## Meet Me Here

I snapped this photo on my walk — the beautiful trail is just behind where I live. K.D. Lang was singing Hallelujah in my ears. My worries softened, my anger slipped. Then I thought about my thirty minutes or so with him and smiled. I needed to focus on the small blessings, and there are so many.

…..

He jiggles the locked door handle, eager to come in. I stand and extend my hand to shake his and introduce myself. His teacher had warned me of his puppy eyes and that he liked to talk. After some chitchat, I ask him as I write on a piece of paper, “You go to the store and there’s a sign that says three apples for two dollars. Say you want to get six apples, how much would that cost?” I slide the pen and paper toward him.

Me: What’s your favorite kind of apple?

Him: The green kind.

Me: Like Granny Smith? That’s a bit tart for me. I like Fuji apples.

He looks at the paper, his mind is thinking, his head bounces a little, his fingers count. He’s taking his time. I say, “Let me know when you’re ready to share. You can think out loud too.” I repeat the problem, but immediately I wish I would just shut up.

Him: Nine

Me: Is that how much it would cost… to buy six apples?

Him: Yeah. Nine.

Me: Show me how you got that. How you got nine dollars.

Him: I added six and three.

Me: Okay. Why did you choose addition?

Him: Because it’s the easiest. Easier than division.

Me: Oh, division is harder for me too… Is nine dollars a reasonable answer? Does that sound about right? Three apples for two dollars…

Me: I notice that you did not use all the information in the problem.

He does not know what I mean. I refer to the paper and explain that the problem has three pieces of information, “You told me that you added the three and six. Is there something else in the problem that you did not use?” He admits that he did not use the \$2.00.

Him: Eleven.

Me: How did you get eleven?

Him: Nine plus two is eleven.

Me: I see. Ha! You do like to add! So, if the store sells three apples for two dollars, then for six apples, it would cost eleven dollars? Does that sound about right?

He shakes his head more convincingly, “No… That’s not right.”

I scan the teacher’s small office. On her desk is a cup of thin colored markers. I grab her yellow pad of post-it notes too and tear each one into fourths. I mark \$1 on six of these and slide them over to him. I also stick a post-it note on the cup that says 3 apples for \$2.00.

Me: Sorry I don’t have real apples. Let’s pretend these markers are apples, and I’m the store owner. How much money do you have there?

Him: Six dollars.

Me: Cool. Okay, buy some apples from me.

He chooses three markers carefully, picking his favorite colors apparently. I ask him for payment, and he hands me two \$1 notes. Pointing to the paper still in front of him, I say, “Remember the original problem. Tell me about the problem again.” He looks at the paper and the markers and money notes in front of him, “I need three more apples.”

He again carefully selects three more markers from the cup. Without prompting, he gives me two more \$1 notes.

He bounces more visibly in his seat, “Four dollars. Six apples cost four dollars!”

I ask for a fist bump, “You’re awesome. I’d love to see you again.” He smiles wider and nods.

…..

Before meeting him, his teacher had shared that last year when he was in sixth grade, he’d met his goal of “multiplying multi-digit numbers.” I didn’t really know what this meant. I had no context and did not have the student in front of me. So I asked if I could meet him.

I thanked her for inviting me in and said the only thing that came to mind, “Please meet him where he’s at.”

Posted in Teaching | 1 Response

## What’s in a name?

I’m one of four daughters, and we have such ordinary names: Loan, Nga, Phuong, Chau. By ordinary, I liken them to Bob, Alan, Laura, Ann. I asked my mother about this — knowing that my father didn’t have a say — begging for an explanation of why in sweet Jesus’s name that she’d neglected to give us prettier names. She said it would be vain to do so, and God would punish such vanity by giving you an ugly daughter. She cited several girls in our neighborhood who had pretty names but had faces that were “bored to death” to look at.

Phương vs. Phượng

Phuong means “direction.” At least Kanye West and Kim Kardashian named their daughter North to specify a particular direction. And Phuong without the dot under the name is more of a boy’s name. If I just got that extra dot, my name would mean phoenix, a pretty big deal bird. So, I grew up wishing I had a real girl’s name. I wanted one of my girlfriends’ names which were of exotic flowers and birds and of cardinal virtues.

Then I arrived in America, and it got a lot worse.

I had to tell people how to say my name. Most folks put emphasis on the “o” sound, and upon hearing me say it, they would overcorrect and emphasize the “u” sound. I was always flattered that they even bothered to try. (I also had my last name Nguyen to contend with: Newan, Negyan, Wen, Noogen, Noowen, Um-no.)

Phuong was usually misspelled as Phoung. I get it, most English words have –ou instead of –uo, like pound, ground, loud. And mousse — not the chocolate kind that you eat, but the copious amounts that went into my perpetual perms.

Whenever I ordered food at a counter and was asked for a name so they could call me when my order was ready, I would give some random name, like Julie or Amy. That only worked if I remembered what random name I’d used. One time I forgot what name I’d used — because it was a long wait, okay? — so when no one came up to the counter to get the brown to-go bag when the server beckoned, Julie, your order is ready, I walked up and asked, “What exactly did… Julie… order?” This charade went on for longer than necessary.

Then, freshman year at Centennial High School in Gresham, Oregon, my classmate Tim — tall, brilliant, handsome — scribbled something next to my name on a piece of paper. I had to look at it closely. He added –us at the end of Phuong. Tim smiled as if he’d invented recess, “Fungus!” Phuong-us. Of course.

That marked the end of Phuong for me. I don’t remember exactly how I came up with Fawn. I knew I wanted to replace the Ph– with F– because why use two letters when one suffices. I wanted to drop the “u” because I never wanted to be referred to as a yeast or mold again, and it was probably wise that the letters f and u shouldn’t be together in a name.

I made the official name change when I became a U.S. citizen. I didn’t have the campaign My Name, My Identity to dissuade me some thirty years ago. My mother is one of the few people who still call me Phuong. It is a pretty name now that I hear it.

Posted in Shallow Thoughts | Tagged , | 1 Response

## Six Ways to See Visual Pattern #324

What about you? How do you see the pattern in the tweet above growing? Please take a look before I completely ruin it for you. (So much for my rule of “never tell an answer.”)

I loved that Hunter saw overlapping squares in pattern #307 from Caden Glover. I saw the pattern like this instead — with the constant four-circle square, and groups of three circles wrapping the upper right corner, and the number of groups is one less than the step number.

Some 30 hours later, I was at my desk creating another pattern, and I started out with a diagonal of increasing cubes (highlighted in yellow), and above and below this diagonal are more cubes (marked in purple). Therefore, for any step n, I see the middle as (n + 1) and the purple ones are two equal groups of n.

It was not until I finished creating step 3 that I realized I’d made the same pattern as the one from Caden. I didn’t want to scrap it because I didn’t mean to copy his pattern and really had built it from “scratch,” and now it is pattern #324 on visualpatterns.org.

It might be my favorite one thus far because I can see it in different ways. Here are the overlapping squares that Hunter saw:

What’s fun is sometimes I don’t see the pattern in its “simplified” form until I’ve simplified the equation. (I have to do this for the answer key). The number of cubes C is related to the step number n, such that C = 3n + 1.

And I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t always try to see a rectangle in any pattern. (The green rectangles have dimensions of 0 by 3, 1 by 3, and 2 by 3 for steps 1, 2, and 3, respectively.)

Many of my students will try to see if the entire step can be enclosed in one rectangle, then minus the negative space. The negative space (missing cubes) of this pattern is fun to discover too!

Do you see another way?

Six years ago when I created the site I had hoped to have 180 patterns to match the number of school days. We are now at 324! I’m so grateful for all the pattern submissions and for all the ways that the site gets shared.

## Serenity Prayer (and Teaching)

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Some things teachers cannot change or have little say in:

• The adults who work at our school
• The students who show up for class
• Their parents and home life
• The curriculum (we may have input, but unless we get to make the final decision, we go with what comes in the box)
• The physical space we call “classroom”
• That impossible faucet

Things we can change:

• How we react and respond to the adults in our building.

I don’t think I said two words about anything during my first 900 days as a teacher, and I was a science teacher at a middle school. I did what I was supposed to do: show up, teach, return the classroom key to the office before I go home, rinse, repeat. I was the quiet type anyway, so quiet that when I announced my decision to become a teacher, this person laughed, “How can you be a teacher? Ha!! You can’t be a teacher, you’re so quiet!” I was offended and said, “Shut up, bitch!” Actually, no, I didn’t say anything, I just smiled, a quiet smile that betrayed my suspicion that she might be right.

I found my voice on Day 901, on staff dress-up day, maybe it was Halloween. I walked down the hallway in scrubs borrowed from my husband at the time. A male teacher who also donned scrubs said pleasantly, “You can be my nurse.” Equally pleasant, I said, “I’m dressed as a doctor today.”

Maybe that was a trivial story, but the likes of it happened a lot. I was a young Asian (am still Asian) female (still this too) — and somehow this permitted certain people to say whatever to me.

• How we treat our students.

I failed and failed at this. The same way I’d failed at times as a parent to my own three children. I yelled, sent the kid out, made sure I got the last word because I needed everyone to know I was in charge. The side effects of my behavior always included shame, regret, guilt. Mostly shame. To give myself some grace, most of these incidents involved my believing the child had lied or demeaned another person.

Then I got better. I learned to hit the pause button and quiet my indignation. I learned to listen — like listen to their eyes and hand fidgets, their breaths and moments of silence. I learned to get the full story, at least find more truths than the half-truths I was getting. I learned to see the child in front of me as if I were his mother. Mostly, I listened to the better version of both of us.

Most days it was about giving my students the best math tasks and challenging them. But on all days, it was about kindness and making the most of our time together. I did always laugh with my students though. Sometimes we laughed so hard we were in tears.

• Know that parents are sending us their best.

That’s it. End of story. Just like the customer is always right, the parent is always right. They may have funny ways of showing it — like being belligerent and crazy — but they do care about their babies. Also, no matter what color skin the parent has, he/she cares about his/her child as much I do about mine.

• Make the curriculum come alive.

There are a lot of good resources and people out there to help us with this. Teach in a way that no software or Khan can replace or replicate what we do. To make math come alive, we need to come alive. Students are the best bullshit detectors, so let’s not even try. Make up for our shortcomings with all that we are passionate about, and hopefully topping that list is building a relationship with our kids. Even if math is not their favorite subject or dividing fractions is a big zit, they still enjoy coming to your class and think you’re badass for coming to their games and wearing that stupid costume, for the third year in a row.

• Attend to your physical space.

Bring in real plants, they make everything better and don’t demand much more than some water and light. And they don’t talk back. Hang shit up. Anything. Some teachers have perfected this, I’m the least of them. Maybe this is the only reason to get on Pinterest. Please don’t post Classroom Rules though. I mean, do you post Home Rules in your home? Mr. Vaudrey says music is good for your class too.

• That faucet.

Quit your job. Change building. Investigate this most important feature the next time you interview for a job.

And wisdom to know the difference.

This wisdom should help us talk more about thriving in teaching rather than mere surviving in teaching.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 3 Responses

## An Update

The young nurse asks how my day is going as she wraps the blood pressure cuff around my arm. I pretend to be relaxing on a yacht to yield low numbers, and the machine beeps 124/74. Dammit, I’ve never been above 120 — the yacht is sinking and death is near. She tells me that the procedure I’m about to undergo is quick. Math practice number six beckons and I ask, “What is quick?… Like five-seconds-kinda-quick or…?” She smiles, “About fifteen minutes.”

I want to choke her. I hate pain, any kind of pain, especially the needle-poking kind of pain. You know the 0-10 pain scale they post in the exam room? Getting a flu shot registers at least a 7 for me.

The doctor, who also looks very young, explains the procedure that she’ll be performing. Her voice is remarkably well-modulated and soothing, but not enough to drown out words like a long needle, grade two, some pain, numbing, cauterize, burn, death. Maybe I imagined that last one. I want to ask her where she’d obtained her training and how many times she’d performed this exact procedure. But I’m afraid that sounds like profiling which will trigger her dulcet voice to morph into a shriek, You are the worst patient! I should just let you bleed to death!

I want to hold someone’s hand. I need to hold someone’s hand. I’m so tempted to ask the nurse if I may hold hers, but she’s busy getting all sorts of scalpels, chisels, and cleavers for the doctor. I should have brought me a fake hand to hold. I settle on holding my own, my right holding my left. I want to pass out. Instead, a few minutes in, I can’t hold back the tears. I’m quietly sobbing. I ask for some tissue paper. The doctor’s soft voice, “Are you okay? We got you, here you go, you can have the whole box.”

She asks about my pain level. I tell her, honestly, that I’m okay, pain wise. “I’m just stressed.” My brother Vinh passed away two weeks ago. My cat Charlie has been missing since the evening before. Now, this.

I drive straight to work afterward. A few hours later, my son Gabriel texts me a picture of Charlie safe and sound. (Charlie is at the forefront, the other monster is Tugboat.)

My math coaching job is great. It’s new yet familiar, structured yet flexible. No one has to remind me how tough teaching is. But I did forget. I forgot about stuff that became second nature to me, like classroom management, building a rapport with students, speaking up for them, and planning a lesson.

I now have the privilege of observing different classrooms, modeling a number talk or task, designing a lesson and co-teaching, working with younger students, facilitating PD, creating slide decks and docs that might be helpful. There are three of us TOSAs in the district: English, ELD, and Math. I don’t get to see much of these two smart, strong, caring women outside of meetings, but they make me laugh and have my full admiration. There’s something special here with personnel. I liken it to the DNA that Oregon Ducks’ head coach Cristobal often speaks about, the DNA of each player that collectively makes up the team’s DNA. The culture is good here. My bosses are passionate and grounded, their roots are strong within the community because they are part of the community; their history is their present. It’s a cool place to be, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of an incredibly hard-working and caring network.

On the pain scale, work has not exceeded level 1, so I’m grateful. Wouldn’t it be great if somehow our pain level could be visible to others and our charge as humans is to lower each other’s numbers? And the more people’s numbers we can lower, the lower our own number gets. I think kindness is a potent pain reducer and can be self-administered too.

Posted in Coaching, Teaching | 2 Responses

## A New Position

I just accepted a math TOSA position (grades 5-8) with the Rio School District.

I’d spent the last 30 years in the classroom – my school as my second home, my colleagues as my family, my work as my life and identity, but most of all, my students as my children, my babies, my heart.

Then, I thought about not having to grade papers and not having to write sub plans when I’m deathly ill. Hell, yeah, I wanna be a TOSA.

Other stuff that I will not miss about teaching:

1. Having that patent nightmare, always the week before school starts
2. Finding my lunch in the microwave at 3:00 PM because I’d forgotten about it
3. Ignoring and hanging up on any and all nature calls
4. Feeling guilty on the weekend for not preparing for Monday’s lesson, and feeling guilty on all weeknights when I haven’t worked on the next day’s lesson
5. Hearing students coming back from an absence and asking, “Did you do anything? Did I miss anything?”
6. Hearing students ask the day before the grading period ends, even though it’s a widely-known forbidden question, “Is there any extra credit?”
7. Pretending to laugh at their stale jokes
8. Lying to them that I’d missed them during winter break
9. Dreading to open that one parent’s email
10. Having to choose between sleep or exercise because God gave teachers fewer hours

I’m excited to embark on this ambitious assignment. I hope to support the teachers by meeting them where they are, and if they’re always at happy hour, I’m willing to work with that. I’m in this to listen to their concerns and ideas and will try my best to refrain from uttering nobody cares. It’s imperative that we build our relationships on trust and respect, and plus one on the respect if they cheer for my #GoDucks too. I look forward to a co-teaching model that honors the students’ contributions and their rights to the best versions of us, if not the best education. I will remind us about self-care.

Let’s have a fantastic year of learning and supporting each other, all while cheering on one team – STUDENTS.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , | 19 Responses

## Jelly Beans or No Jelly Beans

What’s not to love about Would You Rather; I use it with my students and always recommend it as one of the great warm-up routines. This one caught my attention last week.

Each entry always includes this statement:

Whichever option you choose, justify your reasoning with mathematics.

This statement is important, especially the word “mathematics,” because you might have a student who says [truthfully] that she doesn’t like jelly beans or is allergic to them and will prefer to give them all away. Then, you might have another student in the same class who [untruthfully] makes the same claim to avoid having to do any maths. There’s also that thoughtful student who wants to give more to his friends and keep fewer for himself. Or a student might consider giving more away to make friends. If I were to pose this question to my students, I’d mention the above possible reasonings, but then I’d add, “This question assumes that you love jelly beans and want to keep more of it for yourself. For now, it’s the mathematics we’re after.”

I didn’t ask my students this question though, I asked them to choose between this question and the one on the right.

As a student, would you rather be given the problem on the LEFT (jelly beans) or the one on the RIGHT?

Using the same image above, I asked on Twitter and of my colleagues.

As a teacher, would you give your students the problem on the LEFT (jelly beans) or the one on the RIGHT?

*****

Out of my 68 sixth graders, 71% of them chose the left problem. The words they used for their reasoning:

colorful, vivid imagination, visual, more pleasant to the eyes

interesting, engaging, not boring, not basic

better reason because you like jelly beans

My fellow educators, meanwhile, overwhelmingly chose the left problem — of the 781 people [at this moment] who took the survey, a whopping 90% chose the left problem.

Well, I prefer the one on the right [that I’d typed up]. How did I get it so wrong? I’m normally not this lame. But, truth be told, I don’t love the jelly beans question. At all. Maybe the one on the right is the wrong “fix” for the left one. If I could retype the problem on the right, I’d remove the equal signs since the question is just asking which one yields a larger difference, not caring exactly what each difference is.

I want to believe that anyone who spends 5 minutes with me learns that I love mathematics. I love numbers, I love math problems and don’t give two shits if they are real-world either. I’m the one who loves the problem about carrying 3,000 bananas across the desert and the one about the emperor pouring oats on every other guest’s head. One of my 247 all-time favorite problems is Noah’s Ark, even if I grew up in a house with a Bible in every corner and found it hard to wrap my head around this story. (However, Eddie Izzard’s take on the Ark — language caution — makes me laugh.) I love problems that are simply stated, yet they beg you to savor your perseverance as you think deeply and creatively. There’s great joy in solving a good problem, especially the ones that at first blush, you weren’t even sure how to begin.

The jelly beans problem above is not one of these problem-solving tasks. It asks for a mathematical justification, so I’m going to assume that the mathematics is finding the difference or another arithmetic operation. I see it as a number talks problem. Students get to share their strategies. Mine might include:

364 minus 188… I’d need 12 more to go from 188 to 200, then 164 more to get to 364, so the difference is 176. Similarly, to do 281 minus 137, I’d need 63 more and 81 more, or 144. Problem A has a bigger difference of 176.

Comparing the two totals, 364 and 281, the difference is 19 plus 64, or 83. While the difference between the give-away quantities 188 and 137 is 51. I start out with 83 more in problem A, but I only have to give away 51 more, so problem A leaves me with more to keep.

That’s why I prefer the one on the right. Numbers are beautiful. I want students to focus on the numbers and play with them, learn to regroup, try massaging them and making them flexible, be comfortable with numbers. Math is badass, so let’s do maths for maths’ sake. I feel protective of numbers and don’t see why they need to be dressed up in colors or dunked in forced contexts. (I suddenly think of little dogs in ridiculous outfits that I doubt if anyone asked for the dogs’ permission.)

Nine out of ten of you disagreed with me. That’s okay because I can make phở better anybody. But guess what though? My own 23 and 25-year-old kids chose the one on the right. This fact was comforting! Sabrina (23):

If you were one of the survey respondents, I thank you thank you thank you.

| Tagged , , , | 7 Responses

## 2019 Is an Odd Number

The arrival of 2019 means I have to scroll down even farther to find my age year when I fill out an online form. Ugh… 1985… 1975… 1970… 1967… Here it is… 1965!

I just came back from a short trip — via long-ass flights — to Melbourne for my niece’s wedding. I did a lot of walking and eating (not unlike what I do elsewhere), but the highlight was seeing my all-time favorite, koalas.

Around this time, two years ago, I wrote These Twenty Things — the nerve I had to suggest we should do this and that. But, I do wish I had more time to write because recording in this space helps me reflect on what I enjoy most about teaching, which is mainly about what my students take away from a lesson, and perhaps more importantly, what they put into it.

There are a variety of things in education that I still don’t have a good grasp on, like differentiation and Problem-Based Learning (PBL). I get what they are, I just don’t think they play out in the classroom [of 35 students] nearly as efficiently and effectively as intended. They are hard to do, most teachers have not had the training, or the training they get is from people who have never consistently implemented them.

But here are a few things I trust I have a good handle on.

Begin with a challenging task so everyone has access to it. Fully invite students to work on the problem, individually at first, then in small groups, then with the whole class. When sufficient time has been devoted to this (this can mean 30 minutes or two days, depending on the task and your students), then go do your regular routine, but invite students who finish the regular stuff to continue with the challenging task. I normally see this gets flipped around a lot, that teachers ask students to do the challenging task after they finish their regular work. The problem with this is 1) at least half of the students don’t get to it, and 2) those who get to it don’t care about it simply because the teacher didn’t care enough about it to fully introduce it. It’s not lip service when I introduce each PS with, This is definitely my favorite one!

Wait time and asking for a classmate’s help. Y’all know about the wait time. I usually wait, then I say to the student, “Would you like to call on a classmate to help you?” If the called-on student is not able to help, then I ask the same of this student. This should keep more students paying attention, and it’s one more way for me to stay out of it.

Go ahead and give your students lots of advice because you can’t do this with adults without risking getting punched in the face. My usuals:

• That soda is not good for you. Eat a doughnut instead. (Hey, the sugar ratio of soda to a doughnut is 3.5 to 1.)
• If you want to cheat off of your friend’s paper, I offer a free how-to clinic at lunch. I mean you do a horrible job at this, I can TELL for chrissake.
• It’s not all about you. Learn that early and learn that fast. Your parents may love you unconditionally, but have you ever tried to wake them up early for no good reason?
• Always brush your tongue too.
• Don’t trust places that claim “We’re like family,” and yet they don’t let you eat for free.
• Your real friends are not the ones who attend your party. They are the ones who show up when no one else does.

Oh, and there’s a book that you or your school should get. It’s Necessary Conditions by Geoff Krall. I know it says “secondary math,” but that’s some marketing talk, it’s really for any teacher, you!

And finally, I’m incredibly honored and grateful to be at the following meetings this year:

• February 20: Washington ESD, Vancouver, WA, full-day workshop
• April 5: NCTM Annual, San Diego, IGNITE
• April 25: Ross Taylor Symposium, Duluth, MN, full-day workshop
• April 26: MCTM Spring Conference, Duluth, MN, keynote + session
• May 3: Wisconsin Math Conference, keynote
• June 19: HIVE, Open Up, Atlanta, talk + panel
• July 11: CAMT, San Antonio, keynote + sessions
• August 7: Ohio Annual Meeting, keynote + session
• August 15: NYS Master Teacher Program, full-day workshop
• May 8, [2020]: OAME, Ontario, featured speaker

I sincerely hope I get to connect with you at one of these places!

Posted in Teaching | | 2 Responses

## Mrs. Quiggle

I didn’t know they made teachers so old, but Mrs. Quiggle was that old when she was my 8th grade Home Economics teacher. She perched on a high stool in the corner of the classroom, leaning over a wooden podium that she used as her desk. Home Ec was my favorite class, along with math — two classes that didn’t require a whole lot of talking in front of your peers, you just gotta follow the instructions. There was one instruction that I tried my best not to follow, and that was pressing the seam open after sewing a set of stitches. Oh good Lord, ain’t nobody got time for this laborious step, and I hated ironing more than sin.

Mrs. Quiggle could always tell though when I skipped the ironing nonsense, “Now, here, young lady, you didn’t press the seams open again! See how it’s puckered here and not lying flat as it should here? I’m going to need you to remove these stitches and start over again.” All I wanted to say in reply was, And I’m going to need you to retire, Mrs. Quiggle, before your body gets cold.

I sewed pretty sundresses with gathered ruffles and biased trimmed shorts. I made baked Alaska and chocolate fondue. I appreciated Mrs. Quiggle’s teaching and all, but I wished she’d stop bothering me about the pressing-of-the-seams. Why couldn’t she be like other normal old people who took breaks often and drank tea and ate Honey Maid graham crackers?

It was now springtime. I went to check the mail and found a letter addressed to my parents from Mrs. Quiggle. Well, hell, Mrs. Quiggle, you know my parents are still back in Vietnam, and it’d be a hundred years before they could come over! By the way, they don’t know English anyway. What is the point of writing this, Mrs. Quiggle, what could you possibly want to tell them — how I failed to press the seams between stitchings?!

I opened the letter, read the full-page of Mrs. Quiggle’s perfectly slanted handwriting to my parents, beginning with, Dear Parents of Phuong Nguyen.

I sobbed. I read it again and sobbed. Mrs. Quiggle wanted my parents to know that in all her years of teaching, I had surpassed the number of points earned by any student by a wide margin. I got well over 200 points, beating the last highest score of 70 something. (I should have this letter saved in a box somewhere — the same box where I keep my three children’s ultrasound images.)

She never had to remind me to press the seam again. I continued to sew through high school, through college, through mommyhood. The secret to a beautifully sewn article is in the pressing of the seams. This sets the stitches and removes tiny wrinkles. It’s like origami where each fold needs to be creased precisely and sharply before the next fold. It’s like doing the right thing the first time when we already knew what the right thing was. It’s like telling the truth the first time when we already knew what the truth was.

Posted in General, Shallow Thoughts | Tagged , , | 2 Responses

## St. Cloud, Minnesota

I don’t remember the landing. It’s been a very long flight. Nor do I remember walking through the airport. We have no luggage anyway, like none.

My first memory of America is sitting in the back seat of TuAnh’s uncle’s car — an Oldsmobile wagon with wood panel trim. I’m almost eleven and a half years old, and this is the second time I’m in an automobile, a car car, which is much smoother than a bus or a van, and you’re not squished between strangers. The Oldsmobile is taking us straight home, not having to make a million stops along the way like my last bus ride from Saigon to Mũi Né.

Home is in St. Cloud. I’m not yet aware of how far it is from Minneapolis. It’s dark outside, around midnight dark, but my eyes are fixed on the passing landscape. I’m tired but I want the ride to last; I feel like I belong to a rich family that can afford a car.

TuAnh is my oldest brother’s wife. She’s the prettiest lady. The uncle’s family will share their home with us, and us being six people. The uncle and aunt have six kids of their own for a total of 14. (This is the first time I pause to realize this number. When you live in Vietnam, and there’s still floor space in the house to sleep on, then another kid will be born. My mother comes over to America and thinks it’s an utter shame to use garage space for cars. My goodness, a family of eight can live comfortably in this spacious 2-car garage.)

The aunt has chicken phở already made. It’s the first time I have the chicken version. She says the mint is from her garden. You’re supposed to eat phở with basil, but nobody cares, there’s mint in St. Cloud!

I will sit and watch the news with the uncle. I have no idea what they are saying, but I just like seeing white people’s faces and listening to how fast they talk. The best part is there’s always something on TV, there’s no curfew. I have two favorite shows, The Price is Right and Happy Days. You don’t have to understand very much English to watch The Price because prices are numerical, and English numbers look the same as Vietnamese numbers, except Americans are weird to write \$50 instead of 50\$. They claim to read from left to right too. I like Happy Days because it’s a show with cute boys, Chachi and Fonzie. (My family calls me Fawnzie. My name morphed from Phương to Fawn to Fawnzie. More recently, my son Gabriel probably sensed that I was stressed in our conversation and said, “Mom, I need you to be Fawnzie right now.” And I knew what he meant.)

English class is the hardest. Each word has way too many letters. While sitting in the school office waiting for the uncle to enroll me, I learn the spelling of the word(s) you say when you want to thank someone: THANK YOU. I don’t get it. I don’t hear the YOU part at all when people say it; until then, I thought it was one word, you know, THENGKEW. I believe Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language. Vietnam is actually Việt Nam. Saigon is actually Sài Gòn. While Nguyen might be the longest Vietnamese word (I don’t know, is it?), it’s just one syllable, so it’s Nguyễn, not Noo-yen. I spend hours breaking up each word into parts, I can only remember the word BECAUSE by seeing it as BE-CAU-SE to write it down. I am a mute in all my classes. I only talk when I’m with my ESL teacher, Mrs. Schnettler. Then eventually — a long long time really — I wake up one morning and realize my thoughts are in English. Someone has flipped the switch in my brain. Except it’s one direction, I can’t flip it back.

I spend the first eleven years of my life seeing only brown eyes, so it’s pretty cool to see other colors, shades of green and blue. Weirder is when kids from the same parents have a mix of colors. Weirdest is when a blue-eyed person sees the same red color on an apple as a brown-eyed person. Speaking of eyes, or just eye, Graham Smith has only one good brown eye, and he’s the one who yells at me to go back to Vietnam. The uncle’s daughter translates his words for me. I want to punch him in the face, knocking his eyeball out of his head, but then he’d be blind.

My sister Kimzie is three years older, so we’re now 12 and 15. (Her name went from Nga to Kim to Kimzie, which is dumb, at least Phương and Fawn start with the same sound, she says she wants to go from three letters to three letters and no more.) We know two lines from a Peter McCann’s song, “Do You Wanna Make Love,” and we belt them out at all hours of the day. Just two lines over and over again: Do you want to make love… Or do you just want to fool around… Then one day, my brother’s friend asks him if we girls knew what the words “make love” meant. We shake our heads and continue singing.

The six of us have now moved out to our own house. It’s a big white house with a big yard, there’s a porch too. In the winter, the snow would pile up as high as the single detached garage in the backyard. I make Jell-O by just leaving it outside for 30 minutes. I remember the few days in the dead of winter when we run out of oil to heat the house. I learn to ride my bike around the block, in the summer that is. A friend was surprised to learn that I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I was 13. I told her it was kinda tough to learn to ride when I didn’t own a bike growing up. Obviously, I didn’t know how to swim either. What sad kid doesn’t know how to swim in the “land of 10,000 lakes.”

I get to visit St. Cloud this August; it’ll be my first time back since I left in 1979. I’ll be facilitating a full-day workshop, and St. Cloud will just be 70 miles away. I’m flushed with nostalgia and gratitude — going back to my first home in America.

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