Chow Phung was 11 years old, Vietnamese and had been in the US for 2 years. Usually by now she would be speaking fluent English and at the head of her class. This was not her case. The cerebral palsy would not let it. To make matters worse she walked with gait that made her left leg swing to the side stiffly. Her parents loved her dearly but they were working several jobs trying to make a life for themselves in America.
Often when I took my class of fifth graders to various activities within the school there would be two lines going down the hall. One part of the class would be way up the hall and a second line would be lagging behind with the young Vietnamese girl in the slow but deliberate lead: a mile always on her face.
I remarked one day in front of the class when Chow was at her ESL class that the line scenario must be embarrassing for her: having to make the class wait for her. The remark was made in passing but was purposeful.
Now consider another girl in the same class: beautiful blonde hair, cornflower blue eyes and an intellect and work ethic beyond reproach. If that wasn’t enough, Laura had parents who loved and doted on her every need, yet she remained sweet and unaffected.
The day after the remark was made and we were going down the hall, I noticed that once again there were two lines: one way up the hall and a second line going very slowly. This second line was not led, however, by Chow but by Laura who would cut her eyes rearward every so often to make sure her pace coincided with Chow’s stilted pace. That night as I told my wife, who is also a teacher, the story I couldn’t get it out because I broke down and cried even thinking about it: six-foot and 240 pounds of bald-headed sobbing.
The next day there was only one line. One line of fifth graders who proudly but slowly were walking down the hall to accommodate Chow’s pace. It was take you shoes off you’re only holy ground stuff. That’s how we walked all year. From time to time teachers would comment to the class that they must dread where they were going because their pace was so slow. They would all smile and say nothing. Nothing needed to be said.
Through my life I have been fundamentalist Christian, Catholic, Episcopalian and dabbled in Buddhism. That being said, the only thing I know for sure is that closest I have ever felt to God was that day in the hall when a class of eleven year olds decided that the most important thing in life was to get where we’re going, together.
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