It was Monday of the last week before winter break. I arrived at school early, surprised to find Jenny, a shy sixth grader, sitting on the steps outside our room. "Are you looking forward to the break?" I asked as we walked in.
"Not really," she said.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Do you ever drive down ____ street?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Have you ever noticed the man who stands at the corner of _____ and _____?" She looked down at her hands.
"Yes," I said. Of course I'd noticed him. He was always there -- morning, afternoon, evening, every season of the year. He was a thin, middle-aged Asian man, always clad in a heavy wool jacket, who alternated between staring at a stoplight and arguing loudly in a foreign language with an invisible entity. Sometimes I'd noticed him sobbing.
"I live on that corner," Jenny said. "That's my dad." She looked up to see my reaction.
"That must be so hard," I said, not sure what to say. So many questions I wanted to ask.
"He's arguing with the men who ran the camp, the one in Cambodia. He was 14 when the Khmer Rouge took over and he went to prison camp. His whole family was killed, more than 60 people. He never tells us what happened to him there, but we hear everything when he's out in the street shouting. I can't get it out of my mind sometimes."
What do you say when an eleven-year-old child tells you this? Jenny went on.
"He won't take medicine. My mom says she thinks that it makes him feel better to be able to argue with the camp men -- he feels like he's standing up for his family, defending them, doing and saying what he couldn't do when he was a kid. She doesn't think he'd feel any better if he took medicine."
"I'm so sorry, Jenny," I tell her. "Has he always been this way?"
"My whole life. That's my dad. I used to be embarrassed that the crazy guy on _____ and _____ street was my dad, but now I'm just so sad. I missed out on having a dad and telling him about my day and stuff. I just wish I could talk to him, but he can't hear me. Doesn't even really know who I am or that we're here in Oakland. His mind never left Cambodia."
I choked back tears. Rested my hands on hers. Took a few deep breaths. Then I had an idea.
"Jenny, what if you wrote him a letter? A letter that you could give him or not give him, but one where you could tell him whatever you want to, what you wish he could hear?"
Jenny was a struggling writer, but she seemed to enjoy making cards and writing missives to her friends.
"I guess maybe that would be kind of cool," she said. "Just to get my feelings out, you mean?"
I nodded. "What if we all do that today, our whole class? I think there are lots of students who have things they'd like to say to people and they can't say them. How about if we do that?"
Jenny agreed. I filed away the plans I'd prepared. I proposed this to my class of emerging writers, who were nearly all English language learners years below grade level in writing. They wrote. They wrote pages and pages to fathers who had abandoned them, to parents who were in jail, to grandparents in rural villages in foreign countries, to relatives who had died, to older brothers trapped in gangs, to parents who worked long hours or drank too much or just couldn't understand their emerging teenager.
When I read them that night at home, I cried. I was overwhelmed by what my students carried with them to school, what they had experienced in their short lives, and what they needed to say.
This kind of writing -- personal, to an audience who might never receive their words -- became a favorite in my class and a staple in our program. "I feel like I'm getting to have a dad by writing these," Jenny told me. "Sometimes I sit outside and I read him a letter and my mom says he listens in his way. Even if he doesn't hear me, I still feel closer to him."
And as students shared their letters with each other they found commonalities across their languages and backgrounds that they hadn't known existed. Communities were forged through their stories.
Ten years have passed. Every time I pass the corner of _____ and _____, I still see Jenny's dad sobbing and arguing with the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge.
An email recently came from Jenny. She's in her third year of college and said, "I thought you'd like to know what I'm up to. Read the attached letter to my dad to find out! By the way, I still write at least one letter a week. I now have over 500 letters to him." Her letter, beautifully written, made me cry: "I changed my major," she wrote, "I'm now majoring in South East Asian studies and psychology, and I'm thinking maybe I'll get a PhD. I want to help you more than anything, but I don't think that's possible. So I want to help kids, kids who are like me."