But after he was released, he faced a new set of problems.
Once Duc was out of the prison, officials stamped the word nguy ("traitor") on all of his documents. It meant that he couldn't get a job with the government, and because nearly all industry had been nationalized, almost all of the non-government jobs that were available were menial ones. He couldn't own property, and the traditionally tight-knit Vietnamese society made it impossible for him to meet new friends who were not also nguy. Whenever there would be a border skirmish with China or Cambodia, he would be taken in and detained for days or weeks.
But worst of all, says Duc, is that nguy was also stamped on the official papers of his children, meaning they would be kept in the worst schools and would never be allowed to advance past the ninth grade.
"The only way we could get freedom for our children to learn and have opportunity to grow," says Duc, "was to leave the country."
While the Trans worked on leaving Vietnam, the woman who was to invade their lives in America was well on her way to becoming an award-winning teacher.
Ava Jorene Sayles grew up in New Mexico, graduated from New Mexico State University in the spring of 1981, and was married to Eli Owens that August. At the end of that same month, she began teaching in the Denver Public Schools, where she would remain for her entire career. She worked at a couple of different elementary schools before landing at Charlotte Godsman Elementary School in southwest Denver in the fall of 1987.
Other teachers and some students enthusiastically praised Owens's work as a teacher, especially in an inch-thick application package supporting her nomination in early 1994 to be named a DPS teacher of the year.
Owens was so good, apparently, that she moved her principal, Sandy Shane, to poetry:
Imagine a joyous face
A teacher holding paper rolled up like a cone
She puts the paper in the tub
Around and around it goes
Out she pulls COTTON CANDY
Students grab the product
They hurry calling
"COTTON CANDY for sale"
Money for a week long trip is the plan
Three hundred people file out
Fire trucks arrive
The COTTON CANDY machine set off the ALARM
AVA OWENS is the teacher
Everyday in her classroom is COTTON CANDY
Then the ALARM goes off in a child's head
Other letters in Ava Owens's nomination packet spoke in glowing terms about her dedication to students and the school. She served on various committees and was a coach for Odyssey of the Mind, a competition meant to stimulate creativity by having students write and perform a skit. It typically involves several months of after-school meetings for the team of eight students and the coach.
Parents also wrote in support of Owens, including one who said, "Mrs. Owens has my total trust and confidence as a teacher, which I might add I do not give freely, for me this must be earned."
Other teachers noted that she came to work early, stayed late and kept an extensive personal library of books that she lent out freely to other teachers and students. Some praised her ingenuity, citing examples such as the time during an astronomy lesson that she arranged the desks in her classroom as the planets revolving around the sun, with her own desk as the sun. And others marveled at her ability to mix topics such as geography and math by having students plan trips around the world and figure their costs.
The teacher's personal touch was especially appreciated. "Mrs. Owens calls each and every one of her students before the school year starts," one supporter enthused, "just to let them know how excited she is! Then throughout the year, she continues these phone calls. She is able to relate personally, socially and privately through this commitment! She spends a lot of time outside school hours with her students. She takes them all over the city of Denver. This gives her the time and privacy to share her inner self with her students. They share themselves in return. 'I'm myself in the classroom,' Mrs. Owens says. 'It's important that they get to know me. I'm one of them.'"
In April 1994, Ava Owens was selected as a teacher of the year, one of only eighteen educators honored among DPS's 115 schools.
It was only after her world fell apart that a counselor hired by Owens's defense team to analyze her behavior found fault with the teacher's hands-on approach.