All you need is a good teacher

My mum took me to an English center twice every week. My mum took me on the back of her scooter, going to school despite the weather. I really appreciated all her efforts. And I tried and I tried but I just couldn’t get it. By the end of the whole year, I still couldn’t use the basic simple past tense properly.

One day, mum thought of an English teacher she had a long time ago. We went to his old place which was not too far from our house. His neighbors told us he moved and gave us a new address. It took my mum a second to look at the address before she decided “Oh well, we’ll go where we need to.”

After a long ride, we got to his new house. Mum knocked on the door asking for Teacher Tuyen. He came out, recognized my mum almost immediately. I was nine, and he said he only taught adults, but he invited us in still. We had tea. While reminiscing about the old days, she managed to convince him to give me a shot with his classes. The whole ride home mum was wondering if putting me in a class full of adults was a good idea. She kept telling me if I didn’t feel comfortable, let her knew.

I was nine. I didn’t realize why mum worried about me being in his class. Then after the first class with Teacher Tuyen, I knew. He was tough. He was one of those old school teacher that was strict, precise and pushed you hard. He was the type that let you know clearly that if you wanted to be better then you should push yourself, else you could just leave. He hardly ever gave compliments, but when he did, you knew that you fully deserved it.

The first day of class, I came up to the classroom on the third floor. It was a small room with long tables arranged into a U shape around a big white board. It was impossible to get in the middle of the tables, if you were late, you sat on the furthest side and everyone would know when you came in. As the new kid, I sat on the table corner nearest to the door. Teacher Tuyen came into class, sitting in his big chair in the middle of the U-shaped tables, next to his ashtray. He smoked while speaking English. His voice, for a much older man, was loud, clear, authoritative and just perfect English. He called me to answer a question. I happened to use the right sentence format and tense. He nodded his head “Good.” Later, he called me again to answer another question. Not knowing any real basis of the English grammar, I didn’t know why my previous answer was correct. But I knew it was correct. So for this second time, I copied the way I formed my answer the first time and it turned out so wrong. I remembered Teacher Tuyen basically ripped me apart on the lack of basic knowledge. He stopped the class on the topic we were talking about, to launch a full on session about the most basic grammar tenses. And maybe, for the first time, after years of studying English, I was taught about grammar the right way. He taught grammar as if he was teaching maths: concise, formulative and applicable. Every sentence was broken down into a simple basic formula. All you need to do to get it right was to apply words into the bone formula structure. Voila! You had proper English. It was mind-opening. It has now been close to twenty years with ten years living in an English speaking country, and I still remembered exactly that first moment when I started getting the idea of the English language.

I was Teacher Tuyen’s student for another 4 years. He was still tough, still being extremely strict, still yelling at students sometimes. But me, I rose to be his favourite student. Knowing him since I was nine, I spent a big part of my teenage years being his students. He taught me things in the classroom and lessons during our casual talks while drinking tea.

I moved to the US. But every time I came back home to visit, I always made sure to visit him with mum. Then one year, I didn’t come home and he moved. I heard he moved in with his son’s family so they could take care of him better. I lost his email address. Then I slowly lost contacts with him completely. When I met him, he was already in his 60s. And it has been close to twenty years from then. But I really hope and wish that he was still living happily with his family somewhere: lively, knowledgeable, healthy and energetic as he used to be.

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