Published in the Delaware County Daily Times April 22, 2019
By JOSEPH P. BATORY, Times Columnist
When I became Upper Darby’s Superintendent of Schools in 1984, many thousands of Vietnamese immigrants had already arrived in the USA. Most of them were from South Vietnam and many had worked closely with Americans during the Vietnam War. They had escaped persecution and reprisals from the Communists after Saigon fell in 1975. And the waves of these newcomers kept coming into the decade ahead.
A significant number of these Vietnamese immigrants, some of them refugee boat people, chose to settle into an Upper Darby neighborhood just across Philadelphia’s western border. They had little money and basically were starting their lives over in a new nation. But they brought with them strong values which most of us like to think of as American. They prioritized diligence in school and at work and prioritized family ties and education as keys to success–the formula for the American Dream as it has served so many previous generations in the USA.
The Vietnamese Americans had it down to a science. Their children became superb school citizens and students in the Upper Darby School District because this was what was expected and demanded from the home. And they excelled.
They also had a profound impact on me.
The Little Saigon restaurant is a small family-operated business which is still active in the 69th Street section of Upper Darby. The Vietnamese chef and owner, Edward, a good friend, along with his delightful wife, prepares the freshest and most delicious fare you can find anywhere. Edward has an outgoing personality and loves to chat with his customers.
He will 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.
Edward is also the best advertisement for public education I could ever hope to produce. More than 20 members of Edward’s family–uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, his children and theirs–have gone through the Upper Darby public schools. Many now have advanced university degrees.
So 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? It was tough enough to just get through Upper Darby High School.
I once asked Edward about the remarkable academic achievements of so many of his family members who had been graduated from the Upper Darby school system. He explained it this way: “It is all about priorities. “Family comes first, education must never be neglected, and hard work is to be expected—these are the qualities at the top of the list in all Vietnamese-American households!!!!”
A High Flyer
Minh was a delicate Vietnamese flower who arrived in Upper Darby as an 8th grader. She spoke no English when she entered the Beverly Hills Middle School. Five years later, in 1995, she was graduated from Upper Darby High School No. 1 in the class academically.
At that point, Minh had completed more college-level Advanced Placement courses at Upper Darby High School than any previous student in the school’s history. As a result, she was granted status as a junior when she started Penn State University in the pre-med program. Minh graduated magna cum laude from Penn State with a pre-med bachelor’s degree 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 “her failing” in writing.
Imagine feeling badly because even though you were an outstanding medical student, you were not No. 1. Minh was truly one of the best achievers and most caring persons I have ever met. She is now a successful doctor.
The Scholarship 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.
When I became Upper Darby’s school superintendent, I began to keep this promise by establishing my personally funded scholarship assistance for a graduating senior each year. The specifications that I gave the high school were that my scholarship recipient need financial help and have academic promise. Based on those criteria, the high school could pick the student. 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 and families. 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 Minacci, and the other award presenters. I couldn’t wait to hand out my “first-ever” scholarship. Finally, they called my recipient’s name. BUT she wasn’t there. An awkward silence followed. I stood in front of everyone on the stage like an idiot. I was furious. My “moment in the sun” was ruined.
The program resumed. Someone was going to pay for my humiliation! 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. “Please come over to my office?” he asked. “I’ve got the answer to what happened 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 small Vietnamese female 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. 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. How badly you must think of me. I have done something unforgivable and offended you. I am so unworthy.”
By this time, Gil and I were emotional wrecks. We were two crumbled tough guys. We were all teared up. 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 Amy she was indeed a very worthy student, and that she should never forget it. I didn’t tell Amy how unworthy I felt at that moment. That’s because my scholarship assistance should never have been about me…it should have been and has since been always about helping a student in need. Call it my course in “Humility One.”
In summary, the influx of so many Vietnamese immigrants into the Upper Darby community became a wonderful illustration of the American Dream fulfilled. The many meaningful contacts and relationships I had with many of Upper Darby’s Vietnamese Americans live on in my heart.
Adapted and reprinted with permission from Joseph Batory’s first book, Yo! Joey! The Unique Memoirs of an Unusual School Superintendent with permission from RowmanEducation, 2000, Lanham, MD and Oxford, UK.