The Free School – An American Returns to Vietnam to Make a Positive Impact
In Chương Mỹ, outside of Hanoi, Thao stops at the main gate of Vietnamese National Forestry University. She peeks into the guard shack to ask if I’m Patrick, and we drive up the road on her motorbike to a house in a residential neighborhood. I’m here to interview Paul Harding, an American retiree who in 2014 founded a community outreach English language program in Hanoi, forty-five years after he served in the US Army in the Vietnam War. I hope to learn more about his experience, about what led him to return to Vietnam, and about the community impact his program has had.
California kid to Vietnam retiree
Paul arrives at the house soon after I do, returning from his meeting at the university. Dressed in a black t-shirt and long pants, he enters through the front patio with a friendly smile as we meet for the first time. His English program, known as “The Free School,” keeps him very busy, but he kindly agreed to fit in an interview. After brief introductions, I ask Paul to tell me about himself.
“I’m from Los Angeles…My parents moved [us] to Southern California from Wyoming when I think I was eleven or twelve years old. And then I lived all of my formative years in Los Angeles.”
Paul tells me about going to college at the University of California at Berkeley. His education was interrupted in 1968 when he volunteered for the draft. Paul’s voluntary draft enlistment limited his military term of service to two years, but it would give him no control over what he would do or where he would be sent. His family had a long history of serving in the military, yet even they were conflicted about the Vietnam War.
“You know my brother was a draft resister. My father was a World War II hero, he was an Army Ranger assigned to the British Commandos. He fought in North Africa, fought in Italy…My uncle, his younger brother was killed, he was a Marine, signed up got his mother’s permission to go at seventeen. He was killed on Saipan at nineteen years of age. My ancestors were at the Wyoming Valley massacre…So I felt compelled to go and do my duty, even though my own father told me ‘This is a dumb ass war.’ But I was dead set to fulfill my destiny.”
Serving as an Army paratrooper in Vietnam, Paul rose to the rank of corporal. After returning to the US, he went back to civilian life as a student at Berkeley in 1970.
Paul had early misgivings about the war while in Vietnam. He was particularly concerned about the impact on the Vietnamese children. These thoughts stayed with him after he returned to the US.
“Especially being a parent...The thing that haunted me most was the suffering of the children. You know, I mean seeing kids who had just seen their father get his head blown off. I mean so f---ing traumatized…So that stuff, you know and being a father and watching your kids growing up and just seeing and remembering the [things] that those little kids over here went through. And you think about your own kids. How would you feel about them suffering that kind of trauma?”
After finishing college, Paul moved to Alaska, where he worked in the oil fields, then later as an advocate for labor before becoming a political consultant. In 1985, he returned to California so his son could be treated for muscular dystrophy in a gene transfer program at UCLA. Once back in Los Angeles, Paul started a home painting and decorating business, serving high-end California clientele including Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson, and Rage Against the Machine, among others. It was a profitable business with over forty employees. Paul continued to run the company until he retired in 2014.
“So when my kids were all up and grown, and I was done with my business, ready to retire. I just thought, I gotta go back and atone, do something.”
The Free School in Hanoi and Chương Mỹ
Paul moved to Hanoi in December of 2014 and immediately began laying groundwork for his English program, which later became known as “The Free School.” The focus of the classes would be pronunciation and conversation. He found a coffee shop that allowed him to hold class in the corner.
“I just told people in the neighborhood what I was doing…So I had six students the first class, and the next week there was twelve. And then the woman who owned the restaurant said ‘I close at 1:00 PM, so you can teach in the afternoon. You can use my tables and chairs and umbrellas.’ So then we started out with twenty [students], and then it went to twenty-nine, and thirty-five.”
With word of Paul’s English lessons spreading quickly, he needed more space.
“The Communist Party got wind of what we were doing. And they gave us their meeting hall, which had a capacity of eighty-five. So a couple of the television stations came and did a story on us. And then we were just like flooded. We went from having six students to three hundred students in like two months’ time.”
The Free School began recruiting native English speaking volunteers who lived in Hanoi. They also collaborated with SmartLink, a professional English school.
“We came to an agreement with SmartLink…[We had to] collaborate with an existing entity. So they were our licensed agent, we rode on their coattails. And in a very short time we ended up with over eight hundred students. And that collaboration went for three years.”
In 2018, Paul was contacted about doing a class outside of Hanoi in Chương Mỹ.
“The National University of Forestry sent a guy down…they heard about us so they were bringing their kids down to Hanoi to study in the evenings. And then they asked [if we] could come up and do a class.”
The Free School began sending instructors to Chương Mỹ a few times a week to teach classes in the evenings.
As Paul is telling me about the extension program, Thao walks through the kitchen and says she’s leaving to run an errand, driving away on her motorbike. “She was one of the students,” Paul tells me. “She’s since graduated, became an accountant. And we invited her to move up from Hanoi to become our office manager.” In late 2018, The Free School fully transitioned from Hanoi to Chương Mỹ, having identified to a greater need for English language lessons outside of the city.
“So we have maybe fifty or sixty percent of our students at this center who are either the children of faculty or administrative, all the way down to security guards and drivers. That’s the majority of our students at this center, the children or grandchildren of retired or existing faculty from the university, and from the North Vietnam College of Agriculture and Rural Development, that’s a campus that’s very nearby.”
Relocating the program to Chương Mỹ has also enabled The Free School to serve a greater number of disadvantaged students. Paul tells me that Huyen, the other manager at The Free School, was particularly motivated to make sure the program was serving the people who needed it most.
“Huyen is the fourth child of rice farmers from Nghệ An province. Grew up under very, very harsh circumstances, but because she’s very cerebral, she ended up in one of Vietnam’s finest universities.”
After becoming involved with The Free School, Huyen passed up an offer for an entry-level business position, and began working with the English program full-time. She kept pushing Paul to make more classes accessible to disadvantaged people outside of Hanoi, who previously had little access to English lessons.
“We have a standing agreement that anybody who is certifiably economically disadvantaged, they have a government ID card, and they pay no tuition whatsoever. And that was Miss Huyen, you know, having come from poverty. That was her big motivation was to help the disadvantaged. So we’ve always had that. The poor and disabled attend for free.”
For other students, lessons are still very affordable at about fifty American cents per hour. Paul jokes, “It’s such a good deal that we don’t have to advertise.”
Thao soon returns to the house with Huyen, and the three of them show me how they incorporate geography into their classes. “This is one of the maps…Our kids know the continents, the prime meridian line, the equator.” Paul asks Huyen, “Do we have our ‘Amazing Places’ lesson plan?” He goes through some of the world landmarks that they use as subject matter for English lessons. Instructors use images and discussions to teach vocabulary. Their students are particularly skilled in identifying countries, even doing an exercises with upside-down world maps. The three of them tell me about the curriculum with great enthusiasm, they’re clearly motivated to make the most of the students’ class time.
Good intentions lead to a lasting impact
The long-term success that The Free School has had since 2014 is inspiring. Even Paul seems to have been surprised by how well his program has been received. He had initially intended to be in Vietnam for less than two years, but after seeing the positive impact on the community and the clear need for English language education, he currently has no plans to leave. Paul’s daughter even came to Vietnam a to join him. Initially volunteering with The Free School, she eventually transitioned to teaching English professionally at a language center in Hanoi.
Ironically, one thing Paul has not had much time for is his own language education. When I ask about his experience learning Vietnamese, he initially responds in the local language before admitting “Horrible.” Vietnamese is a difficult language, and Paul tells me about some of the challenges of being understood by the locals. The tonal complexities of Vietnamese make mispronunciation very common, which can change the meaning of phrases entirely.
After spending just a short time with Paul and listening to his story, it’s nice to hear how his well-intended initiative has benefitted the many students of The Free School. Yet what I’m most struck by, besides his kindness, his benevolence, and his ability to connect across cultures, is his courage. I can only imagine the courage it must have taken to return to Vietnam alone after forty-five years, and to tell people, “So I’m back. And I’m here to help.”