Poem: ESL Lesson

Bunkong Tuon and family

The author (tallest child) is shown as a boy with his grandmother and cousins. (Image courtesy of Bunkong Tuon)

This poem is part of a WHYY series examining how the United States, four decades later, is still processing the Vietnam War. To learn more about the topic, watch the 10-part documentary “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. WHYY members will have extended on-demand access to the series via WHYY Passport through the end of 2017.

ESL Lesson

We sat in rows, arms down
by our sides, feet firmly
on the floor, eyes wide, eager
to be Americans. We thought
our teacher, Mrs. Dabrowski,
the most beautiful. Her skin
was ivory white, her hair
long, blond, wavy. She told us
about her older brother returning
from Vietnam, how he sat staring
at the turkey one Thanksgiving,
then vomited on the dining table,
how his muffled cries kept
everyone awake but no one said
anything the next morning,
how he killed himself
with a government-issued gun.  

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Mrs. D showed us how to conjugate
the verb to be: “I am the teacher.

You are the students. He is from
Cambodia. She is from Vietnam.”
We smiled, nodded, not wondering
whether her brother might have met
some of our parents who fought
on the other side in the war.

Bunkong Tuon is a writer, critic, and associate professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He is the author of “Gruel” (2015) and “And So I Was Blessed” (2017), both poetry collections by NYQ Books.

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