I want to begin with a story. In January of 1985, I was a kindergartner at R.F. Hartman Elementary School. I carried home a note from school saying that I needed to bring Valentines to school. As the eldest child of Vietnamese refugees living in rural Wylie, Texas, my Bá and I made our best guesses. With the smattering of red hearts in the classroom and romantic holiday commercials shown during my dedicated viewings of Growing Pains, my 6-year-old brain knew that I needed to make red or pink hearts. Lots and lots of them. So, Bá drove me to a local drug store, and he paid for the ream of construction paper I carefully selected—the cheapest one.
I arrived home to our two bedroom mobile home, sat on the floor and began to carefully cut the hearts. My need for symmetry and perfection reigned, and each heart was absolute perfection. Once I was surrounded by a few dozen hearts, I began to glue the identical pieces together in a perfect row. My evening efforts culminated in 6 masterpieces, and I was proud of my work.
The next morning, Bá walked me into school. Down the long hallway, I saw 60 white bags hung, each with the students’ personalized kindergarten artistry. I saw the bag I decorated the week prior, I saw my peers stuffing each bag with small, white envelopes and I saw that I messed up. I only had enough for 6 friends. In my Asian hands were the stupid hearts I cut out. The ache I felt was big. Nonetheless, the twinge of fault on my father’s face was bigger. The confident former naval captain who navigated 55 people and himself across the South China Sea following the fall of Vietnam looked defeated. He failed his child because he did not understand the words on the paper sent home from school. We failed.
In that moment, my favorite kindergarten teacher walked up to us. Ms. Beverly Minahan squatted down to my level, clasped her hands and said, “Phuong! Those are the most beautiful Valentine’s I have ever seen! Which of your lucky friends will get one?” With the sole effort of one human and one statement, my heart soared. I began to put my heART work into the bags of my six favorite peers. Becky Crane got one! Sarah Parker got one!
As I sit here in February of 2019, more than three decades later, this story continues to resonate with the work I do as a speech-language pathologist supporting the comprehensive needs of our diverse populations. The kind sentiments of Ms. Minahan fuels my daily work. She reminds me, through my own personal narrative, that we are so very capable of serving our humans with relevancy and value.
In closing, I will say this again and again. The individuals we serve have diverse needs, and we may not always speak their native language. However, as speech-language pathologists, we all speak the language of kindness. And this is a wonderful thing.