I first met Andrew Nguyen at Jack Howe, a speech and debate tournament, my sophomore year. At the time, he was just a recent UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) graduate, coming back to help out the team he had been a part of for three years by judging for a weekend. It was nice talking to him about the event that I competed in, especially because there were no role models for me to emulate or knowledgeable coaches to learn from.
I really didn’t expect to see him again after that tournament, but he showed up to our first practice after the tournament to help out. Then, the practice after that. And soon, he was a critical part of the team, helping out students with delivery, speech writing, and learning about current events.
It was easy, even then, to realize that the amount of work Mr. Nguyen put into the squad was disproportionate to what he got out; he volunteered, free of charge, twice a week for two or more hours to patiently listen to the same speeches over and over and making small adjustments. Every other weekend, he’d wake up at five or six o’clock to join the team on a bus or to offer rides for students to go to debate tournaments. He gave up thousands of hours of his time to help the team grow and prosper, simply because he enjoyed speech and debate, because he enjoyed watching students grow and mature.
In retrospect, the best thing that happened to my debate career was meeting Mr. Nguyen. I qualified twice for nationals and once for state throughout my debate career because of the hard work and dedication Mr. Nguyen put in me, whether it be sending me articles or documentaries to spruce up my knowledge of the world or working with me on my speeches until everybody else had left. And when it came time to college applications, he read my personal statements over and over. I’m still surprised at how patient he was with my horrible first drafts and not much better subsequent ones.
I was happy to hear that he decided to pursue a career in education. Based on my interactions with him, I thought he would be perfect as a high school teacher. It was clear that he loved helping others grow, and it was obvious that he loved San Gabriel High and its speech program.
The year he went to CSULA (California State University, Los Angeles) to finish his teaching credentialing program, he student-taught while leading the Speech and Debate program, putting in ridiculous amounts of time into both activities. He juggled putting in those long, grueling hours of practice, taking students to debate tournaments that would last the entire day or even the weekend with student-teaching and preparing lesson plans. All this while taking a full-time student’s course load.
Just knowing how much hard work he put in made me so excited to hear that he was hired to be a teacher at San Gabriel! The first and only year he was a full-time teacher there, he balanced teaching for the first time (never an easy task!) with trying to finish his Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) assignments and leading an exponentially growing debate team.
This growth was astonishing. The speech and debate team had alternated between short bursts of success and longer periods of drought. When he took over, the team had gone through several coaching changes in a short time and it was hard to find students willing to put in the hard work. However, his enthusiasm helped the team break out of this period of instability, and soon, it grew to a squad of more than 60 students, a size that hadn’t been seen in over a decade.
This led to days where he pulled all-nighters or barely slept, workdays that started at 7 AM and ended when he closed his eyes the next day. His weekends were even more filled, balancing the need to grade and prepare lesson plans with coaching and judging from the early morning until midnight. He spent his own money buying laptops or other supplies for the team.
Despite all of that adversity, he ended up coaching the first speech and debate state champion that San Gabriel’s seen in decades while having his students pass the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination) at a rate higher than the school average. But more importantly, he helped inspire and encourage a generation of students in his classes and in speech and debate.
From so many facets, his dismissal evokes negative emotions, not only because of his dismissal, but because of the circumstances. He performed admirably given the circumstances and should have been provided with the resources to improve on any deficiencies and feted for the things he did accomplish. Instead, he was let go abruptly and unceremoniously, without a reason.
It’s upsetting from a purely pedagogical standpoint that San Gabriel lost a perfectly good teacher. But from a personal standpoint, it’s devastating to all of the students who genuinely felt a rapport with Mr. Nguyen and devastating for a school to let go someone with such a love of his alma mater and with such an ability to help students strive for their best. In the hurry to fulfill some personal agendas or vendettas, the school district took away a lot of what defined San Gabriel High for countless students and deprived it of a valuable teacher who would and had given it his all.
I would not be where I am today without Mr. Nguyen’s guidance, and I see him so much more as a volunteer, or a coach, or a teacher. He has been a font of helpfulness to countless classes that have passed through San Gabriel, a shoulder for students to cry on, a person for students to celebrate with. He has been a mom to the speech team, a mentor to many, and one of the most selfless friends I could ask for.
Written by David Lam
David Lam is a ’11 San Gabriel High School graduate, ’15 Stanford University graduate in Physics, and is currently attending Northwestern University for a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering.