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A Teacher's Reach: A Vietnamese-American Writer Remembers His First Teacher

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This essay is adapted from "My Teacher, My Friend" in my latest collection, "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."

The man who stood at the entrance to my New World was my first English teacher, Ernie Kaeselau. He passed away recently, and though I hadn't seen him in decades, the news of his demise left me unexpectedly bereft.

Having fled Saigon and the Vietnam War in the spring of 1975 during finals in sixth grade, I landed in San Francisco a couple of months later and attended summer school down the peninsula at Colma Junior High in Daly City, preparing for seventh grade.

Never mind that I didn't speak English, only Vietnamese and passable French. I was enrolled in Mr. K's class for the summer and, as it turned out, for the next two years in junior high.

I never knew what Mr. Kaeselau's politics were -- liberal is my guess -- and if I had any then, ours would have surely clashed when it came to Vietnam. But when it came to me, the first Vietnamese refugee in his classroom, his policy was plenary kindness.

His first question was my name and his second was how to properly pronounce it in Vietnamese. A day or two later, Mr. K asked again and practiced it until it was perfect, and soon, the Vietnamese refugee boy became the American teacher's pet. It was my task to get his lunch, erase the blackboard and collect and distribute homework assignments. When I missed the bus -- often, and sometimes deliberately -- he'd drive me home, a privilege that was the envy of the other kids.

American kids: They wore colorful clothes, smoked in the bathroom and swore at each other and, sometimes, even at their teachers. But Mr. K's classroom was a haven. At lunchtime the "good kids" made a beeline for it. Away from the schoolyard bullies, we ate, played games and did our homework. I remember laughter, arguments, even budding flirtations, and Mr. K reigning over the chaos with ease.

For a while, I was his echo. "Sailboat," he would say while holding a card up in front of me with an image of a sailboat on it, and "sailboat" I would repeat after him, copying his inflection and facial gestures. "Hospital," he would say, with another card held up. "Hospital" I would yell back. I listened to his diction. I listened when he read passages from a book. If he could say my Vietnamese name, surely I could bend my tongue to make myself sound more American.

He took our little group bowling, taught us how to keep score and bought us soft drinks. He took us on a field trip to a baseball game, my first. I remember crossing the Golden Gate Bridge with Mr. K narrating its history, how it was built, and I remember that I asked him afterward if it was made of real gold. The entire bus erupted in laughter.

Most memorable, however, were the books that came in a carton. We jostled each other to be up front at his desk as Mr. K. read each title, then matched the book with its new owner. Mine was "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame, and I remember poring over its pristine pages in wonder. I didn't yet know how to read in English, but oh, how impatient I was to learn!

That summer, I bought a typewriter for $1.25 and typed out Grahame's famous tale about Mole, who left his underground home and went up for air and ended up sailing down the river toward adventure. I read many sentences from "The Wind in the Willows" out loud as I worked. By the fall, I was something of a typist and a reader of the English-language novel.

If I pushed myself, I had good reason. In Vietnam, I was a child of an upper-class family. In America, I was the son of impoverished refugees who lived with another refugee family in a ramshackle apartment near the end of Mission Street, where the promises of San Francisco ended and the working-class world of Daly City began. I knew I had best run far and fast if I were to leave all my losses behind.

Within a few months, I began to speak English freely, though haltingly, and outgrew Mr. K's cards. I made friends. I wrote Valentine cards to giggly girls. I joined the school newspaper. I found my bearings. I was becoming, as my mother complained to my father, "an American brat."

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At Mr. K's memorial service, retired teachers sat in the pews as somber organ music played. Wizened, gray-haired, they rose again, one by one, to speak with affection and humor of a man who was known as much for his aesthetic sensibilities and practical jokes and friendship as he was for his devotion to the art of teaching and to his student.

He was a talented organist ... loved driving cross-country ... Spanish architecture and colonial history of California ... this thing where he mimicked people while walking behind them ... created beautiful stained-glass objects ... collected antique silver and botanical prints.

He was especially fond of orchids.

To all this I would say that his greatest talent was empathy: He intuited how one felt and, like a bodhisattva, performed his magic to assuage grief.

But if there's a sad statement about the American scholastic experience, it is that the passing of a beloved teacher is often not mourned by his or her students. Father's Day and Mother's Day are remembered, but a good teacher, alas, rarely receives a card from his former students on National Teacher Day.

Drinking coffee and eating finger sandwiches after the service, I kept asking anyone younger than I whether he or she had been a student of Mr. K's. And the answer was always no.

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The last time I saw him was the day of eighth-grade graduation. Mr. K gave me the old cue cards to take home as mementos; he asked me to keep in touch. But I sailed on.

I went to Lowell High School, then to UC Berkeley and Stanford. I left the working-class world where Mission Street ended and worked my way toward those shiny high-rises at the other end; and it is in one of those buildings by the water that I live now. I didn't bother to look back, didn't bother to keep my mentor and friend abreast of my progress.

Several decades later, I decided to write an article about learning English, and Mr. K was featured prominently. Did I know that Mr. K read and treasured that article? Did I know that, in retirement, he kept coming back to it, to my writing -- to me? No. Not until his best friend, another teacher, sent me this note to inform me of his passing:

Most of us know what pleasure Ernie got from your article.... He was deeply honored. What no one knows is he was a bit unhappy that there was no retirement recognition. He told me many times he didn't want any big deal, but as the years passed, he would speak somewhat wistfully of the lack of acknowledgement. You gave him acknowledgement.

By then I had traveled to distant lands, to war zones, and even back to Vietnam to say a proper goodbye to my interrupted childhood, but I didn't go back to where Mission Street ended. I felt, unreasonably, that Mr. K would always be there, making other needy kids feel special. And in dreams and reveries, hadn't I revisited him countless times?

But that's the trouble, isn't it? Happy children don't question their contentment any more than fish wonder about the river's current; they sail on. My childhood, interrupted by war, was rekindled by kindness. And because I felt blessed and happy, I went on blessedly with the business of growing up.

A charmed life is one that goes downriver, not knowing what's beyond the bend but confident nevertheless that gracious strangers will be there. Charmed was how I felt when I first came here, and more than three decades later, charmed is how I feel today -- and much of that, I will acknowledge, has to do with Ernie Kaeselau. Mr. K opened America's gate and ushered me in, and I, so hungry for all its possibilities, rushed through it.


Andrew Lam is an editor of New America Media and the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."(2010) and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," which won a Pen Beyond Margins Award in 2005. His next book, a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013.