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Coronavirus Victims: New York City Department Of Education Employee Kimarlee Nguyen

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 60 New York City Department of Education employees have died from COVID-19. One of them was 33-year-old Kimarlee Nguyen. She taught English at Brooklyn Latin School.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Dena Igusti graduated from Brooklyn Latin in 2015. She says at the time, the school taught mostly low-income students of color, and almost all of their teachers were white - but not Ms. Nguyen.

CHANG: She was a first-generation American whose parents had fled Cambodia. Igusti says Nguyen understood her students in a way the other teachers didn't.

DENA IGUSTI: There was kind of a lack of trust with teachers and students. So when Ms. Nguyen came, she was just really chill. We had this book called "Woman At Point Zero." In one aspect of the book, there is a scene in which female genital mutilation occurs. I didn't tell anyone, but I also was a survivor of female genital mutilation at 9. After it, I didn't know why I didn't. I just found myself shaking. And Ms. Nguyen was just like, you're tensing up. Like, are you OK? And I was like, yeah, yeah, I'm fine. I'm fine. I just felt a little nervous, like, I don't know why. And she was like, OK, like, if you need to talk to me, I'm here. I just want to make sure you're good. And that never - it was a small act, but, like, no one really did that in the school.

KELLY: While Igusti felt supported, she decided not to share her story with Ms. Nguyen at the time. After graduation, though, the two attended the same writing workshop. This time, Igusti was ready and got a piece of advice from her former teacher.

IGUSTI: And she was like, take your time, and take care of yourself. But maybe this is something that your poetry should do, and this is where the trajectory of your poetry should change. Since then, it changed my writing dramatically just learning from her that, like, all of my experiences are valid. If it wasn't for that small conversation, I don't think I would have realized the importance of, like, my nuances and the specificity of my experiences and how that can also relate to the universal, rather than trying to make my work as universal as possible.

CHANG: That was Dena Igusti, remembering her teacher Kimarlee Nguyen. Nguyen died on April 5. She was 33. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.