For countless students, Kimarlee Nguyen’s English classroom was a safe place to be themselves. Nguyen gave them scented stickers and glitter gel pens as she led them in discussions of diverse authors, from Ismail Kadare to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Nawal El Saadawi.
She “felt like a safe beacon that we could all go to for a quick laugh or a serious conversation,” one former student wrote.
Nguyen was “a teacher that treats her students genuinely, a teacher who sacrifices herself into teaching,” another wrote, adding that she was “like a candle that’s burning, so bright and so warm.”
Nguyen died on April 5 from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—one of more than 100 educators across the country who have succumbed to the illness. She was 33.
A well-regarded fiction writer, Nguyen had taught at the Brooklyn Latin School, an academically rigorous public high school in New York that has a classical, liberal arts curriculum, for the past six years. Before that, she taught for five years at Bushwick Leaders’ High School in New York, according to the United Federation of Teachers.
“Like many of us, she’s very dedicated to what she does,” said her friend Zarah Vinola, who is also a New York City public school teacher. “She was very passionate about writing, … and was able to bring that type of energy and passion to her classroom.”
She could make teaching Shakespeare lively and fun, Vinola said. But she also filled her classroom with diverse perspectives.
Like many of her students, Nguyen was a first-generation American. Her parents survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and much of Nguyen’s writing was influenced by their experiences.
Nguyen would bring in poetry about the Cambodian genocide to her classroom, said close friend and fellow writer Cherry Lou Sy. Once, a Cambodian-American student broke down crying, saying she finally understood why her father was the way he was.
“Some of her students had told her … she was the first adult who took them seriously,” Sy said. She added that Nguyen wanted her students to know, “You are seen, you are heard. I hear you. I see you.”
Brooklyn Latin school leaders wrote in a message to the school community that Nguyen “filled our atria and classrooms with her vibrant attitude, joy, and laughter. Her disarming charm and candor resonated with discipuli, who gravitated to her when they were seeking advice, looking for a place to belong, or going through a difficult period in their lives.”
Indeed, in an online memorial page, students shared their memories of lunchtime chats, shared jokes, and Nguyen’s warmth.
“I was an angry, feisty, and oftentimes sassy student,” one former student wrote. “Instead of responding with the same bitterness I carried for the world, Ms. Nguyen sought to instead understand me and question me. ‘Where are you hurting?,’ she inquired, something no adult had ever asked me before.
“My voice was not only always heard, it was listened to. She created a space for you to matter in, to be important in. That’s just who Ms. Nguyen was.”
‘Fall in Love With a Poem’
Nguyen was an irrepressible, bubbly person with a zest for life, Sy said. She loved Harry Potter, anime, and live music. She recently became a big fan of BTS, the South Korean boy band. Going skydiving was on her bucket list.
“She wanted so much out of life that she really pursued it,” Sy said. “She was telling me, ‘I just want to experience everything.’”
Born and raised in Revere, Mass., Nguyen earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Vassar College and a master’s of fine arts degree from Long Island University. She was close to her family and went to be with them when the coronavirus outbreak shut down New York City, Vinola said. She is survived by her father Hai Nguyen, her mother Vy Yeng, and her brother Steven Nguyen.
At the time of her death, Nguyen was working on a novel called “Lion’s Tooth,” about a Cambodian-American family living in Cambridge, Mass. Her short stories had been published in Hyphen Magazine, PANK Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and several other journals. She had received several writers’ residencies and fellowships and had recently completed a writing fellowship at Kundiman, a national nonprofit group dedicated to cultivating Asian-American writing.
It was tough for Nguyen to balance writing and teaching, Sy said. But Nguyen was one of the few teachers of color at her school, Sy said, and she took that responsibility to her students seriously.
“We talked about being tired of teaching and what it demanded of us—and [how] we go on because of our students,” Sy said. “We remembered that those [students] were us some years ago, not even that far.”
When Nguyen saw the impact that she had on her students, who viewed her as a role model, it kept her going, Sy said. When her students started the school’s first Asian Student Alliance, she was the inaugural co-adviser.
“I am grateful for the way that you encouraged us to be messy and colorful and opinionated,” one former student wrote on Nguyen’s memorial page. “You helped me fall in love with a poem for the first time in my life. … You made us feel safe and qualified to think deeply, despite our awkward 17-year-old-ness.”
That student wrote that she is now studying to be a teacher, and when she’s asked about teachers who were influential to her, she always thinks of Nguyen.
“You are going to keep inspiring me for the rest of my life, and when I have my own classroom, I hope it’s even half as joyful and comfortable as yours,” she wrote. “Thank you for bringing sunshine to all of our lives.”