The adage that experience is the best teacher has a profound meaning for Southern Californian Marc Phillip Yablonka, who found his passion for writing by accident.
The military journalist, author, and retired educator came across this lesson at the start of his unexpected 36-year run as an instructor of ESL (English as a second language) in adult education with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Now retired from teaching, he reflects on his initiation to classroom teaching, something no amount of schooling had prepared him for.
A day after he observed an ESL class at Evans Community Adult School on the outskirts of Chinatown in Los Angeles, the relatively fresh college grad with no training in pedagogy was asked by the school principal if he wanted his own class.
“Uh, uh, okay,” Yablonka said. The butterflies in his stomach were understandable considering that in 1976, ESL was a field scarcely heard of, nor were there many qualified people to teach it. College programs had not yet invented disciplines like TESOL ( Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).
The school district, its back in a corner, needed degree-holding candidates in any discipline with at least twenty units of credit in English. Yablonka’s bachelor’s in English literature satisfied the condition. His role would be to facilitate the language needs and overall cultural acclimation of the influx of Indochinese refugees—called “boat people”—fleeing from the communist takeover after the Vietnam War, as well as immigrants from many other nations. Left to sort things out by himself, he had the keys to the classroom and had to hit the ground running.
He had at least one thing his students didn’t have but direly needed: English. Even with that, Yablonka arrived at school hours before class to prepare. Teaching was a lot like on-the-job training, a trial and error of what worked and what didn’t.
“Baptism under fire,” Yablonka recalled of the experience, which he attributes to helping him sharpen his own skills in his native language. “Suffice to say, whatever I know of the English language, which is quite a lot, I learned by teaching it.”
He came to admire students from Southeast Asia in particular for “their zest for life, sense of humor, and fortitude in the face of war,” he told The Epoch Times.
Earning a master’s degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California while teaching full time helped connected the dots to the next phase in his life.
Born into Jewish traditions in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, his writing led him to another kind of cultural awareness, firsthand, as a stringer for the National Catholic Register. This adaptability to learn new things by immersion put him on track to writing for military-themed periodicals, notably “Stars and Stripes,” “Soldier of Fortune,” and “American Veteran.”
A growing passion for writing and a knack as a raconteur culminated in his authoring several nonfiction books about the Vietnam War, those who served in Vietnam, and those most affected—the group that became his students.
“Distant Wars,” “Tears Across the Mekong,” and his most recent release “Vietnam Báo Chi: Warriors of Word and Film,” have the sound of action thrillers. Each book is a compassionate undertaking on many unique aspects of this unsettling time in history. For many old enough to remember, it was the the first war brought into American homes in prime time television, on the Evening News with Walter Cronkite, or another network. Those videos on television were largely created by civilians, however.
Báo Chi, loosely translated, means journalist. Publisher’s Weekly commends the book for “fill[ing] a void,” as it “shines light on the all-but-forgotten role of American military.” It’s a compilation of 35 true tales of soldier-photographers in Vietnam whose decisions often spelled life or death.
“[T]here were many times when a still or motion picture photographer had to make a split-second decision on whether to shoot his camera or his M-16,” said Yablonka, a current member of the California National Guard. He concedes that although he did not serve in the armed forces in Vietnam, this book, like the others, is the way for him to pay homage to those who did.
“They [soldier-photographers] were also tasked with showing the good that our troops did in Vietnam and braveness with which they did it,” he said.
Yablonka does not shy away from offering his thoughts on the American war effort in Vietnam, which runs counter to many mainstream narratives. Based on his interviews with soldiers and civilians, and many trips to post-war Vietnam, he concludes that the United States did not lose the conflict; rather, its spirit of free-market economy eventually had a strong influence. “If you go to Vietnam today, you see resorts and golf courses springing up everywhere. Saigon is a bustling city again.”
Even Hanoi, formerly in the Communist-held north region during the war, is different, he claims.
“The fact that former President Barack Obama and late chef Anthony Bourdain could schmooze late into the night over a beer in a Hanoi cafe and make the evening news doing so is not the result of communism. It’s the result of capitalist monetary infusion from us, France, Canada, Australia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Even those who still cling to an iota of communist ideology call themselves ‘Red Capitalists’ today.”
While Human Rights Watch reports that “Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in all areas,” the organization offers some measure of hope, stating that “increasing numbers of bloggers and activists have called publicly for democracy and greater freedoms.”