At 31, the frail woman, whose weight of just 15 kilograms remains unchanged over the years, has now exceeded her life expectancy by one year.

Tam was born with brittle bone disease, or Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), a disorder that results in fragile bones.

People with this condition have bones that fracture easily, often from mild trauma or with no apparent cause.

The average life expectancy for those who suffer OI is a short 30 years.

Against all odds, the tiny yet mighty woman has spent the last 17 years holding tuition-free tutoring classes to many underprivileged children in her neighborhood in Yen Quang Village, snuggled in Y Yen Commune.

She also composes literary works to help take away disadvantaged people’s sorrows and give back love and positive vibes.

The good deeds hold special meaning to Tam herself.

“It doesn’t matter how long I live. What really counts is how profound and impactful my life is,” she shared.

‘A capable, dedicated and honest teacher’

That is how many of her students, mostly in elementary and middle school, come to think of Tam.

Tam’s journey to school was as bumpy as one may expect for a young girl with OI.

Tam was diagnosed with the condition shortly after birth when one of her legs was found twisted on her tummy.

Her parents fought back their tears seeing their little girl continually in plaster casts following repeated episodes of fractures, sometimes just because of slightly awkward postures while sitting.

“The number of my fracture episodes is even higher than my age. I can’t remember them all,” Tam said jokingly.

As she wound up spending the majority of her childhood at hospital, the girl initially missed out on attending school.

She could not make it to school until eight, leaving her two years older than her classmates.

“My paternal father sent me to school so I could learn how to read and write,” Tam recalled her first days at school, where she took her first steps towards a brighter future.

It was then that the girl began to form her dream of becoming a teacher.

However, her education was left incomplete when she had to drop out after finishing the ninth grade as her condition made it difficult to continue on to high school.

Still, the illness and unfinished education did not knock Tam down but built up her resilience and added fuel to her dream of becoming a teacher.

Rather than letting the overwhelming difficulties get in the way, the girl pushed steadily towards her goal of helping children in need.

“Being unable to pursue a proper education isn’t synonymous with having my dreams turn sour,” she stressed.

Passing the torch

Known for her good academic performance and willingness to help her weak classmates catch up during the school years, Tam was already proving she is cut out for teaching.

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tam (sitting in the wheelchair) is conferred with the National Volunteering prize in 2020 for her decades-long philanthropic education activities. Photo: Duong Trieu / Tuoi Tre
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tam (sitting in the wheelchair) is conferred with the National Volunteering prize in 2020 for her decades-long philanthropic education activities. Photo: Duong Trieu / Tuoi Tre

Even after she dropped out, some neighbors began to send their children to her so she could help them with their schoolwork.

Tam put in all her efforts and gradually gained trust among local parents.

More students, aged five to thirteen, come to her complimentary tutoring classes and reading space, called ‘Brittle Bone Ngoc Tam.’

There are days when there are up to 29 to 30 students in her classes at one time.

Seated on a small stool, the tiny teacher is overshadowed by her elementary and middle schoolers clustering in her special classes, which are known for five ‘no’s’: chalk, blackboard, teaching podium, tuition or lesson plans.

She has her hands full switching from teaching math to Vietnamese literature and alphabet writing exercises to the students in different grades.

Tam shared the challenging part was individually following the learning pace of each student.

She tailors her lessons to her students’ different abilities and integration and puts them in the right groups to keep them from getting distracted during each session.

The dedicated teacher also makes sure to combine learning with games and activities so that her young students can have fun learning and stretch out in times they do not have to review intensively for exams.

“The students are especially obedient, maybe because the classes and teacher are a bit unconventional,” Tam said with a smile.

While many of Tam’s students have greatly improved their academic performance, there are some special students whose progress and memories are carved into her heart.

Among them is one student with a mental disability, who was admitted to Tam’s class after his/her mother watched a program featuring her on television.

As the child failed to read even simple words, Tam had to design the alphabet letters in her own way so he/she could recognize and memorize them one by one.

Her efforts bore fruit after one year as the student could finally memorize the alphabet letters.

Tam’s perseverance and determination have helped her through the difficult times as now she is loved and adored by all of her students thanks to her wholeheartedness in helping them.

“Ms. Tam is really a capable, honest teacher. She allows us to have fun in learning,” said Pham Khanh Linh, a third grader who has joined Tam’s classes for the past one year. 

The appreciation is reciprocal.

“The classes keep me in high spirit. I’m happy when the students share with me their good academic results or affairs at their mainstream school,” Tam shared.

If it’s time for me to go    

“I’m still around, alive and kicking at the age of 31,” Tam said, referring to her doctors’ grim expectation that she would not celebrate her 30th birthday.

“I always try to live my life to the fullest. A kind-hearted, optimistic woman, that’s how I want everyone to remember me after I’m gone.”

The frail woman relies on life-sustaining medication to keep her condition from deteriorating.

In recent years, her seriously curved spinal cord and chronic bronchitis have prevented her from lying prostrate for sleep, leaving her dozing off mostly in the upright position. 

There are days when she is seriously ill but does not cancel her tutoring classes.

“I’ll continue my tutoring job for as long as I’m needed,” she stressed.

For her philanthropic education, Tam was among ten young people to be conferred with the National Volunteering prize in 2020.

Tam probably would not be where she is now without the constant support from her 60-year-old mother, Nguyen Thanh Su, who quit her job shortly after childbirth to dedicate all her time to her sickly daughter.

For the past 31 years, Su has never ceased worrying about her daughter, whose life may be cut short at any time.

“I’m hardened to pain and suffering now,” she shared, adding she never dares to hold a birthday party for her daughter for fear that day may come.

“What comes will come. She may be taken away from me some day, but I’m content that she’s happy the way she is,” the elderly woman noted.

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