Over a long career, a teacher can have thousands of students. Over time, years blur into each other, and many students are all but forgotten as the successive classes come in and take up places in my heart, mind, and soul. Former students whom I may have had more than 20 years ago come up to me on the streets of Oakland all the time, asking if I remember them.
I always want to say yes, but except for a special few from each year, mostly I do not recall them with any clarity. I will most frequently recall the artists, the writers, the most academically successful, and the ones who disrupted the class the most. But mostly, I remember the class dynamic, how it interacted as a group.
I did not hear back from Lam or know what had happened to him after he failed to graduate in June 2009. I moved on to my new position in the district, and did not really think about him much after he didn’t respond to my inquiry and offer of assistance.
Then one day I was reading the Oakland Tribune online, and I came across this headline: “Gang member admits shooting 16-year-old girl; will be sent to prison for at least 25 years.”
I skimmed the story quickly – as I often do – to see if I recognized a name. I rarely do. But when I saw the name Lam Vo, I was pretty certain that I knew the young man described as “an admitted gang leader.” He’d pleaded no contest to blinding a 16-year old girl with a bullet to the head, leaving her prone to lifelong seizures.
I held onto a lame hope that maybe “Lam Vo” was the “John Smith” of the Vietnamese communities, and it was just a sheer coincidence that the age also matched about how old I thought he was.
At the time, I had a blog for SF Gate and wrote, after reading about him, that “I know people always say this, but he really didn’t seem like the type; he was quiet, respectful towards teachers, did good work, was actually a bit brighter than many of his peers; seemed to have some goals. It would make sense that he would be attending adult school, if he was unable to go straight to college, because he had the type of mindset and skills to continue his education.. Being in school and in a gang; yes, I could see him with one foot in each of those worlds.
He was (or is) just another Oakland kid getting swallowed up by the perverse siren call of the streets. I think of the many years of history that caused his path to cross with that of his victim. His family – refugees from Vietnam, finally settling in Oakland, only to face a different kind of brutality; the young girl probably also living in some neighborhood characterized by random violence. Two more lives ruined.
After reading about Lam in the paper, I thought about him quite a lot, although I made no attempt until this year to get in touch with him, or even learn for certain that he was indeed the Lam Vo I’d had as a student.
I sent him a letter last July, asking if he were the Lam Vo that had been my student. I said that if he were that young man, then I wanted to invite him to share his story with me for this project.
It took nearly six weeks to receive a reply.
In the first line of his first letter, he wrote,“Dear Ms. Gordon, Unfortunately, I am the Lam Vo your (sic) looking for.”
Next time: Writing to Lam in priosn and learning about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.