I met my old student in the grocery store the other day. There he was, turning his cart up one aisle as I came out of another. I hesitated a moment before calling out "Phong!" He turned and smiled. I'm sure generations of teachers know the sensation, happening upon a former student during one of life's routines, feeling both awkward and delighted to find yourselves on equal footing. But this was a little different.
Phong was my first student, for years my only student, and my first try at volunteering. I met him two weeks after he and his family stepped off a plane in Syracuse, N.Y., penniless, friendless, knowing almost no English.
That I would see him nearly six years later in a suburban grocery store meant he had made it, by at least one measure of success. I know he succeeded on his own guts and determination. But I like to think I played a small role, the most rewarding role of my life.
I joined Literacy Volunteers of America for the same reasons I suppose others have. I wanted to help. But I was looking for something more, too. I signed up for the English as a Second Language program, knowing it matched tutors with non-English speakers, often refugees. I sought a glimpse into another world, an adventure.
I was not disappointed.
After the 20 hours of tutor training, I left work one night and drove to an inner-city library branch and introduced myself to Phong Vu. He was 10 years older than I, poor and proud, a husband and a father of two. He spoke Vietnamese and some French but very little English. He desperately needed English skills to get a job.
I was in my 30s, single, a newspaper reporter who had only read of wars and refugees, whose life had advanced in familiar episodes of childhood, college, and career.
Phong knew a life both exotic and terrible, experiences he sometimes described with breathtaking succinctness, owing to his limited English. By my age, he had fought and lost a war, endured six years of prison camp, lost his home and almost everything he had ever known. Now he was starting over with nothing. I imagine few teachers ever knew a more dedicated student.
Wednesday nights at 7:30, summers and winters, I met Phong Vu at the library, always, always arriving with him already there. Across a table, we shared our worlds in halting sentences, with pictures and dictionaries and sometimes charade-like pantomime.
From survival skills - reading maps, counting money - we moved on to asking questions, approaching people for information, filling out job applications. Pictures proved a great communicator, and I clipped them like coupons from newspapers and magazines.
"This is a hot dog. Your children already know this."
Over time, I became teacher, friend, and guide, a student of Vietnamese culture. My student called me teacher, but I was the one being educated.
I learned I probably could not do what my student and thousands like him have done, summon the determination to start again, to rise from total defeat. I had read that a refugee is someone who has lost everything, but I did not fully grasp that concept. I thought only of material possessions. I did not picture being severed from a world, from a family, from a way of life.
I once pressed Phong to tell me what he missed most about Vietnam. He hesitated, struggling to answer. Finally, he wrote out a sentence and passed me the paper.
"I miss everything and everyone," it said.
Of course, I thought, stung by my naivete. Of course.
In tutor training, were were encouraged to ask our students to write short essays. I used essay questions to explore his world, to quench my curiosity. Write a letter home to a friend. Describe strange American customs.
"Children don't always live with their parents," he wrote. "You need a license to fish."
Describe your first week in America. What do you remember most?
After six days, the food ran out in their apartment and no one arrived with more. So Phong walked through an icy December morning to the neighborhood supermarket and stood outside the door.
The first Asian face he approached could not understand him. "Korean," he explained to me. The second, a Vietnamese man, took him inside and showed him how to buy food and then paid for it.
When I picture that first shopping trip, the total helplessness, I ask myself, could I do that?
IT would be wrong to say my student's story is a sad one. As a soldier who fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War, he and his family would always face persecution in a communist Vietnam. He escaped a twisted world for another chance. He brought out a wife and two young daughters he loves dearly.
In Syracuse, he found a job and then a better one. Mi Han and Ahn Tu, his children, surged ahead. One night, Phong brought their report cards to the library and showed me, beaming. Straight A's.
Last May, he and his wife, Kim, rented a car and drove to Buffalo to take their citizenship tests. Phong called me on a pay phone. He had never sounded so excited. He passed. They both did.