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A teacher's reach

The teacher who nurtured a young Vietnamese immigrant with empathy and kindness opened the way to a new culture, new possibilities, a new life.

October 17, 2010|By Andrew Lam

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.

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