For over twelve years in the 1980s and 1990s, I taught English to adult immigrants and refugees at the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Arlington, Virginia. REEP began in 1975 as a 90-day demonstration program to serve refugees from the Southeast Asian conflicts, but it has continued through the years and, so far, has served over 90,000 students from around the world. In my early years of teaching at REEP, I was lucky enough to get to know many Vietnamese refugees. Some of the students I worked with were the part of the family unification program. The middle-aged men had worked with the Americans in Vietnam and had been re-educated, that is, imprisoned and tortured, by the winners of that conflict. The men came to our school with their wives and children. The wives and the children mostly prospered. The trajectory for the adult children I knew usually seemed to be: ESL program, community college and, then, degree at George Mason University. I always guessed that the men must have felt so happy to have accomplished the feat of getting their families here to safety. The few middle-aged men I met (I knew their wives and children more) seemed to get over here, then fall ill, perhaps because of the effects of the imprisonment and torture.
One woman, Linh (not her real name), seemed to be here only with her young child; there was no husband in evidence. She appeared to be well respected within the Vietnamese group in our school. I later found out that Linh had an older son, probably with an American soldier from back in the day. I was her teacher, but we became friends, too. We were the same age exactly, and, like her, I also had a young child and two older ones. Linh had not been to school much in Vietnam. How could she; she lived in Da Nang, back in the day. I taught the beginning-level English class and Vietnamese accents are hard for Americans (at least for me) to understand. Linh mumbled and kept her hand in front of her mouth. Nonetheless, she somehow communicated very well, and we had a strong bond between us.
Our school was about five blocks away from Arlington National Cemetery. So, every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, some of the teachers would walk with the students over to the cemetery. Field trips were always prepped in advance: new language was learned and cultural aspects were discussed before we left the classroom. Once we were on a journey, however, I usually moved back a little to let the students have their own interaction with the museum, the park, the garden, or the store. The students and I were walking around a memorial in honor of the American war dead. As students were ranging around the statue, Linh came up to me. She began talking to me about her young girlhood in Da Nang Province. She talked about how the American soldiers were everywhere in town during the day, but how every night the Viet Cong would come into town. Linh was explaining how it was—the chaos and trauma of her growing up; no peace, and bombs day and night, and, I guess, the baby that came when she was so young. I hope telling me her story in that big rush of words helped Linh exorcise some demons, and I think I understood more of how it might have been.
Several minutes later, the students and I walked up to the JFK gravesite. There was a low railing around the grave and the eternal flame. As usual, tourists thronged around it. As we got closer, I saw a figure step over the rail and bend toward the flame. I jumped into schoolteacher mode, ready to scold the person for breaking the rules and being disrespectful to the memorial. Before I could do that, the person straightened up. He was a stocky, bearded middle-aged man (AKA Harley-Davidson guy) who got up and quickly walked away. Then, I saw that he had left a green beret beside the flame.
Again and again, I’ve thought of that morning—many years ago now—that coincidence, that karmic happening, and that expiation. I don’t know what to make of it or how to describe it accurately, so you and I can understand it. I wish I could. At 17 I was rallying against the Vietnam War—Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is Gonna Win. I am still against the Vietnam War, but now I know men who were tortured by the people I thought were freedom fighters, a girl who was traumatized day and night, and a mother who would not smile in my class for the first five months she sat there. There are so many demons to exorcise.
Along with the Vietnamese and Cambodians, our school worked with the Ethiopians and Eritreans, the Afghans, the Peruvians, the Salvadorans, the Bolivians, and many other groups. Later, the Somalis came and so did the Iraqis, Iraqi Kurds, the Sudanese, and many more. I recently corresponded with one of my friends who still works at REEP. She says there are more Guatemalans and Hondurans coming now. There seem to be more than enough stories and more than enough demons to exorcise.
(adapted from Losing It: Deconstructing a Life, unpublished work © Lynda Terrill, all rights reserved)