“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” (On teaching, the first in a series.)

The classroom was square and windowless, with white cinder block walls and overhead fluorescent lighting. Six rows of six chairs each filled most of the space, with my gray, regulation-size desk facing them. Behind my desk was a tall filing cabinet. A blackboard covered the wall next to me, a real blackboard with real chalk.

This was a long time ago.

I remember it perfectly. I can still feel what it felt like to walk in there every morning at 6:30 a.m., what it felt like to prop my legs up on the desk, what the buzzer that ripped through our eardrums at the end of every hour sounded like.

I had just moved to Minneapolis from Boston, where I had made enough money to support my life as a writer –meaning enough money to pay the rent on my one-small-room apartment, buy a pumpkin muffin every morning from the market down the street and go to matinee double features at the Harvard Square Cinema– by typing papers for Harvard and MIT students.

Charles Street Typing. $1/page. Quick turnaround. One block from the Charles St. T stop.

This was in many ways a great way to make a living if you were trying to be a writer. Make your own schedule. Get up early, write your own stories, then type other people’s papers. Get paid in cash and checks. I made so little money that I didn’t even have to file income taxes.

When I moved to Minneapolis, all this went away. There was no paper-typing market in Minneapolis, there were no lucrative temp jobs. How was I going to support my writing? I answered an ad in the paper for a part-time community liaison job at South High School. I didn’t get the job, no surprise, seeing as I had no idea what a community liaison did, nor did I know anything about either South High School or Minneapolis in general. I had moved there a few weeks earlier; it took me half the morning just to find the place, given its strange all-numbers address, so typical of Minneapolis.

But the school must have read my quickly-thrown-together resume, which listed my college major as East Asian Studies/Chinese, because they called me a few weeks later to offer me a two-week job substituting for the Chinese teacher, who was going to be out of town.

I accepted. Why not?

Those two weeks are a blur. I don’t remember anything specific about them; I had geared myself up for ten straight days teaching Chinese according to the regular teacher’s lesson plans, and then: Goodbye. Or, as we say in Chinese, zaijian.

But  it turned out that the regular teacher was actually moving to California, and the two-week substitute-teaching job was actually a full-time regular teaching job, and did I want it? This was an odd turn of events and I still, after all these years, don’t fully understand how it came about. The best explanation I can come up with is that the regular teacher loved her job and her students so much that she couldn’t face the fact that she would not be returning.

This makes sense to me, because it took only a month or so in that interior, windowless, cinder-block classroom for me to love those students too. I stayed for four years in that job, a job that was handed to me unexpectedly and that I never would have applied for.

Writer. That was the only thing I ever wanted to be, and it still is. Ask me what I am, what I do, and the only answer you’ll get is “I’m a writer.” It still and always takes me a while to remember that I also teach.

(Teaching is not an “also,” though. Teaching is a more important job, for the good of the world, than writing. It might be the most important job there is. This is something I know in my gut. Knowing it doesn’t make me less of a writer or more of a teacher; it’s a fact that I hold in my hands and heart.)

South High School, back then and still, was a cross-section of the big city of Minneapolis. Some kids who lived in the neighborhood went there because it was their community school. Some went because they were part of an “Open” program (it was easy to tell who the Open students were because of the happiness they took in questioning authority). Some went to South because they had babies and toddlers and they were part of the MICE (Mothers and Infants Childhood Education) program. Others were there because South had a Partnership program, designed to keep kids in serious danger of dropping out, kids with serious family difficulties, kids who often had serious difficulties with the law, in school and on track to graduate. Other students were there for the Arts & Humanities magnet program.

The student body was, and is to this day, representative of all races, economic classes, family backgrounds. Any and all of these children could, and did, take Mandarin; Chinese I, II, and III-IV were electives, part of an international language program that at the time included German, French, Spanish, Latin and Chinese.

Many of my students were first- or second-generation immigrants from Southeast Asia: Hmong, Vietnamese or Laotian, for the most part, with a few Chinese kids who spoke Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin, which I taught) at home.

This was my first experience with Hmong culture and history. I had no idea until then that the U.S. hired Hmong men in the mountains of Laos as guerrilla fighters before and during the Vietnam war. I had no idea that after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, these men and their families were in danger of their lives. I had no idea that, when offered asylum in the U.S., they ended up in Minnesota and California because that was where churches sponsored them.

All this was new to me. But everything was new to me: Minneapolis, teaching, and especially teaching Chinese. I was teaching myself how to teach as much as I was teaching the students Chinese.

Three images come shimmering up every time I think back to that classroom.

Lighting. The windowless room had overhead caged fluorescent tubes that buzzed and cast that eerie pallor over everyone’s face. Fluorescent lighting is horrible for many reasons, including its ugliness and the eyestrain it causes, so the first thing I did, when I got that job, was buy lots of lamps at garage sales and plug them in with extension cords (probably breaking fire code). We turned the lamps on and the overhead off, and the room was lit with soft, warm incandescence.

Pillows. The floor of our classroom was covered with thin, tough, ugly industrial tan carpet. I had an old green sewing machine that I found at a thrift shop, the one that I still sew on, come to think of it, and I made a bunch of big pillows out of corduroy in brown and red and ochre and orange. They were heaped in a pile in a corner and the students were free to haul them out and sit or lean on them when they worked on projects or assignments.

Dark brown eyes. These are the eyes of my students, the immigrant students who wanted to take Chinese because it was closest to the languages spoken in their homes. Vue* and May and Thuyen and Phuc and Hai, dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. After a while, some of them began to come in to the classroom during lunch, or after school, and stand in front of the desk or sit in the chair I kept next to it, and talk. Their stories are with me still.

That high school classroom was my teaching crucible. What I learned in it, about teaching, about observing, about connection, about being a human being, has stayed with me my entire life.

(To be continued. *All names and identifying characteristics have been and will be changed.)