By Thu Vân
As disappointing stories go, this is a big one.
A recent lament by a 12th grade student seriously burned in a chemistry lab accident at the Phan Đình Phùng High School in Hà Nội has revealed the ugly underbelly of cynicism and cruelty that seems to have permeated our society.
I am not saying this to be sensational.
Consider the facts, which showcase, yet again, the irresponsibility, ignorance and even immorality of some of our teachers and school leaders. We need to be worried because we look up to teachers and educators to set outstanding examples for our children.
On January 1, as some 12th graders were cleaning the lab after a chemistry practice session, somehow, there was an explosion. Unfortunately, the explosion seriously injured a girl, Diệp Anh. She suffered third-degree burns along her neck and body.
Incredibly, the school stayed silent and hushed up the accident. A meeting was reportedly held on the incident, but nobody had to take any responsibility; neither the teacher responsible for the class nor the student or students who caused the accident.
A month later, when Diệp Anh expressed her disappointment with the heartless actions of her teachers, her peers and her peers’ parents on a Facebook page, the school leaders contacted her and asked her to take the post down because it could “harm the school’s reputation”.
The parents of the students believed to have caused the explosion visited Diệp Anh, only to give her some money and tell her to “downplay the incident.” Diệp Anh said one parent also blamed her for “not being careful, while her son was just being young and naughty!”
I wish I could say this is shocking, as if something like this has never happened until now.
Remember that we’ve been here before, though, when a car hit a student in the yard of a school in the capital city’s Cầu Giấy District, breaking his leg. The school leaders had allegedly lied and tried to escape taking responsibility.
In the latest case, no action would have been taken if the public outrage triggered by Diệp Anh’s post had not prompted no less a person than the Chairman of the Hà Nội’s People’s Committee to intervene.
It was only after he asked the school to strictly handle the case that its leaders decided to impose certain punishments on the school staff responsible and four students who caused the explosion.
It gets worse
Unfortunately, the story does not end there.
To repeat, we cannot escape the fact that if Diệp Anh had not been so angry and upset that she wrote the Facebook post, the incident would never have come to light, no one would have been punished and no one held responsible.
Venting my own outrage, I have to ask: Don’t we expect our schools to teach our kids to be honest, to take responsibility and to treat people with kindness? How can teachers do this if they themselves don’t do any of these things?
It’s tiring to use the word “shocking” again, but something more shocking about the incident cannot be ignored: how Diệp Anh was treated by many of her friends and peers on social networks. While there were people who commiserated with her and shared her pain, sadness and disappointment, others chose to cast the proverbial stone.
On the Facebook page of the school’s students, called Pdp Confessions, where Diệp Anh posted her grievances, one user said: “I understand your situation. But do you have to be so noisy and loud? It has badly damaged our school and our teachers’ reputation. Is it so serious? It’s just third-degree burns!”
Oh my god, “only third-degree burns?” I had to look this up. A third-degree burn is a severe burn characterised by destruction of the skin through the depth of the dermis and possibly into underlying tissues. Excluding fourth-degree burns, third-degree burns are the most severe. They cause the most damage, extending through every layer of skin.
Then there was this response: “Oh, the injuries are so serious and you can still type? Did you type with your nose and your feet? If in the coming months, you can still take the entrance exam to the university, you’ll know that you have destroyed the future of another person!”
“Another person,” meaning the boy who caused the explosion.
Yet another student said she saw Diệp Anh the other day at school, and that she looked quite okay. So what was the fuss all about?
There were other posts judging and attacking Diệp Anh for blowing the case out of proportion and hurting the school’s reputation.
I have no words to say what I feel at this point.
I can’t believe that Diệp Anh, already the victim of an accident that burned her badly, is now being burned by public opinion, especially of her peers. Even if she had escaped unscathed from the first burning, physically and emotionally, what kind of psychological impact would this verbal abuse have on her?
She had been wonderful in handling her injuries with wonderful optimism, saying she would still wear the dress she’s saved for her graduation day, sporting a “beautiful scar.” But I wonder, can she handle this cruelty? This illogical, heartless treatment by so many people?
The potential silver lining in this dark cloud is that Diệp Anh seems to be a strong girl.
She said on her Facebook page that she understood why some students, who she’d never met or who never came to see her after the accident, could come out with such judgments. She said she understood that these students might say so for the love they have for the school and their teachers, but, she added, they were not her friends.
All of us who feel we have a stake in our society and our country, need to reflect on this incident and ask ourselves what kind of society we want to create, what kind of people we want to become.
The most attractive feature of our country, many foreigners have told me, is how friendly and hospitable we are. We can’t afford to lose this “hidden charm.” This is not an official problem. No law, no code of conduct can make us a better people at heart.
In a beautiful prayer for his country, Indian poet Tagore wrote:
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit…
To paraphrase him, I hope the clear stream of our compassion and kindness does not lose its way into the dreary desert sand of dead, cold cynicism and heartlessness. – VNS