'I Have Wings Now': At Age 45, She Went Back To School

Jan 22, 2021
Originally published on January 22, 2021 7:05 am

Ngoc Nguyen was born in Saigon during the final years of the Vietnam War. She left school when she was in 10th grade to help support her family.

In her early 20s, she immigrated to the U.S. and continued to work.

It wasn't until age 45 that Nguyen pursued a dream she had long put on hold: She enrolled in a GED program and passed the test to earn her certification.

In 2018, she sat down to record a StoryCorps conversation from Oklahoma City with her teacher, Chris Myers, to talk about what his class meant to her.

Nguyen, now 49, told Myers, 41, that she dropped out of high school, before she could earn her diploma.

"After the war my dad was in prison," she said. "My mom had to take care of five of us and I had to go out to work when I was like in sixth or seventh grade." She continued to work and go to school before dropping out.

Myers never knew that about his student.

"You never gave any hint that you had had that kind of childhood," he said.

For all the dedication Myers had for his students, Nguyen also wanted to know whether she and her classmates ever got on his nerves.

Myers admitted that his job was draining at times, but that the energy he put into his students had always been worth it.

"Many people work and they don't even like what they do," he told her. "And they'll tell you, 'OK, well, go get that paycheck,' right. But, if the only time you're happy is when you get paid, that's a waste of a life.

"What a lot of people don't know about instructing — when you do it right, you're allowing somebody to go into you and take energy away from you. And you have to do that. So I end up very drained sometimes, but at the end of the day, whatever it is that my learners take out, they put back in me."

Nguyen told Myers that she appreciated how he went out of his way to help them succeed.

Myers recalled when a student told him that Nguyen got emotional after learning that she had finally passed the GED test.

"Every bit of work that we've ever done to get you to this point, it was worth it just to know that you were crying tears of joy — that I helped you do something that you're so happy about, you had tears," he said.

Myers said that working with Nguyen to get from a low score on her first test to a passing score wasn't an easy road.

"I know that can be, like, extremely discouraging. I have a lot of students that I don't see any more after that," he said. "But then to see you back the next day, I'm like, 'OK, we're fightin'.' And when I see a fighter, I get excited. I'm like, 'OK, bring it,' you know, me and you against the world. And that's how I feel."

As for Nguyen, the hard work was beyond worth it.

"You change people's lives," she told him. "Because after I passed my GED, I feel like I have wings now. I can fly."

"You can, and don't let anybody tell you that you can't," Myers said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. And today, we have a story about new beginnings. Ngoc Nguyen was born in Vietnam near the end of the U.S.-led war there. She left school when she was young to help support her family. She emigrated to the United States in her 20s and continued to work. And then at 45, Ms. Nguyen enrolled in a GED program. She came to StoryCorps with her teacher Chris Myers to talk about what his class meant to her.

NGOC NGUYEN: After the war, my dad was in prison. My mom had to take care of five of us. And I had to go out to work when I was, like, in sixth or seventh grade. And when I get to 10th grade, I just drop out.

CHRIS MYERS: You never gave any hint that you had had that kind of childhood.

NGUYEN: Yes. There's a lot of things to tell about my childhood. But I just want to ask you one question.

MYERS: OK.

NGUYEN: Well, you know, sometimes, in the classroom, I know that we'd get on your nerves sometimes (laughter).

MYERS: OK. So are you wanting to know, do you guys get on my nerves sometimes? Yes. No, I'm going to choose my words wisely, because first and foremost, this is honest to God truth. So many people work, and they don't even like what they do. And they'll tell you, OK, we'll go get that paycheck, right? But if the only time you're happy is when you get paid, that's a waste of a life. What a lot of people don't know about instructing - when you do it right, you're allowing somebody to go into you and take energy away from you. And you have to do that. So I end up very drained sometimes. But at the end of the day, whatever it is that my learners take out, they put back in me.

NGUYEN: You go out of your way to do for us. And I really appreciate that.

MYERS: You know, I had a student tell me they saw you when you were crying when you passed the last test. Every bit of work that we've ever done to get you to this point - it was worth it just to know that you were crying tears of joy, that I helped you do something that you're so happy about, you had tears - because with you, it wasn't an easy mission. Like, think about it after you took your first test. The first score was, like, a 2, right? And I know that can be extremely discouraging. I have a lot of students that I don't see any more after that. But then to see you back the next day, I'm like, OK, we're fighting. And when I see a fighter, I get excited. I'm like, OK, bring it. You know, me and you against the world. And that's how I feel.

NGUYEN: I just want to tell you that I really appreciate what you've done for me. You change people's lives because after I passed my GED, I feel like I have wings now. I can fly.

(LAUGHTER)

MYERS: You can. And don't let anybody tell you that you can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "VITTORO")

INSKEEP: Ngoc Nguyen with her teacher Chris Myers in Oklahoma City. Their conversation will be archived with all other StoryCorps conversations at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "VITTORO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.