A Deadly Difference: The Story of Thong Hy Huynh

“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
Maya Angelou, The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou
When I first started teaching I worked in a rough neighborhood.  It was completely different from where I grew up-no long, winding bike paths, well manicured little league fields, or bountiful Farmer’s Markets.  There was no nearby college, rich with cultural opportunities, nor any kids hanging out at the public library.  Instead, there was concrete, apartments, iron gates and bars on windows.  There were grassy areas devoid of dogs on leashes or children on swings.  It was different, and I was a bit intimidated.
Where I went to high school

The 25 mile commute each day from the bubble of a community I grew up in took me from a place where crime wasn’t something we worried about. We hardly ever locked our doors, and if we broke curfew (or any other teenage rule) someone always saw us and informed our parents.  We knew everyone at school, and there was no escaping a reputation that siblings had left behind.  We went to school from kindergarten through graduation among children we played in sandboxes with-some might have called it utopia.  Until one day…

May 4, 1983:

Thong Hy Huynh was a new kid in town.  His family had recently immigrated from Vietnam, hoping for a better life. He was quiet-in fact, so quiet that I never even met him. I never knew his name until the day he was killed on campus.

On that day, life in our idyllic little town changed forever.  One minute we were walking to Home Ec during our senior year, preparing for another period of delightful cooking instruction.  The next minute, total chaos erupted just around the corner from our classroom.  People were screaming and a huge crowd hovered near the art room.  For a moment I thought it must be just another fight-not that fighting was an everyday occurrence.  But the teacher’s grave expressions and composed panic told me this was more-much more.

Thong was different.  He didn’t speak English fluently, and had seen horrors in his native country we can only imagine.  At that moment on May 4, he was defending a friend who was being tormented by a red haired, light skinned bully.  Words were exchanged, and before anyone knew it Thong was down, stabbed and bleeding to death.

Eight years after his death, I remember what I felt when I began teaching in my new community.  I felt different.  I was out of my comfort zone.  I felt scared and insecure.  But after a few weeks, I felt myself relaxing. I felt the love and trust of my students and their parents as they realized my care was genuine, and my passion for teaching began to override my fears of being ‘different’.

I don’t think it was until then, years after Thong died, that I really realized what Maya Angelou was saying.  And now, when my daughter walks past his memorial plaque at the high school I hope she understands.  Actually, I know she understands.  Because what I learned from Thong and my students is a part of me, and the message flows from my heart and actions into my children at home and at school.  We ARE more alike than we know, and being different is what makes life such a beautiful experience.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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  1. Hi Jennifer. I am currently writing an essay that will include Thong Hy Huynh’s unfortunate and untimely death. I have searched in vain for a picture of the plaque that is at Davis Senior High School in his honor. Is is possible that you might be able to take a picture of that memorial and send it to me? Thank you, Gayle

  2. Hi Keesha~ Thank you for stopping by. As a teacher, I believe in trying to make these tragedies learning experiences for my students. It’s all I can do.
    Hi Savvy~ Glad you found mamawolfe! I hope you come back soon!

  3. Thank you. This is such an important post – especially as bullying has become an unfortunate and ubiquitous presence in reality and in cyberspace. As another commenter wrote, how sad that it takes tragedy for us to learn important lessons. And currently, it is heartbreaking that many of the very tragedies we speak of have no effect whatsoever.

    Stopping by from VB.

    Keesha at http://www.momsnewstage.blogspot.com/

  4. Hi Taylor~ glad you liked the post. I agree with you, and if we remember the pain, maybe we can work to avoid repeating it.
    Hi LBD~ thank you. The older I get, the more I realize that people all over the world have the same basic wants. How we go about getting them may be different, but we are so much more alike than we are different.

  5. This post puts things in perspective. We are all the same in that we are human beings but our experiences and live lessons give us the individuality that makes us different. Powerful post, just powerful. Thank you for visiting me from LBD Tea Party so that I could come over here and grow.

  6. Wow! This is a wonderful post. It’s unfortunate that some of life’s most powerful lessons come as a result of pain. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey.
    God Bless.

  7. Hi anonymous`thanks for stopping by and leaving the kind words!

    Hi Lisa~ You’re welcome. Thinking about a favorite quote this week triggered this memory in an unexpected way.

    Hi Dee~ Again, so well stated. If we really try, we can find so many ways we are all so very similar. What a difference it would make in our country.

    Hi Desiree~ ragic, indeed. And I know that for myself and my classmates, an extremely powerful lesson learned.

  8. Such a horrific happening. And it is so true that often we look for the differences that divide us rather than those same-ness-es that unite us.

    I’m remembering a quote that I’ve put in other comments. It’s from another person’s blog this summer: “I do not know what I’m looking at, so I must not judge what I see.”

    It’s so easy for us to judge. But to survive as a people and a nation, I think we must cease judging and cease looking for how we differ. Instead we must find what unites us.


  9. Wow. I’m so sorry that happned to Thong and that you and so many had to witness it. He obviously died a hero. So many just stand by when others are being bullied, but he was brave enough to make a stand. My heart goes out to him, his family and all of his friends.

    This was such a powerful story and quote. Thank you so much for sharing it with it because it carries with it such an extremely important message.


  10. I started at DSHS the following fall and remember hearing about Thong and seeing the plaque. You are such a lovely, thoughtful writer, J… Thanks for sharing this… BIG LOVE!

  11. Hi MA~ yes, I was there. Sadly, it is one of my most vivid memories of senior year.

    Hi Christina~ Glad you liked the post. That really is one of my favorite quotes~

    Hi Lorie~ I don’t live in a gated community, and sadly I think that really is just adding to the problem. I would recommend reading “The Tortilla Curtain” for an excellent explanation of how this problem is huge in southern California.

    Hi Kenny~ thank you.

  12. What an amazing story! That quote will make me stop and think now. Thank you for sharing! We do take for granted our big houses and gated communities and feel so safe and “better”. I pray that I am teaching my kids the importance of friendship to everyone! Even sharing a smile with a stranger can make a difference!

  13. What an awesome response to the question of the week. As Michael Ann said, this was very powerful. The photo of Thong and the video brought tears to my eyes.

    I think everyone, at one time or another, has felt like the new kid in town. I know I have at a new job or a new group. It’s so difficult. But we are more alike than we know.

    Thank you for writing this!

  14. This was a powerful post. It put a huge lump in my throat. I didn’t know you were a senior when that happened. I didn’t grow up here but since living here, I read about it every single year in The Enterprise and it’s still hard for me to believe it happened. Love the Maya Angelous quote, she is wonderful. The video is a great touch too. Thank you for this thoughtful message.

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