My teacher Thien

*Though this was written over a year ago, I wasn’t ready to post it until now…

Life and death in high school.*


Her name was Thien Ngo.  She died right in front of me and I dishonored her.

I first met Thien in junior high.  She was a shy, polite and studious Vietnamese girl.  She also seemed to respond to me.  I didn’t know her well, but she’d welcome me with a smile and a “hello” whenever she saw me.  That lasted for about two years.

It’s worth mentioning  I went to Garvey Junior High instead of Jefferson (before it became Gabrielino High School).  Though Jefferson was two blocks away from my home, Garvey was over two miles away and I was somehow  in its district.  My friends got to go to Jefferson (often using fake addresses) while I was forced to Garvey and make new friends (if I sound somewhat bitter about this still, it’s because I am.  It was my first taste of Jerrymandering and I didn’t like it).  Thien was one of those new friends.

Most of the students who graduated Garvey went on to Alhambra High School.  I went to San Gabriel.  Unbeknownst to me, Thien did also and come the first week of school, I was pleasantly surprised to find that out.  I saw her on campus.  We chatted briefly and exchanged “hellos” and eventually we even shared a class.  If memory serves, it was junior year and it was Mr. Cook’s history class.  His class was one of my favorites.

One day, I believe it was the middle of Fall, without a word of warning and in the middle of instruction, Thien collapsed in class.  She went limp in her chair and may have even fallen out of it.  I don’t remember that detail.  What I do remember is what my teacher, Mr. Cook, did.  Mr. Cook was a robust and strong man who wasn’t often silent.  In this case, he didn’t say a word.  Instead, he walked to her desk, picked a limp and frail child up into his arms, cradled her in front of him and walked right out the door.  He didn’t hesitate.  He didn’t ask questions.  He didn’t try to revive her.  He simply picked her up and went for help.  Should I ever be in the same position, and I hope not to be, I hope I do what Mr. Cook did.   To this day, his handling of it made an impression I haven’t forgotten and when I replay it in my mind’s eye, it’s enough to make me cry.  I can still see him walking with purpose down the wheelchair ramp that ran the length of the building (there were no steps) towards the offices and the nurse’s station to get help.  He vanished and so did Thien.

Days later, I received a phone call.  It was a member of Thien’s family , either her sister or a cousin.  I don’t remember which.  She called to say that Thien had died and that she found my number in her phonebook and wanted to call to share the unfortunate news of her passing.   I was so busy thinking about me (I was about 16 at the time), I didn’t know what to say.  When she invited me to the funeral, I panicked.  I couldn’t picture myself there without support on such a somber occasion.  I thought I might be called upon to say something I wouldn’t be equipped to say.  Instead, I was simply being called upon to care.

I wish I could say I bit the bullet and went, but if I did I probably wouldn’t be writing this.  Its not the heroism of Mr. Cook that compels me to write rather its my own cowardice.  I’ve been told I won’t regret the past, but in this case (and a in few others) I still do.

When I got to Mr Cook’s house to confess the news, I didn’t know how to break it (somehow, while I wasn’t old enough to know that going to a funeral was the appropriate thing to do, I did know sharing this kind of news was best done in person).  He broke it for me.  He had already heard.  I was invited to join him and his wife (coincidentally, she was my 6th grade teacher while I lived in Altadena) on their patio.  He was sitting and drinking Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks.  It was the first time I ever saw a teacher of mine drink.  I didn’t know they did that.   We talked briefly and he was a comfort, although I can’t remember a word of what he said other than he wasn’t sure if he were going to the funeral either.  Once he said that, I decided it was ok not to go.  Mind you, this wasn’t his advice.  It was only my way of thinking.

If any good came from Thien’s passing, it was a lesson I learned.  An article I read recently reminded me of this.  In your absence, Thien, this is what you, a frail, quiet and studious Vietnamese girl taught me without ever saying a word….always go to funerals.


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