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.
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Andrew Lam is the co-founder of New America Media. This essay is adapted from "My Teacher, My Friend" in his latest collection, "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."