By Thu Anh Nguyen
It was a dream job: teaching ninth and twelfth graders English Literature at the first racially inclusive school in the nation’s capital. I was told that 70 percent of my curriculum was predetermined by the department, but that I’d have control over 30 percent of the curriculum. I was excited to choose my texts, and to make really brave choices. Surely the school knew who they were hiring: an Asian female who went to an all-women’s college, who wrote her Masters thesis in poetry as a study of Asian-American and immigrant identities. I imagined I was hired because I was bringing my unique self to the English department, a self that was in stark contrast to the almost all-white faculty.
Before I could be my brave self, I had to settle in. The first year teaching at any school is challenging. You are trying to master the curriculum, and also understand the students and faculty. You are trying to understand where you fit into all of it. I was already nervous about the fact that I was not only the only Asian person in my department but also the youngest person. Too many parents tried to slyly slip questions about my college and graduate work into conversations. I felt like I needed to prove myself, so I tried to lay low. I accepted the 70 percent of the curriculum I was given, and even let others dictate the 30 percent that was supposed to be my choice.
In English 12, which was a coveted class that typically only senior members of the department got to teach, I accepted teaching texts such as Beloved, Paradise Lost, The Sound and The Fury, and The Things They Carried. I have loved William Faulkner since reading him in high school, and I learned to love teaching Milton because I like rising to the challenge of teaching difficult texts. But then there was Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War. I tried to tell myself that The Things They Carried was hard too, and that therefore I should also love it — all of my colleagues who taught it chose it because of the figurative language, the book’s Bible references. The book allowed them to impress students with words like “chiasmus.” With so many reasons that the book should be taught, whenever I fumbled at teaching The Things They Carried, I thought it was my fault.
My sense of not being good enough to teach that text propelled me to learn more. I spent most of that first year diligently auditing my department head’s classes even with a full schedule of my own, hoping that her love of the novel was going to magically infect me. I took copious notes, and then I tried to teach my classes exactly as she had taught hers. My students were generous and thoughtful, and I honestly don’t think that they heard the false notes that I was increasingly attune to in my teaching. No matter how hard I worked, how many notes I took, and how well I mimicked my colleagues, I never learned to love that book.
I never loved it because I never was able to be myself while teaching it. How could I teach The Things They Carried, which is about what white men carried, and also be a Vietnamese immigrant, the daughter of a man who fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War, and then was imprisoned for it? How could I teach Tim O’Brien’s version of the Vietnam War that actually has no Vietnamese people in it? When I’ve said this to people in the past, they were always shocked: How can a book about the Vietnam War have no Vietnamese people in it? The main scene that describes Vietnamese people has them symbolized as water buffalo (my white colleagues had a whole lesson built around this water buffalo metaphor as if it was the most exciting thing in the world to discover that the animal represented my people).
Like the water buffalo, Vietnamese people are shot and killed. They have no personalities. No families. They are just the backdrop for American bravery and grief.
One of the main metaphors in The Things They Carried is that American soldiers were not just carrying backpacks full of rations, ammunition, photos from home, and other items necessary to make it through the war, but they were carrying the toll that the Vietnam War took on them. Teaching that text for a year took a huge toll on me. I have never before or since then taught with so little of my heart.
I could not face another year of teaching something that was so against what I knew to be true, so I needed to come up with the solution. That was when I decided to wield the 30 percent teacher’s choice in the curriculum that I was promised. I chose to teach The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy. It is a novel written by a Vietnamese refugee about the harrowing journey and resettlement of six Vietnamese refugees in late 1970s’ San Diego. This wasn’t just about using a Vietnamese perspective though. Gangster is beautifully written. In many ways, its broken narrative is a much more realistic reflection of post-traumatic stress disorder than O’Brien’s perfectly crafted allegories. It has a compelling female protagonist who clearly had thematic ties to other characters we read that year, such as Caddy from The Sound and the Fury and Sethe from Morrison’s Beloved. If I sound like I am trying to defend my choice, it’s because I felt like I had to defend my choice. The other three teachers of English 12 that year were all veteran teachers, one was my department chair, and they all had chosen the 70 percent of the curriculum that I had inherited. They had been nicknamed the Holy Trinity, and to me they felt untouchable. Of course, students revered them. They had been at the school for decades, had made the English department what it was. It’s only with many more years of teaching under my belt now that I realize how unhealthy that situation was. Schools need to be wary of setting up new teachers — especially new teachers of color — in impossible situations in which they are alone in a group of long-standing white faculty. I was never going to feel powerful in that situation.
So at first, I wasn’t brave enough to completely jettison O’Brien; I taught some chapters of The Things They Carried alongside Gangster. As I was finally able to teach about the Vietnam War through a Vietnamese family’s eyes, I found my true voice again. And once I found my voice, my students found me. I still have my student evaluations of me from that year, the ones that said that Gangster was their favorite book we read because it wasn’t like anything they had read before, and it felt real. It felt real because it was real — because it is real to tell the story of the Vietnam War through a Vietnamese perspective. Why hadn’t anyone else before me thought of that? Why would they have?
I honestly believe that no one else had questioned teaching The Things They Carried because no one else was a faculty member who was actually a Vietnamese immigrant. No one else reacted as viscerally as I did to that text. There are so many clear and good arguments for diversifying the faculty of our schools, as there are measurable benefits to having faculty of color. I also think that schools need faculty of color because that is the only way they are going to find out what they are missing. Hiring faculty of color means that a schools doesn’t just gain new perspectives, but they will have to re-examine long-held ones. Hiring me meant that after my first year teaching The Gangster We Are All Looking For, given the enthusiastic response from students, I was asked to share my lesson plans with my other colleagues so that they too could teach it alongside The Things They Carried. No matter where I teach, hiring me means that an Asian, female, immigrant experience will allow me to look at the curriculum through those lenses.
When asked about how The Gangster We Are All Looking For reflects the experience of Vietnamese Americans, Le Thi Diem Thuy said:
I will allow that every element in this book came from a personal passion, to wrest Vietnam the place (homeland) back from Vietnam the war, and to show Vietnamese people who carry entire worlds — of grief, of longing, of love — within them, and have something to say about those worlds. Who they are, what they have to say, and how they say it, is not incidental to the story, it is the story.
We need to make sure that when we tell our students stories, they have the whole story. Every person in the story has to have a voice. I am honored that my calling is teaching, and that I am able to give voice to people that were previously unheard. Recently, I met with parents of an Asian student who wanted to hear about my current school’s curriculum. Their specific question was, “How are we represented in the curriculum?” They wanted to know when their child could see himself in something we studied. I felt proud that I was able to answer that I taught Inside Out & Back Again, a novel in verse about a Vietnamese immigrant’s experience. Through that book, I am able to teach about immigration of many other cultures as well. The parents were satisfied, but they also expressed surprise. “How long has this been in the curriculum?” they wondered. “We had no idea.” It wasn’t until I answered them I realized it myself: “We have been teaching it for three years.” Since I started teaching at this school.
Like the backpacks worn by the soldiers in The Things They Carried, teachers are weighed down with the baggage of a pre-existing curriculum, a curriculum that has sometimes existed for so long, no one even knows why it still exists. Maybe the faculty has not changed composition for years, and they cannot see why the curriculum should change. Diverse faculty provide new lenses. Faculty of color in mostly white independent schools offer fresh perspectives. When I was able to finally envision a curriculum that felt true to my experience, I felt a huge weight lifted off of me. We as teachers should not let our students carry the burden of curriculum that does not reflect who they are; we should lighten their loads. We should all feel the weightlessness that comes with being our true selves.
Thu Anh Nguyen is Equity, Justice, and Community Coordinator for the Middle School at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. She teaches sixth grade, and also writes and performs poetry.