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Fare you well my teacher!

I admit I have not cried openly for a long time. Even though I don’t subscribe to the general belief that men have to be tough and stoic, I just do not let my emotions swing to the extremes. I was sad but did not cry at my grandma’s funeral, not because she was not close to me, for she was, but because I just did not feel like crying.

However, for some inexplicable reasons, when I heard news of my teacher’s passing, I started thinking back to a time in the past when I first arrived in Lake City at the age of twelve as a refugee from Vietnam. Then, before I knew it, tears were flowing freely from my eyes even though I tried hard to hold them back. My wife was rather surprised to look over and see tears streaming from her husband’s eyes.

When my wife asked in her concerned voice if I was alright, I could not tell her right away the reason for my strange behavior. I have always had a problem talking when overwhelmed with emotions. How does one talk with tears streaming down their eyes and their noses stuffy? Where does one start to tell a story of an ambitious but scrawny twelve-years-old refugee starting Junior High in a foreign land with no friends and knowledge of only a handful of English words. How does one describe the feeling of relief one felt when one met a few familiar faces among what seemed like a sea of strange people on those first days of Junior High.

Eventually, I managed to tell my wife about the passing of someone who was simultaneously an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher, a close adult friend, and most importantly a motherly figure for me during those difficult six years in a school that served as both Junior and Senior High for kids in a Minnesotan town of five thousand people. Those years were difficult to me for many reasons. It was the first time I attended Junior High in a foreign land with strangers speaking a language I only started to learn a few months back in the Philippines Refuge Processing Center. To top that, I was about to go through my teen years with only my Dad and my adult uncle around, for my mother and the rest of my siblings were still stuck in Vietnam and could not come over to join us until the summer of 1992.

That fateful first day of school I arrived about an hour or so early, just like the many days thereafter in my Junior High years, with my stomach all tied up in knots. I don’t recall who greeted me at the school, but they quickly took me to Mrs. Chant’s classroom and introduced me to a beaming, motherly-looking woman who would play an important role in those struggling first few years of my life in the United States. Mrs. Chant was simultaneously my ESL teacher, a central liaison between the school and my family, a personal counsel of many things relating to my academic as well as personal life, and most importantly a dear friend who was also a motherly figure to me in those tumultuous few years. Mrs. Chant’s class was not only a homeroom to a handful of students, it also served as a smaller community center to the few Vietnamese students attending Lincoln Jr/Sr High. The room was always open earlier than other classes so the Vietnamese students can have a place to hang out before school start and store the personal belongings we could not fit in our school lockers. It was always cozy, nice-smelling, and overall welcoming even in the darkest, coldest, and dreariest of Minnesotan winter school days to us. It was a familiar place much like our third home away from our second home, which was only second because in our deepest of hearts we still clung to some place in Vietnam where we fled from. And, of course, our third-home-away-from-our-second-home was always staffed by our dear Mrs. Chant, who was always so ready to smile to our barely comprehensible strange jokes, told with our thick, Vietnamese-accented tongues, ready to dole out lessons in English as well as in life, and so ready to comfort us when we get bad grades.

Even now, many years after my High School days, it is hard to imagine that classroom without Mrs. Chant’s presence. For that matter, it is hard to imagine a world without Mrs. Chant’s presence, perhaps because we do not want to imagine such a reality. Most importantly, it is impossible to imagine our hearts without Mrs. Chant’s presence, perhaps because she will always reside in our minds and hearts. One day as a teacher, forever remembered like a parent, as we Vietnamese commonly believe. Fare you well Mrs. Chant! Fare you well my dear teacher, keeper of precious memories, and mother of lonely Vietnamese students. May God open his hands to embrace you into his heart, as you once opened your hands to welcome us into yours!

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash