I will never forget my first day of school. It was the fall of 1988 and I was a scrawny five-year-old refugee kid from Laos. Just two years removed from a refugee camp in Thailand, I walked into Haywood Elementary school in Nashville, Tn. I didn’t understand a word of English and wasn’t sure what to expect. My father, who was working two full-time jobs at the time, managed to get me to school but didn’t know that I needed a backpack and school supplies. He also forgot that I needed to be registered!
Eventually, I was placed in Mrs. Lambert’s class first grade class. I remember feeling scared and confused because I could not understand what anyone said. The best way to describe this experience is a scene I watched many years later from the cartoon show, Peanuts. Charlie Brown and his friends sat in a classroom while an off screen character, presumably the teacher, can be heard saying, “wha wha wha wha.”
To make matters worse, the students didn’t seem interested in talking to me—I guess it didn’t help that my name was Saengthien Mitsamphanh (Thi was actually my nickname). Often, I buried my head on my desk out of frustration and helplessness. Thankfully, Mrs. Lambert was gracious and patient with me. I’ll never forget her warm hug and welcoming smile.
The days at school turned into weeks and months and my comprehension began to improve. Letters turned into words and sentences and soon I was able to communicate with my peers and teachers. My ESL teachers, Mrs. Corley, Mrs. Gonzalez, and Mrs. Mittivong taught me to read and write English. More importantly, they showed me that I mattered and instilled in me that I could achieve anything I put my mind to. I distinctly remember when other kids were making fun of me by calling me “chicken.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Mrs. Corley sat me on her lap and told me, “Saengthien, if anyone ever calls you chicken again, remember that Mrs. Corley LOVES chicken!”
There were others. Mrs. Mitchell, my second-grade teacher asked me one day to meet her in the back of the classroom. Was I in trouble? To my surprise, she showed me a black plastic bag full of boys’ clothing. She explained to me that her sons had outgrown the clothing and she wanted to give them to me. I held on to that bag all the way home.
Classmates turned into friends and failing grades improved until I was finally on the Honor Roll. By the time I headed into middle school I no longer needed ESL and my parents expected a report card full of A’s. Although they didn’t attend every parent-teacher conference, awards ceremony, or sports competition, they always encouraged me to study hard and take advantage of every opportunity to succeed. I eventually finished high school, became the first college graduate in my family, and last year received my doctorate degree.
This fall, many refugee kids will step into Memphis classrooms for the first time. They come with years of hardship and loss behind them but many more years of hope and opportunity ahead. Will their experience be similar to mine? What fears and frustrations will they feel? What challenges lie ahead for them? Who will come alongside them to encourage and equip them to thrive and succeed? My hope is that one day they can share similar stories of kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
There are many ways to invest in the lives of refugee students in Memphis. If you are interested in after-school tutoring contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Refugee Empowerment Program for volunteer opportunities. To help provide gifts cards for school uniforms, contact email@example.com.