hit him with a rifle butt on the chest, and charged him with avoiding reeducation and lying about his past. They handcuffed him, pulled him to a Jeep, and drove off. Xuan cried bitterly and tried to take a ballpoint pen from his shirt and put it in his father’s trouser pocket, but a policeman grabbed it and threw it on the ground. He cried all the way home, still clutching his broom. He nearly choked when he told me the story.”
“Children see with their hearts, not with their minds.” The teacher looked at her, shook her head, and said to herself. “So much hatred in a child so young… Please excuse me, I’m overstaying my welcome. I feel for you, but unfortunately I’m powerless to help you. I have one piece of advice though. Be careful, and look after him. I’m sure the principal will report your case to the district authorities, and they’ll follow it up, as they wouldn’t believe a kid like Xuan could say such reactionary things in class on his own.”
Xuan and his mother saw her off. She patted his hair lovingly and sighed deeply.