Thirty five years ago I was working in a Continuing Ed program. Computers were not yet omnipresent, we opened up a computer lab in the school and made the computers available to the public in the evenings.
I came into the lab three nights a week to type and help people with their typing. After awhile, regulars started to appear. One of the regulars was a woman who had been a member of my first ninth grade class, way back in 1968. I didn’t recognize her until one night, she showed up with her yearbook from ninth grade. She pointed herself out and I recognized her immediately. Then she went to the faculty section and showed me my picture. Memories roared back into my noggin. I told her that I would love to have a copy of that picture. She said, “I thought you might.” and handed me enlarged copy of the image.
There I was 21, helmet haired, naked faced wearing my suit coat and tie. I’m standing with more experienced colleagues in the Dept all of whom I considered much older and much wiser that I.
I’ve got five daughters now who have surpassed the age of the oldest of my colleagues in the picture and several grand children who are approaching my age in the image.
The next day, so many years ago, I taped the picture to a wall in my classroom to see if anybody would notice.
Nobody noticed all day or all week.
I forgot about the picture.
During my last block of the day, one of my students was another kid from Viet Nam named Tron Tron. Often, when the day had ended and all of the other students had jetted out of the room, out of the building, onto the buses, Tron Tron would linger and "talk".
I couldn’t understand what Tron was saying. I listened intently. I smiled. I nodded. I shrugged my shoulders when he repeated himself. I didn’t understand but I wanted to understand and enjoyed trying. Judging from his smiles, nods, questions and shrugs, I realized that Tron didn’t know what I was saying but enjoyed trying to understand because our “conversations” always ended with laughter and good vibes.
One day, I noticed Tron noticing the Xerox on the wall. I told him that the picture was taken during my first year of teaching. Once again, Tron didn’t know what I was saying but he was enjoying trying to understand and I was enjoying…..etc.
Tron turned back to the picture and in his native language said “oohdinden”
I was listening actively enough to repeat his word and add a question.
We were beginning to communicate.
Tron responded “yeah, yeah, oohdinden.”
I was getting excited. I was learning VietNamese. I didn’t know what the hell “oohdinden” meant but it was such a cool sounding word. I looked at the picture and the the picture was “oohdinden” whatever the hell that was.
I asked Tron what else he saw in the picture.
He looked at me sheepishly and said “oohphadow”
We repeated the same process.
“oohphadow?” I repeated trying to get the pronunciation just right.
“ya, ya, oohphadow” Tron asserted.
Once again, the joy of communicating. We both started saying “oohdinden” and oohphadow” over and over again.
With much pointing and gesticulating, I asked Tron to SHOW me “oohdinden”. He thought for a moment, and then he sucked his cheeks in and opened his eyes wide. I said “okay, show me ‘oohphadow’. With that, he puffed is cheeks out and squinted. This went on for awhile. I’d say “oohdinden” and he would suck his cheeks in. I’d say “oohphadow’ Tron would puff up his cheeks.
Then it hit me.
“You thin then?”, I asked Tron who went nuts with agreement, nodding, sucking in his cheeks bulging his eyes and pointing to the picture.
“You fat now?” I asked. More laughing, more nodding, more puffing and squinting except now instead of pointing at the picture. He was pointing directly at me.
I had learned another lesson in universal language. Tron had looked at my picture from the past and observed “You were thin then.” Then Tron had shifted his gaze from the picture to me and said “you’re fat now.”
He kept repeating. “You thin then. You fat now.”
I told Tron that someday I was going to write about what had just happened. Pretty sure he didn't understand.
So Tron, wherever you are? This one’s for you.