We all know how cruel kids can be and just as the headlines are riddled with stories of kids who were teased or bullied into unspeakable acts of violence to themselves or to others, so did this phenomenon exist in the 70’s when I was a kid, though you didn’t hear as many horror stories and there were fewer psychologists and sociologist tying it all together. As I look back on my early days at Montclair and Brentwood, there were a couple of folks that I recall having been treated unfairly, maybe not bullied or even teased (for the record, I owe J.W. a huge apology for being such a jerk to him back in the 6th and 7th grade)…but at the very least they were isolated in such a way that perhaps, made them feel as though they didn’t belong, which can have much the same effect as being bullied. Now I am the last person in the world who would poke fun at an issue as serious as this but it’s always nice to hear about the one who had the upper hand.
Dung (pronounced Yoon) was the tallest 4th grader I ever knew. He was 6 feet tall if he was an inch (think about it)….Ok so, maybe he wasn’t 6 feet tall but he was at least a foot taller than I was…which isn’t saying much I suppose since I couldn’t have been more than 4 feet tall at the time, plus or minus an inch or two. But to my point, Dung was probably the tallest kid at Montclair…as tall as some of the teachers and maybe even as tall as Mrs. McKenzie! Ugh!! That hideous dress!
He was a Vietnamese kid and while his English wasn’t perfect, he knew more than enough to keep him on the honor roll. Come to think of it, he never said very much at all but he was extremely intelligent and the teachers loved him. And as tall as he was, there were still some kids in school that looked down on him. Not because he was too tall or too smart but because to them, he was different. And that is usually the way it starts. We are brought up so focused on the differences in people that we completely dismiss the qualities that make us all innately human. And unfortunately kids learn to do this quickly and do it just as well as adults do. I would often hear some of them talking about Dung, whispering, giggling and making fun of him. I think had he not been a 6 foot (ish) 4th grader, they might have actually done it to his face and he too might have ultimately become one of those kids who you read about on Yahoo News or The Huffington Post.
To say that he was athletic would be an understatement and despite all of his other gifts, what I will most remember about Dung was his running ability. Though it seemed like a mile back then, the running track was probably little more than 200 meters with half buried tires marking the oval path. For a brief moment at the starting line you might get your one and only chance to see him up close …after that he was a distant blur. But when you did see him, he would give you that straight faced scowl that kept you looking over your shoulder the rest of the day. Even though he knew he could take us, there seemed to be a respect of sorts…respect for a competitor. I can still see him out there running a full half lap ahead of the closest loser, digging in like it was the most important race of his life. It was always like that with Dung. He always did is best…every day, every lap.
He was not your typical hyperactive 9 year old boy. He was calm and quiet…almost adult like. There was a certain sadness about him though, as if he sensed that he was different and that the other kids were talking about him. Maybe he just kept it to himself….Or maybe it was all a facade. Maybe he simply took solace in knowing that he was bigger, smarter, stronger and faster than all the rest of us! Maybe he knew he could kick all our butts and just didn’t…just to keep us on our toes. Probably not but it makes me feel better believing it was possible for him to have that kind of peace.
I don’t know Dung’s story before Montclair. All I know is that he was smart, athletic, quiet but friendly and much taller than the rest of us. He always did his best and always seemed to do the right thing. I only saw him get upset once. I’m not sure what it was or maybe I just don’t remember but I’ll never forget that hurt in his face. In hindsight, I’m sure he knew very well how different he may have seemed to the other kids but he didn’t let it change who he was, how he acted or how he treated others. Truth is, he was so much better than the rest of us in a lot of ways. Knowing that, I’d like to think he made it…not in spite of being different, but because of it.