My Teacher, My FriendIssue/Publication: My Teacher, My Friend
My Teacher, My Friend
America.gov, Commentary, Andrew Lam, Posted: Jul 05, 2009
San Francisco -- The man who stood at the entrance to my new world passed away recently, and though I hadn’t seen him in more than three decades, the news of his demise left me unexpectedly bereft. I remember a warm voice, expressive eyes, and bushy eyebrows that wiggled comically at a pun or a joke. I remember someone who treated me with care, made me feel special when I — a stranger on a new shore — was terribly lost and bewildered.
Ernie Kaeselau was my first teacher in America. Having fled Saigon in spring of 1975 during finals in sixth grade, I landed in San Francisco a couple months later and attended summer school in Colma Junior High in Daly City, preparing myself for seventh grade. Never mind that I didn’t speak English, only Vietnamese and passable French, and that two days after my mother, grandmother, sister and I left in a cargo plane, communist tanks came crashing through the Independence Palace in Saigon, and the war ignominiously ended. Never mind that in between those few months I subsisted in two refugee camps and spent most of my nights in a tent praying for the safety of my father and other relatives and friends who remained behind.
I never knew what Mr. K’s politics were — liberal is my guess— and if I had any then, ours would have surely clashed when it came to the politics of Vietnam. But when it came to me — the first Vietnamese refugee in his classroom — his policy was plenary kindness.
Mr. K’s first question was my name and his second was how to properly pronounce it in Vietnamese. He would ask me to repeat this several times until, to my surprise, he got the complicated intonation almost right. A day or two later, he’d ask again and practice it until it was perfect, and soon thereafter, the Vietnamese refugee boy became the American teacher’s pet. It was my task to go get his lunch, erase the blackboard, and collect and distribute homework assignments. When I missed the bus, which was often, and sometimes deliberately, he’d drive me home, a privilege that was the envy of the other kids.
America was full of rowdy, undisciplined children. In Vietnam, we all dressed in uniforms — blue shorts, white shirt — and bowed to the teachers, but American kids wore colorful clothes, smoked in the bathroom and swore at each other, and sometimes, even at their teachers — something so unheard of in Vietnamese tradition.
At first, I was terrified, fearful of the big, rowdy kids of all races who had gotten into bloody fights in the schoolyard. But Mr. K’s classroom was a haven. Lunchtime and the “good kids” made a beeline for it. Away from the schoolyard bullies, we ate our lunch, played games and did our homework. I remember plenty of laughter, arguments, gossips and, yes, even budding flirtations, and Mr. K reigned over the chaos with ease, sitting behind his desk, reading a newspaper or helping one of us with our assignments.
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. And “hospital,” I would yell back, a little parrot. I listened to his diction. I listened to the way he annunciated certain words 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.
That first summer, he gave me A’s that didn’t count. He took our little group bowling, formed a little team, taught us how to keep score, and bought us soft drinks. Then, he took us on a baseball field trip, my first. He took his time to explain to me the intricacy of the game. It was followed by a trip to Sonoma to see wineries and cheese factories. I remember crossing the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, with Mr. K’s voice narrating its history, how it was built, and I remember asking him afterward, in broken English, if it was made of real gold, and the entire bus erupted in laughter.
Most memorable, however, were the books that came in a carton box. Along with a bowling team, Mr. K formed a little book club. And for a few dollars, we — children of the working class and immigrants — became owners of a handful of books. The box came one morning in the middle of class, and it felt a bit like Christmas in July. We jostled each other to be up front at his desk as Mr. K read the title of each book out loud, then matched the book with the name of its owner. My first book in America was The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, and I remember poring over its pristine pages in wonder. Perhaps it was then that the smell of fresh ink, paper and glue indelibly became for me the smell of yearning and imagination. I did not yet know how to read in English, oh, but how impatient I was to learn!
That summer, I bought my first typewriter from a cantankerous junkman whose inventory was down the street and who my family was fond of calling “Old Angry Junkman.” It cost $1.25 and some keys didn’t work very well and the ribbon had long faded. Nevertheless, I typed out Kenneth Grahame’s famous tale about Mole, who left his underground home and went up for air and ended sailing down the river toward adventures. I read many sentences from The Wind in the Willows out loud as I typed. Precocious, perhaps, but by the time I joined seventh grade in the fall, I was something of a typist and a reader of the English-language novel.
If I pushed myself so hard to move forward I had plenty good reasons: In Vietnam, I was a child of an upper-class family, insulated in a world of villas, lycee, servants, walled gardens and sports club. In America, I was the son of impoverished refugees who subsisted 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. My homeland abruptly evaporated, and my family and clan were torn apart, and my sheltered life was gone. Thrust upon an alien world, I understood intuitively that I had best run far and fast if I were to leave all my losses behind.
Thus, this way my world split into two: Night and I wept myself to sleep, longing for my lost world, for my father, dreaming a recurring dream of a Saigon in smoke and myself abandoned in an old villa as the Vietcong ransacked the city; but daytime — in school, at lunch, in English and art classes — I became a rowdy, giggly boy, chatting up a storm. I remember talking, a lot, and when my vocabulary failed me, resorted to using French words or drawing in my notebook or on the blackboard to convey my ideas and thoughts.
Within a few months, I began to speak English freely, though haltingly, and outgrew Mr. K’s cards. I began to banter and joke with my new friends. I acquired a new personality, a sunny, sharp-tongued kid, and often Mr. Kaesleau would shake his head in wonder at the transformation.
I made friends — Samoans, whites, blacks, Filipinos, Chinese, Mexicans. I wrote valentine cards to giggly girls. I joined the school newspaper, became something of a cartoonist. By my second year in, I was getting straight A’s, no fake A’s needed anymore, thank you. I joined the honors club. Mr. K marveled at the change. I remember his astonished face when I argued against the class clown and won; my tongue was being sharpened even if my sentences remained fragmented. I found my bearings; I embraced my new world. I was becoming, as my mother complained to my father, who escaped Vietnam on a naval ship and joined us a few months later, “an American brat.”
Here’s what some classmates wrote in my eighth-grade yearbook, one that I, since I was on the yearbook staff, helped design.
“Have fun talking your mouth off at Jefferson [high school] and maybe next year I’ll go to the ‘Lam’ dunk contest...”
“To someone who is always talking. Have a nice time at Jefferson...”
“To a kid who was so loud in art [class] and wore funny hats…”
“Hope you never change from the kid I knew from Colma. The little but cool Vietnamese I used to go to school with…”
On its last page, in lower left hand corner, Mr. K in his succinct and modest way left this note:
“To my good Friend. It’s been a pleasure to be your teacher & friend for 2 years. Don’t forget to keep me informed of your progress. Ernie Kaeselau.”
When I graduated from junior high, I came to say goodbye to Mr. Kaesleau and he gave me the cards to take home as mementos, knowing full well that I didn’t need them anymore. That day, a short day, I remember taking a shortcut over a hill and on the way down, I tripped and fell. The cards flew out of my hand to scatter like a flock of playful butterflies on the verdant slope. Though I skinned my knee, I laughed. Then, as I scampered to retrieve the cards, I found myself yelling out ecstatically the name of each image on each one of them — “school,” “cloud,” “bridge,” “house,” “dog,” “car” — as if for the first time.
It was then that I looked up and saw, far in the distance, San Francisco’s downtown, its glittering high rises resembling a fairy-tale castle made of diamonds, with the shimmering sea dotted with sailboats as backdrop.
“City,” I said, “my beautiful city.” And the words rang true; they slipped into my bloodstream and suddenly I was overwhelmed by an intense hunger. I wanted to swallow the beatific landscape before me.
And that was that, as they say. And I sailed on.
For it turned out I didn’t go to Jefferson where many of my closest friends ended up. I went to Serramonte High, an awful, unchallenging school known for its smoking pit and frequent robberies in bathrooms. But thanks to a relative whose address was in a coveted ZIP code, I transferred to Lowell High School — a prestigious public school in San Francisco. Superior to any schools around, Lowell provided high achievement standards and advanced-placement courses. I made new friends and ended up at Berkeley. That is to say, I left the working-class world where Mission Street ended, and worked myself toward where Mission Street began — toward all the shimmering high-rises and the city’s golden promises — and in one of those shiny towers by the waters is where 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, a seasoned journalist and essayist who had traveled the world a few times, I, on one whimsical weekend, decided to write an article about learning English, and Mr. K was featured promptly.
Did I know that Mr. K read and treasured that article? Did I know that he, in retirement, kept coming back to it, to my writing — to me?
No. Not until this note from his best friend, another teacher, informed me of his passing.
“Most of us know what pleasure Ernie got from your article. While he was proud he was also a modest man. … He sent copies to many relatives back East. I’m sure he couched it in pride for what you have accomplished, but 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.”
To be honest, it never occurred to me to see the story from Mr. K’s angle. When I tried to see the classroom from behind his desk as the years streamed by — students after students, generation after generation — I could not see myself standing out. I might have been the first Vietnamese refugee to turn up in his classroom, but I was not the last. My cousins came, so did others, and surely, later on, other needy, traumatized refugee children from other bloody conflicts. I might have been precocious, but how could I have possibly stood out to a man who taught for decade after decade?
I had grieved for Vietnam, for my lost homeland, for many other things. I had traveled around the world many times, even back to my homeland to say my proper goodbyes to my interrupted childhood, but I didn’t go back to where Mission Street ended, to where that little junior high stood at the foot of the mountains amid cemeteries often veiled in the morning fog. Living so nearby, I had felt, unreasonably, that were I to drive down Mission Street and peek through the window of my mentor’s classroom, he would still be there — that Mr. K would always bethere, making other needy kids feel special, and that there would always be little bowling teams and little book clubs in the summer and rowdy speed tournaments at lunchtime. And in dreams and reveries, haven’t I revisited him countless times?
But that’s the trouble with childhood, isn’t it, especially happy ones? Happy children don’t question their contentment any more than fish wonder about the river’s current; they swim on. My childhood, interrupted by war, was rekindled by kindness, and instead of cynicism and bitterness, my curiosity and imagination took hold and kept growing in the New World. And because I felt blessed and happy, I went on blessedly with my business of growing up. Mr. K opened the gate and ushered me in, and I, so hungry for all its possibilities, rushed through it.
“I think your leading off would be very appropriate unless it makes you uncomfortable,” wrote Mr. K’s friend. “Lord knows I heard him talk about you several times. He kept mentioning it near the end.”
The retired teachers sat on their pews to somber organ music. Wizened, gray-haired, they rose, one by one, moving slowly, some in arthritic pains, 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 students. Shared memories echoed inside the gilded columbarium like some ode to beauty itself …
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 yet that his greatest talent is empathy: He intuited how one felt and, like a bodhisattva, performed his magic to assuage grief.
But if there’s a sad statement to the American scholastic experience it is that the passing of a beloved teacher is often not mourned by his or her students, but by, if he or she were any good, mostly peers. Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are remembered, but a good teacher, alas, is rarely received a card by his former students on Teacher’s Day. Drinking coffee and eating finger sandwiches afterward, I kept asking anyone younger than me if he or she had been a student of Mr. K. And the answer was always no.
The refugee boy not only led, as it turned out, he was the only former student of Ernie Kaeselau’s to cry at his memorial.
Suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. … All as a-shake and a-shiver — glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories.
I did not fully appreciate the beauty of Grahame’s words. Yet even then, not sure of what I read and typed, I knew that it had something to do with me — who, like Mole, albeit against my will, also left my insulated world and sailed toward the unknown. I also knew by the end of that first summer that I too, for having set out unflinching, would be awarded with friendship and new ways of seeing things.
A charmed life is one that goes down a river not knowing what’s behind the bend, but confident nevertheless that gracious strangers will be there in one form or another to aid and abet and be a guide through turbulent waters. 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 Mr. K.
And so — the river glimmers and sparkles and I sail on. Because I could not go back, I will send ahead to the further stretch where I will not go, to where the storyteller’s flesh crumbles to dust but his stories, when told from the heart, may live on yet. For this, tendered by enchanted memories, tinged with regrets, is one of requited love.