Guest Column

What I Learned From Vietnamese Americans


The best thing that happened in the Upper Darby School District during my term as superintendent was the influx of Vietnamese immigrants. This is not to slight the 50 other first-generation nationalities that were circulating through my school district, but the Vietnamese were the majority of the minorities and so I've chosen them to drive home a point about something the public schools do so very well.

The Vietnamese newcomers to the Upper Darby schools settled into a neighborhood of the school district just across Philadelphia’s western border. They had little money, but they brought with them the values most of us like to think of as American. They prioritized hard work, family and education as keys to success--the formula for the American Dream as it served so many previous generations.

These newest Americans had it down to a science. Their children became superb school citizens and students because this was what was expected and demanded from the home. And they excelled.

They also taught me a thing or two. These are some of their stories that had a profound impact on me.

A Game Master
Hao became one of the first Asian-Americans elected to anything in Delaware County, Pa., and he served on the Upper Darby School Board for several years. He was a valuable asset to me, a superb resource on all things Asian. He also became my good friend.

Hao and I once went to a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game at Veterans Stadium as guests of one of the school district's vendors. I looked forward to enlightening Hao about the finer points of the game. I would show him my vast knowledge of America's pastime.

In the first inning, with a New York Mets runner on first base, Hao screamed out to me and everyone around us, "I've stolen the sign. He's gonna try to steal second!" Sure enough, the Mets player broke with the pitch and slid safely into second base.

From that point on, it was Hao who was incessantly pointing out to me the idiosyncrasies of baseball as we enjoyed the game together. Hao never ceased to amaze me in everything he did.

Remarkable Success
Another story brings home the point. The Little Saigon restaurant is a small family-operated business in the 69th Street section of Upper Darby. The Vietnamese chef and owner, Edward, prepares the freshest and most delicious fare you can find anywhere. He also is a delightful conversationalist.

He'll tell you of his upbringing in a Buddhist monastery, his eventual flight from Vietnam and his arrival in the United States with nothing but hope. He's also the best advertisement for public education I could ever hope to produce.

No fewer than 23 members of Edward's family--uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, his children and theirs--have gone through the Upper Darby public schools in recent years. All either have advanced degrees or are enrolled in college.

Now if public education is as broken as so many of its naysayers would have the general public believe, what are we then to make of the success stories of Edward's family? For many of these young people, English was not even their first language. How could they possibly go on to such success in higher education upon graduating from supposedly broken schools?

I once asked Edward about the remarkable academic achievements of his family members, all of them graduates of the Upper Darby school system. He explained it all succinctly: A matter of priorities. Family, education and diligence--all qualities at the top of the list in Vietnamese-American households.

A High Flyer
Minh was a delicate Vietnamese flower who arrived in my school system as an 8th grader. She spoke no English. Five years later, in 1995, she graduated No. 1 in the class academically.

Minh completed more college-level Advanced Placement courses at Upper Darby High School than any previous student in the school's history. She was granted status as a junior upon entering Penn State University in the pre-med program. Minh graduated magna cum laude in two years.

At Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson Medical School, despite being much younger than her peers, Minh ranked near the top academically among all medical students. But she was not No. 1. Minh apologized to me for this failing in writing, while pointing to her public school education as the key to her academic success.

But, then, what does Minh know? There are so many self-anointed experts in America who know so much better about the outcomes of public school students.

Humiliating Episode
As a child, I had made a vow to myself that I would never forget what it's like to be poor and that if I ever got anywhere financially, I would try to help others.

One way I kept this promise was to establish a personally funded scholarship at our senior high school shortly after I became superintendent. The specifications that I gave the high school were that the student have financial need and academic promise. Based on those criteria, the high school could pick the recipient. I wanted no part in the selection.

In late May 1985, it was Senior Awards Night at Upper Darby High School. Students getting scholarships and other awards were invited along with their parents et al. The seniors arrived dressed better than I had ever seen them. They sat surrounded by their smiling families in our huge auditorium. It was a gala evening.

I was seated on the stage next to my high school principal, Gil, and the other award presenters. I couldn't wait to hand out my scholarship. Finally, they called the recipient's name. She wasn't there. An awkward silence followed. I stood in front of everyone on the stage like an idiot. My moment in the sun ruined.

The program resumed. Someone was going to pay for my humiliation! I was furious.

"Gil, I'm not sure if you're going to be working here in the future," I angrily told my high school principal when the festivities ended. "But on the chance that you would like to continue onward and upward in your career, I strongly suggest you have an explanation of this farce to me by 8 a.m. tomorrow."

The only "no show" of the entire evening turned out to be my scholarship recipient. How could this have happened?

A Worthy Winner
Gil called me at 7:30 the next morning. "Can you come over to see me?" he asked. "I've got the answer to last night, and I can't do it justice over the phone." I told Gil I was on the way.

When I got to his office, Gil was behind his desk. A Vietnamese teen-ager was seated on his couch. It was obvious she had been crying.

"Amy, please tell the superintendent what you told me earlier this morning," Gil directed.

"I am so very sorry that I have hurt you. This I never meant to do. I have already received so much goodness from the Upper Darby High School," Amy sobbed. "My parents and I did not understand how I could be worthy of such an important award from our most honorable superintendent. We were certain there was some mistake. I was too embarrassed to even mention this to my teachers or friends. I thought they would laugh at my pride in thinking that I might be considered for such an honor. Now this morning, I have found that it is all true, that I was supposed to receive a scholarship. What you must think of me? I have done something unforgivable. I am so unworthy."

By this time, Gil and I were emotional basket cases. Two crumbled tough guys. Nobody spoke for a while.

I went over to the sofa and sat down beside Amy. I handed her a tissue and told her to wipe her eyes. I gave her my scholarship. We stood up and faced one another and did a lot of bowing. I told her she was indeed a very worthy student, and that she should never forget it. I didn't tell her how unworthy I felt at that moment.

Joe Batory retired last year after 14 years as superintendent in Upper Darby, Pa. He can be reached at P.O. Box 56249, Philadelphia, PA 19130. E-mail: He is the author of Yo! Joey! The Unique Memoirs of an Unusual School Superintendent