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The Flute Player

The Flute Player

Trevor Gardner is one of 5 teachers opening a new school in East Oakland under Oakland School District's new small-school initiative.

By Trevor Gardner

"When you're lost and alone, that's when a rainbow comes for you." - Michael Franti

Teaching is an incredible amount of work, if one does it well.  It is non-stop responsibility.  It is attempting to run a marathon with one leg tied behind your back.  And, sometimes it is wings on your feet.

Almost every day someone tells me how wonderful it is that I am a teacher, how difficult it must be, especially in an "inner city school," but fulfilling at the same time.  Yes, it is difficult and it is absolutely fulfilling; but one can never understand the full weight of those experiences until he has shared hours, days, months with a child, inside and outside of the classroom, connecting with her or him as a teacher and as a friend.  Until you have breathed the air of being an educator, it is impossible to know its depths, nor its peaks. 

It began with a simple e-mail from Facing History and Ourselves.  They were sponsoring the screening of a documentary movie entitled, The Flute Player, about a man named Arn Chorn Pond – a survivor of the genocide of nearly two million people in Cambodia during and after the American War in Vietnam.  Arn would be present to speak after the movie. 

Upon hearing about The Flute Player, I immediately thought of Jennifer, a student in my 7th period class.  Her mother is Cambodian and her father Vietnamese.  I remember conversations with Jennifer during which she described how her father had shared with her extensively his experiences living in Vietnam and details of his escape to the United States during the war on his country.  She knew much about Vietnam and was excited about her "daddy's" culture.  However, she knew almost nothing about her mother's history, the Cambodian side of her past – and her present.  That part of her cultural heritage was dark, absent from her consciousness.  Her mother and her grandparents did not like to talk about it so Jennifer has remained somewhat ignorant of her Cambodian heritage.  At least The Flute Player would be interesting to her because of her cultural connection, I thought.

I decided to invite all of my students to accompany me to the SF Public Library to view the movie, offering extra credit as an incentive.  Fourteen of them opted to attend, out of three classes that total just over one hundred students.  Although their unforeseen enthusiasm excited me, there was no way I could predict the kind of impact the movie would have on them. 

Several of the students acquired their own rides but eight of them lagged behind, apparently assuming a winged chariot or a flying carpet would appear to carry them to the SF Public Library, where the event was taking place.  With time running out, we decided to pile into my four-passenger Toyota Tacoma as to avoid walking in during the middle of the movie.  Four packed into the back, beneath the tinted window camper shell and four more squished into the extended cab, arms and hair spilling out the windows. 

We arrived right on time and were welcomed with open arms by the folks from Facing History and Ourselves, who had organized the screening and discussion with Arn Chorn Pond.  A few other high school students were scattered among the crowd but Thurgood Marshall was the only school that had a significant number of students in attendance.  For the most part, the audience consisted of adults, which surprised me. 

The documentary was powerful, at times speaking directly to the role of youth in affecting change in the world.  Sitting side by side in the front row, it appeared that my students were engaged and interested by The Flute Player, not an easy accomplishment when it comes to documentary films.  After the film, Arn appeared on stage and reflected for several minutes about the experience of making the film and the importance of bringing back traditional music in Cambodia, as it had been nearly wiped out between 1975 and 1979, during the genocide. 

With eloquence, humility and passion, Arn related the story of how music had saved his life as hundreds of brothers, sisters, mothers, and grandfathers were brutally and indiscriminately murdered around him every day.  Afterwards, he opened the microphone to questions from the audience.  I was the first to raise my hand and I asked a question that has been growing in me since I began teaching: "For students who already experience a great deal of violence, oppression and destruction in their own lives, how do we teach them about atrocities like the genocide in Cambodia and help them to understand the relevancy of the suffering of strangers thousand of miles away – and to understand the connection between themselves and others?"  Arn's response was immediate and full of heartfelt fire.  It was aimed not at me, but at the Thurgood Marshall students sitting in the front row.  He spoke to them of their power as individuals and of their responsibility for others around them.  He implored them to stand as individuals, to follow the truth in their hearts and to cultivate respect for the people around them, especially their elders.  His appeals reflected so many of the lessons I attempted to integrate into my teaching. But the weight of his experience and notoriety gave undeniable authority to his words. 

Almost breathless at what had unexpectedly become a deeply illuminating teaching moment, I rose in applause as Arn began descending from the stage to leave.  Then, amidst the fervent standing ovations, I heard Jennifer's voice ring out, pleading to make one last comment.  From behind strained tears, gave one of the most courageous and heartfelt compliments I have ever witnessed.  "This is the most I have ever learned about my Cambodian culture and my people.  I have realized so much through your words," she explained.  "Thank you." 

The entire audience stood in awe and admiration as Arn approached this brave young woman with a tearful embrace that had been fifteen years in the waiting for Jennifer and the two of them began making plans for her to visit Cambodia.  It was a moment that changed lives. 

Such moments come rarely and unpredictably in the lives of students – and teachers.  I believe they deeply shape who we are and what we become, when we live in the extremes of experience and awaken to the possibility of a lived brilliance. 

Teaching is an incredible amount of work, if it is done well, but the rewards are equal to the sacrifice.  Mountains must be moved.  But sometimes those mountains grow legs and move on their own.  They journey to heights never before imagined and end up moving you, teaching you.  This is the reward of teaching – and it is unparalleled.  I would not trade it for anything in the world. 

Trevor Gardner taught history and language arts at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco for four years. This fall, he will be teaching humanities in East Oakland. He participated in the Asia Institute's 2003 study tour to Korea and Japan and our 2004 workshop on human rights in Asia. You can reach him at

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the UCLA Asia Institute.

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