As George Vuong traces his finger along his torso through his sweatshirt, he recalls the motorcycle accident that left a scar along his left rib and nearly killed him three years ago. On his way home from work, a driver pulling out of a parking lot didn’t see him and T-boned his motorcycle. As he tumbled over the handlebars, Vuong saw his life flash in front of his eyes while his world moved in slow motion.
Vuong clearly recalls the paramedics wheeling him through the halls of the emergency room on a stretcher, as he saw ceiling light after ceiling light pass over his head.
“I felt like I was in a movie,” Vuong says.
At the time, Vuong, now an English teacher at Palo Alto High School, was working a corporate job at a health and pharmaceutical company. With responsibilities including product management, stocking stores and shipping, the monotonous routine and isolation of his job made him feel like a robot.
“I was stuck in an office all day, without any type of human interaction,” Vuong says. “It was very depressing for me.”
Especially stressful for Vuong was the fact that his boss was breathing down his neck every few minutes and was able to monitor his computer screen remotely.
“The job was terrible,” Vuong says. “It was good experience, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I felt like it was a big grace to do something to move up the ladder but what’s the end goal?”
A couple months after his motorcycling accident, Vuong decided to go skydiving with a friend on a whim. Fifteen thousand feet above ground, he stood at the window with his parachute about to jump when he saw his life, again, flash before his eye, the single most scary, yet amazing, experience of his life.
These terrifying experiences gave him a new appreciation for life and helped trigger his realization that he had to do something that made him happy. For Vuong, that was a career in teaching, so he made the decision to enter the world of education.
Today, Vuong comes to class every morning at 7 a.m., ready to inspire students and teach them more about topics that he’s passionate about and genuinely happy to be teaching.
Walk into room 216 during Vuong’s English 9A and World Literature classes, and you’ll usually see him wearing formal attire — dress shoes, slacks and perhaps a tie — except for Casual Friday when he’ll be in jeans and a T-shirt.
This formal attitude is a remnant of his time working in an office, where his boss, who didn’t believe in Casual Fridays, dressed up in a suit and tie every day and inspired him to assume a professional and formal appearance.
Though Vuong maintains the formality of his previous job, he takes care to make his classroom an exciting environment. The cold isolation of the office hardly compares to the voices chattering in his classroom that complement with Vuong’s social personality.
“I love being in a classroom with my students every single day,” Vuong says. “Every classroom isn’t the same; there’s different personalities, students and classes. It really keeps it refreshing to me, and teaching students is a way for me to find a certain kind of fulfillment.”
Vuong’s excitement for teaching is evident to his students.
“You can tell that he’s very passionate about the subject that he’s teaching,” says Derek Zhou, a student in Vuong’s English 9A class. “He always wants to make sure that the students understand the concepts in class.”
To Vuong, teaching is less stressful than his old job.
“Teaching is stressful in its own right — don’t get me wrong — but I feel less stressed in the journey of my life. I feel like I’ve reached the part of my life where I’m content and I’m doing something that is fulfilling to me personally.”
Vuong grew up in San Jose, raised by immigrants who escaped Vietnam via boat with their families during the Vietnam War.
He first developed a passion for teaching in middle school. After seeing his computer sciences teacher playing guitar as he was leaving class, Vuong asked his teacher to give him lessons. His love for playing inspired him to start a guitar club so that he could jam with more people. He convinced his friends to join, but because they didn’t play guitar, he started teaching them, finding that through teaching he could share his love for a topic with others.
After high school, Vuong attended UC Santa Barbara as a biological sciences major, a choice that he felt compelled to make by his parents.
“They were very typical Asian parents,” Vuong says. “They wanted you to be a doctor, a lawyer or a pharmacist — something fancy.”
Their end goal for Vuong was for him to go into medical school and become a doctor.
After a full year of biology-related coursework, Vuong realized he was miserable, and changed his major to English, a subject he had always loved and excelled in.
“If you’re going to be stuck in a career for 20 or 40 years, you’d better make sure you enjoy it,” Vuong says.
After this decision, Vuong’s parents were predictably upset. They were disappointed in him, his father didn’t speak to him for over a year.
Despite changing his undergraduate major, he set aside his pursuits in English after graduating to work as assistant systems manager at a health and pharmaceutical company that sells organic skincare products in Ojai, California, a small town about 40 miles from Santa Barbara.
After his motorcycle accident, he quit his job, realizing that he was unhappy. Vuong submitted to his decision to become a teacher — a decision he had been considering for quite some time — and applied to graduate school at UCSB to get his single subject teaching credential and a master’s degree in English.
Now back in the Bay Area, Vuong lives in San Jose with his roommates and is in his second year teaching at Paly, after a year at Santa Barbara High School. He is working to introduce meditation into the classroom next semester and wants to bring back the Chaucer elective course, which would cover Geoffrey Chaucer’s works from the Middle Ages.
When he isn’t busy teaching or planning for class, Vuong walks his dog or goes to the gym. He still plays the guitar, but he doesn’t have much time to practice.
He no longers rides his motorcycle — not after the accident.
Vuong sees himself teaching for years to come, which gives him a certainty about his future that his corporate job could not.
“This is a lifetime career and a lifetime pursuit.”