I Didn’t Even Open My Pencil Case

“I didn’t even open my pencil case,” she said waving it at me a little bit at the end of class. It was an indictment. I can’t really remember what we did in class that day anymore. I just remember her response. Clearly, class time was not used well if she didn’t have to write down something at least once. She was tough. She used to watch me in class, and her eyes seemed to say, “Go on, then.” It was a challenge. She was skeptical that I would meet it. After all, her experiences in school had been very different until she came to America to study. She was from Vietnam.

She was one of a larger number of international students at my school. They are brave students. They come to America, many thousands of miles away from home, live on campus and study in a second language. This girl in particular was one grade above most of the students in my English class. The year before, she had been in our English language learner classes, and her teachers thought she would benefit from a full year in World Literature II rather than going directly into American Studies in Literature, which eleventh graders typically took. She wasn’t very happy about being in my class. Not at first.

It’s funny how a few years on, some of the details are so fuzzy, but I remember she found an assignment particularly challenging, and for some reason or other, she didn’t do as well as she wanted to do on it. I can’t remember why anymore, but I didn’t want her to re-do it or revise it. She was pretty upset. There were a few tears. But after that happened, she started visiting me in my workspace. Sometimes she came to work in the library, which is where my workspace was at the time. Sometimes, though, she wasn’t there to work in the library. She would sit down at the table next to me and work on homework. Sometimes she asked questions. Sometimes she just worked in silence. Sometimes she asked me questions about Americans. She was completely flummoxed by capitalism, and we talked about it quite a bit.

Her favorite book that year was Things Fall Apart. It wasn’t a typical favorite. Most students enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye most of the books we studied. But she was thoughtful, and she saw interesting things in that book that the other students didn’t see. Her classmates will never forget during a Socratic seminar discussion of Ikemefuna’s death, that she connected the issue to a problem she said is a fairly substantial one in her home country—that if you hit a pedestrian with your car, you are responsible for their medical bills, which can stretch to a life-long responsibility. She has heard horror stories of drivers backing up and hitting the pedestrian again to ensure they are dead to avoid the responsibility. However, this story appears to be mainly urban legend, and it’s likely something that she heard from family and friends who wanted her to be watchful and safe when she was out walking in Hanoi. Still, it left an impression on the other students in class, as you might imagine.

Towards the end of the year, we were friends. She had worked very hard in my class, and I recommended that she try to take an AP English class for her senior year. She did take the class, and she excelled. She used to visit me to run her practice SAT essays by me. She had a real gift for attacking those types of prompts. I remember one essay was about following your dreams versus practicality, or a similar subject, and she wrote eloquently about her dream of becoming a chef, even though her family didn’t see it as a practical occupation. I said, “I didn’t know you wanted to be a chef.” I was very surprised to learn of her passion for cooking. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t. I just wrote about it for the essay.” Her ability to bluff her way through those SAT prompts with fake personal examples was unlike anything I’ve seen. She could thoroughly convince a reader of her passion for just about anything.I have to confess, it made me wonder what she really thought about, well, anything.

As she was preparing to graduate, she brought me a gift. “From my country,” she said.

Dana in Traditional Vietnamese HatMy dad was in Vietnam when I was born. He missed about the first six months of my life while he was stationed in Cam Ranh Bay.

She and I might have been unlikely friends, but I think we were friends, despite her ability to bluff her way through SAT prompts (and perhaps a lot of other things). She might not have had to open up her pencil case in my class as often as she thought she should, but eventually, after a little while, I think she opened up her mind and her heart.

We all have students we will never forget for one reason or another. She’s one of mine.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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8 thoughts on “I Didn’t Even Open My Pencil Case”

  1. Throughout our educational journey we have the privilege of meeting unique and special students. Some though have a lasting impact. Something sets them apart. This student demonstrated resilience and adaptability. Living in another country presents great challenges and for one so young, it is quite daunting. Thank you for sharing this young girl’s vignette.

  2. What an interesting student – I can see why she would stand out to you. I teach Things Fall Apart, too, so the fact that she chose that as her favorite says something. I often find that students who can connect or appreciate that text have a more mature worldview. This was a really thought-provoking post, and it has me thinking about those standout students in my own teaching life. Thank you.

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