Skip to content

The students walked 1,046 steps from Washington GT Magnet Elementary School to Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant in downtown Raleigh. It rained on them the whole way.

Eric DeShield, the club director of the Boys and Girls Club at Washington and known to these kids as Mr. Eric, drove past them, stopping to give them extra umbrellas. A Raleigh ambassador escorted them the whole way. Our community comes together and does what it takes…whatever it takes…to create educational opportunities, says one of the chaperones.

A lot of years ago now, when he was 12, Vansana Nolintha, known in and around our community as Van, made a trek from Laos to Greensboro. His parents and sister stayed behind. Van’s trip was longer than 1,046 steps, but like the one today, his trip was full of people coming together to help him find his way.

He landed in an ESL class — that’s English as a second language — where he found a teacher, Roberta Hoyle. “She was like my mother,” he says.

Van spent four years in ESL classes in the Guilford County Schools. He says though the ESL students spoke different languages, they shared similar journeys to the states and they found comfort in being together.

Van tells me he was uprooted from his food, his culture, his rhythm, his traditions, his Laos, and dropped into a new community. Hoyle, his ESL teacher, planted the seeds in this newcomer for a new life. Recently, when he sat in his restaurant with her at table five, the two could not stop crying.

Van was in college before he ever ate in a restaurant like the one he now owns with his sister.

DSC_0174

So, Van was a little bit excited to host these ESL students at Bida Manda for lunch. Things have a way of coming full circle.

Van prepped the chopsticks.

The kitchen was readied.

The table was set.

And then the students arrived. Jane Hunt has been teaching at Washington for 25 years. By the time this story runs, she will have retired. She has been teaching these students English since kindergarten. Most of them did not know any English when she began planting seeds of her own.

“What do we do at a restaurant?,” she asks the children as they collect in the foyer of Bida Manda. “Wait for the waiter,” the children respond.

This ESL class of second and third graders spends about 45 minutes together four times a week. Most of the families are from Mexico and El Salvador.

Today is diversity day at school, and these students are meeting new people and trying new food at a new restaurant. The students have been working their way through a food and nutrition curriculum. One curriculum extension suggested setting up a restaurant in the classroom and teaching students the process of ordering, eating, and paying for food, and then tipping. The lessons included conversation and etiquette.

These students were hungry for more, and the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation suggested a Gathering for Good at this local restaurant. Part of the Gathering for Good model is to provide experiential learning opportunities for students.

The students arrived in their finest shoes, with pink bows in their hair, wearing rhinestone necklaces.

Van took the orders himself, explaining the menu and answering questions along the way.

The first course? Manda’s crispy spring roll and the fresh summer roll. “Which one was your favorite,” Roxann Sykes, the assistant principal, asks the students. “Both!,” two boys, Alfredo and Jose, exclaim. Another student tries cucumber for the first time.

DSC_0236

The next course is shrimp chips. Nancy asks how to makes the chips. Van explains that shrimp and tapioca are combined to make a dough, then sliced and fried — like French fries, he says — to make this tasty treat.

When the chef makes an appearance, the students cry, “The chef, the chef.” 

DSC_0277

As the main course begins to arrive, it is hard for the students to wait for everybody to be served. One student covers his eyes to avoid the temptation.

Alfredo — who tells me his family is from Mexico, but “I am from here” — is sitting next to Jose, who has not been served yet. Alfredo says, “It’s hard to wait. I’m eating. I don’t care. When is it coming? I really want to eat now.” But the expression on his face lets me know he has no intention of eating until his friend is served.

Nation Hahn, who is on the board of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, notes, “This is really a great exercise in patience.” Nation doesn’t like to wait to eat either.

And then the teacher announced, “You may eat.”

Jose squeezed the lime on his pad thai. “This is spicy,” he says to Sykes. “Spicy or sour?,” she asks. “Sour,” he acknowledges with a pucker on his face.

“What is this?,” Jose asks Van. 

“Cilantro.”

“Can you eat it?”

“Yes.” Jose ate the whole thing, stem and all.

“This is so good I wish I could take it home,” says Jose. “Am I dreaming?”

Alfredo and Jose exchange bites of chicken fried rice and pad thai. “Which do you like better?,” asks Sykes again. “Both!”

On this trip, instead of the Monopoly money they used back at school, each student has a crisp, $1 bill to leave as a tip.

DSC_0328

Sykes takes a selfie of the group. One of the students says, “I like Mr. Van’s restaurant. It’s the best.”

DSC_0321


 

EdNC extends our thanks to Jane Hunt for teaching at Washington Elementary for 25 years. 

 

 

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.