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Scholar Voices: Eric’s Journey to the Classroom

Eric Trinh Chu is a 2013 Meritus Scholar and rising senior at Kenyon College, studying sociology and literature. Through the Meritus internship program, he is spending this summer teaching creative writing to kids aged 7-10 with 826 Valencia, an education nonprofit. He plans lessons, supervises breaks and field trips, and gives instruction with a team of two other intern-teachers. Post-grad goal: become a published novelist.

Can you remember the first time you struggled to learn something?

For me, it was a muggy summer’s day. I was seven years old, and mom still sang me to sleep with songs in her mother tongue. In my dreams, angels and phantoms alike spoke Chinese. The brassy tones of Cantonese wove together with Vietnamese’s singsong lilt to form the full-mouthed music of my family. English struck a tenuous counterpoint to my linguistic repertoire; its staccato flurry of sounds slipped clumsily around my tongue. Yet, this was the language I needed to master, if I wanted to call myself American.

So instead of summer camp, instead of playing in the sun, I wrote vocabulary drills. Mom knew that books were the way to learn, so she made me copy them down, by hand, cover-to-cover. There are old composition notebooks buried in our house in which I’ve scrawled the full text of Charlotte’s Web over and over. The pages never once complained of my atrocious handwriting, but mom often did.

I hated it. I understood about half of the words I was copying, and when I told my mother, she made me look up every word I didn’t understand (and then copy down the full dictionary definitions!). When she came home late from work, she would ask me to read to her whatever I had transcribed for the day. I would make up sounds to words I didn’t know, and mom would nod along so excitedly that I, in my guilt, started bringing words I couldn’t pronounce to my neighborhood librarian for guidance.

Something about those endless drills must have paid off, because after three more summers of them, I was reading at a level some years advanced over my fellow fifth graders. No longer encumbered by the base mechanics of language, I flourished in exploring writing’s creative potential—with wordplay, with poetry, with metaphors: all vehicles to grow my sensitivity to a world unbearably vast and brimming with meaning.

Yes: the English language gave me Stockholm syndrome. But despite the many bad teachers I’ve encountered in my schooling, I’ve been lucky to meet many greater teachers, who, like my mother, carved in me the skills I needed to deepen my relationship with literature. Their attention and passion are the gifts that make me a gifted writer.

After years of volunteering to peer-edit papers and personal statements, and a handful of hours as a teacher’s aide, I’m ready for my first formal role at the head of a classroom. I want to work with students to develop their relationships with writing. I aim to become a holistic teacher, mentor, and nurturer, one who brings out the best in students of varying backgrounds and learning styles. This internship with 826 Valencia is giving me the opportunity to lab out lesson-planning and execution; while their summer program is relaxed and my students are quite young, I will be confronting the challenge of how to create fun, yet rigorous, classroom activities for a range of different learners.

In the long run, I believe in the kind of education that proudly rejects being limited to the concerns of the market. We should not be prioritizing the creation of laborers for the workforce. What I am invested in is nothing less than the painstaking process of cultivating, in myself and in others, a power that outlasts kingdoms—the power of literature to inspire an imagination of a future beyond the world’s hierarchies. After college, I aim to write such literature and to champion educational reform: to diminish the role of drill-and-kill test-taking culture and the expedient philosophy that education is but the means to a job.

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