I have been teaching a long time – 20 years in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), and five years elsewhere. I have had, by conservative estimate, more than 1200 students since I started. The ones I remember the best are those who distinguished themselves in some way – often by being star students. But sometimes by getting in trouble, occasionally serious trouble.
So, I remember Lam Vo in part because he was a study in contrasts even in the 10th grade, which is when I met him. I didn’t fully realize this until the last day of school in June 2007, when his mother came to see me.
He had been my student in the OUSD Independent Study Program, where I worked with my students individually and in small groups. Up until then, he had been an almost model student – prompt, prepared and polite, without fail.
I was always particularly interested in students with artistic bents. Lam was an artist, as well as a weightlifter. But I didn’t know him beyond the classroom. I was puzzled when he missed the last two weeks of school that year.
Towards the end of the very last week, his mother came to see me unexpectedly. No one on our staff knew Vietnamese, and she spoke virtually no English. All she could really say was “Lam jail, Lam jail.” I surmised that he was in Juvenile Hall.
About a week after school ended, I received an email – written as is – from Lam:
I’am sincerely sorry for not going 2 your class and not letting you know what happen. I was in trouble with the law to be truthful. I was with someone that had something that was illegal and i went down wit him. But spending my time in Juvenilen Hall made me thing a lot and think deep about things. I’am also sorry for not letting you know but I couldn’t contact anyone from in there. I know that I have let you down and I have put myself in a very bad situation.I also know that I haven’t respect my special privilege to go to Independent Study but i have thought it through and that this is the school that I can do well in because I know I will be Distracked to skip school or cut if i was to go to regular school. So I’am hoping that I may be allow to return to Independent Study and continue my education there. Once again I would like to say I’am very sorry and I would also thank you very much for taking your time to read my letter .
I thought this might be an aberration in Lam’s life – a youthful indiscretion, perhaps. I did not find out for months what actually happened.
Next time: Reaching Out During the Summer Break