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'I Have Wings Now': At Age 45, She Went Back To School

Christopher Myers, left, and his GED student, Ngoc Nguyen, right.
Chelsea Aguilera
Christopher Myers, left, and his GED student, Ngoc Nguyen, right.

Ngoc Nguyen was born in Saigon during the final years of the Vietnam War. She left school when she was in 10th grade to help support her family.

In her early 20s, she immigrated to the U.S. and continued to work.

It wasn't until age 45 that Nguyen pursued a dream she had long put on hold: She enrolled in a GED program and passed the test to earn her certification.

In 2018, she sat down to record a StoryCorps conversation from Oklahoma City with her teacher, Chris Myers, to talk about what his class meant to her.

Nguyen, now 49, told Myers, 41, that she dropped out of high school, before she could earn her diploma.

"After the war my dad was in prison," she said. "My mom had to take care of five of us and I had to go out to work when I was like in sixth or seventh grade." She continued to work and go to school before dropping out.

Myers never knew that about his student.

"You never gave any hint that you had had that kind of childhood," he said.

For all the dedication Myers had for his students, Nguyen also wanted to know whether she and her classmates ever got on his nerves.

Myers admitted that his job was draining at times, but that the energy he put into his students had always been worth it.

"Many people work and they don't even like what they do," he told her. "And they'll tell you, 'OK, well, go get that paycheck,' right. But, if the only time you're happy is when you get paid, that's a waste of a life.

"What a lot of people don't know about instructing — when you do it right, you're allowing somebody to go into you and take energy away from you. And you have to do that. So I end up very drained sometimes, but at the end of the day, whatever it is that my learners take out, they put back in me."

Nguyen told Myers that she appreciated how he went out of his way to help them succeed.

Myers recalled when a student told him that Nguyen got emotional after learning that she had finally passed the GED test.

"Every bit of work that we've ever done to get you to this point, it was worth it just to know that you were crying tears of joy — that I helped you do something that you're so happy about, you had tears," he said.

Myers said that working with Nguyen to get from a low score on her first test to a passing score wasn't an easy road.

"I know that can be, like, extremely discouraging. I have a lot of students that I don't see any more after that," he said. "But then to see you back the next day, I'm like, 'OK, we're fightin'.' And when I see a fighter, I get excited. I'm like, 'OK, bring it,' you know, me and you against the world. And that's how I feel."

As for Nguyen, the hard work was beyond worth it.

"You change people's lives," she told him. "Because after I passed my GED, I feel like I have wings now. I can fly."

"You can, and don't let anybody tell you that you can't," Myers said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jey Born