Wednesday, March 16, 2016

SOLSC #16 When did I fall in love with three year olds?

During the month of March, I am participating in
the Slice of Life Story Challenge.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day, every day for thirty-one days. My slices will be primarily about teaching preschoolers.
Check out the Two Writing Teachers website for many more reflections on teaching.

It was summer 1975 and four Vietnamese refugees came to live with the family across the street from me. There was a tiny grandmother; two sisters, eight and six years old, and a small three year old boy named Khanh. The children of the host family were delighted to run about with these young children and – by extension – we all got to know them, too. At 15 years of age, I was a de facto babysitter for my two younger brothers and all the neighborhood children each time I stepped outside my house. 

Khanh fell in love with me. He devoured me. He would scamper across the road to track me down, hold my hand, hug me, sit on my lap. He had a big, broad smile. He continually grasped my hand, pulling me places, leading me to what and where he wanted, beckoning me to sit, and desiring to simply be held by me. On my lap, he had a ritual – he would stroke my face, pop one hand into my mouth and feel my teeth, then grab and hold my earlobe, and suck his thumb. He had no English, and said very little at all, even in Vietnamese. In retrospect, I realize he was traumatized, his world had been shattered, there was nothing he could say. But I seemed to bring him peace...simply by being. I don’t remember doing anything whatsoever to catch his attention but he absorbed me, never wanting me out of his sight. The host family told me that I resembled his mother. Me? Irish-American, I was dark of hair, wearing it long and straight as was the style, and, being only 15, fresh off my last growth spurt, I was as slender as I ever have been...

I loved being loved by him. I sang to him, rocked him, read to him. I kissed his sweet cheeks. He loved to stare into my mouth and I would do the same with him – I remember the sad state of his mouth – he had soft, decayed, or non-existent teeth, and sore-looking gums. I think he was fascinated to see my mouthful of strong, healthy teeth. He would give me kisses with his mouth wide open, gumming my forehead or my nose. I would tear him off me, laughing, diverting his attention to a picture book or a run-around game.

In the wee, dark hours of one morning, asleep in my bed, I awoke to his small hands on my lips, prying open my mouth, running his fingers around my teeth...and then he climbed into bed next to me... He was so captivated by me that he had left his new home before the sun came up, he had crossed our neighborhood street in the dark, all by himself, he had opened our front door (which we never locked), and climbed up the stairs to my bedroom which I shared with my younger brother, Ralph. I called to Ralph to wake up and get Dad; Dad came in, and shook his head, and said “No, no, little buddy. You can’t do this,” and he scooped him up and carried him back across the street, knocking on their door to let the host family know of this escapade.

Both families began locking their doors!

The refugees lived a couple more months or so across the street, and then relocated to Northern Virginia. I've often wondered what became of them.

Dear Khanh, he snapped me out of my self-absorption, my steadfast focus on grades, getting a boyfriend, anger at my mother, wanting out of the house. He helped me become aware of how big the world was – how many others had so many serious issues to contend with - having no mother at all, being entirely uprooted from all that is familiar, having to learn and comprehend a whole new language, a whole new life, and dealing with people who think less of you because you are so different than them – all serious issues to contend with, and yet they were not sulking.

Khanh personified resilience, “can do,” “must do,” determination, the ability to keep on, find ‘better,’ soothe oneself. He made me realize how important an adult’s love and relationship were to a child.


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful memory.

  2. I love this memory so much. I have no words to say how much. I've never been particularly good w/ little kids, w/ a few exceptions, and I'm thinking about those times now. Have you read "Inside Out and Back Again"? Thinking about a Vietnamese child makes me think about that book. I can see you hugging and hugging and hugging all the three-year-olds! It's a glorious image! :-)