AS I prepare for Christmas this year, my mind goes back to one of the nicest gifts I have ever received. The gift came not in December, but in July, from an eight-year-old Vietnamese girl named Trinh. Trinh was among the children who greeted me the day I arrived to teach English to Vietnamese ''boat people'' in Songkhla Refugee Camp in Thailand.
The children were beautifully tanned by the equatorial sun that reflected off the sand and water on the barren strip of beach. The rusting barbed wire fence encircling the 6,000 people in the camp seemed unnecessary. It was too hot to move.
I was half a world away from my Washington law practice. My husband and I had decided to join a group of volunteers from our church, Church of the Saviour, to work in the camp. We had good jobs, strong health, and a lovely home. But we also had a need to give to these people who had nothing. A short leave of absence from our law firms provided a wonderful opportunity to share our time and talents.
The children followed me as I moved between my adult English classes, and they sat near my feet as I taught. During a break one day, six of the young girls and I stopped at a ''restaurant'' - a table and two benches made of wooden planks from rotting refugee boats. I bought two soft drinks and divided them into several small glasses filled with crushed ice. After some coaxing the girls shyly accepted my gift. I felt happy to be able to give what for them was such a special treat - their first soda.
I was surprised by how normal our snack seemed. My young friends had just come through harrowing experiences on the sea where many of their boats were attacked by pirates. Most of them had lost their only possessions. They were waiting in this crowded, mosquito-infested refugee camp to learn whether they would be lucky enough to emigrate to a Western country. Yet for a moment we laughed and sipped our sodas as if were were dining in a fancy American hotel.
Trinh sat next to me. Her dark brown hair was held up in a pony tail. She wore a ruffled dress, the kind American girls wear to church. She stood out from her friends who wore traditional Vietnamese slacks and loose blouses that their mothers made by altering the secondhand clothing donated by our church and other groups. Trinh's mother was still in Vietnam.
By early evening, I was exhausted and hoarse from a long day. I met the other volunteers at the yellow Toyota pickup truck, and we drove to the house my church rented. After spicy dinners prepared by our Thai cook, we took turns washing ourselves with a hose in the backyard. With so little time to eat and freshen up, we raced to the truck for the return ride to the camp. Although the sun set during our ride, the heat lingered. In a few minutes, most of the effects of my ''shower'' were gone. The dust from the dirt roads billowed over the back of the truck and enveloped us.
As the truck pulled away from the house, I realized I had forgotten the rubber band for my hair. When we reached the camp 10 minutes later, my long blond hair was plastered to the back of my perspiring neck.
Trinh and her friends were waiting at the gate. I touched each one of them on the hand or head and we moved slowly toward my classroom.
My 50 adult students were quietly sitting on the wooden floor of the open-air barracks. There was a roof but no sides to the classroom. There were no windows or screens, no desks or chairs. Only a few students had paperback books. Many had no pencils or paper. Some wrote on discarded gum wrappers. Perhaps another 50 students crowded around the outside of the room hoping to catch some of the lesson.
I stood beneath a bare hanging light bulb that attracted tiny flying insects and wrote on the ''chalkboard'' at the front of the class - a plywood board covered with black paint.
The children stopped talking as soon as we entered the room. They had been shooed away from some of my adult classes.
The class was really ''survival'' English. We were learning American foods. I wrote ''meat'' on the board and my Vietnamese co-teacher wrote the translation, ''thit.'' I said ''meat'' loud enough for 100 people to hear me. ''Mee-eet,'' came the reply. I was hearing two syllables, the first high, the second low. ''Again,'' I prompted. The response was drowned by the camp P.A. system making another of the seemingly endless announcements.
I felt so miserable that it was difficult to concentrate on my teaching. The contortions I had to go through to keep my hair out of my face and neck were exhausting. If only I had remembered my rubber band. Everyone sensed my awkwardness as I held my hair, wrote, swatted, and talked.
As I continued to teach, Trinh pulled the rubber band out of her own hair and hid it inside her closed hand. She crouched and glanced cautiously back over her shoulder. A woman behind her frowned and shook her head. Trinh looked back up at me. She started to stand up and hesitated. Then in one quick movement she handed me her rubber band and sat cross-legged again, head bowed.
''Cam on (thank you), Trinh,'' I whispered. I put the chalk on the floor. All eyes were fixed on me. I pulled back my hair and put it into the rubber band. I stood still for a moment and savored my new freedom.
There were smiles and nods of approval all around the room. No one suggested the children leave that night. I squeezed Trinh's arm as I bent down to pick up the chalk. Her long hair would be hot on her neck, but she had a shy smile on her face.
I had gone to the refugee camp because I had so much to give. But Trinh taught me I was also there to receive. She gave me all she had. It was exactly what I needed.