A Cambodian Teen Triumphs as a Chattanooga Word Wiz

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

The vivacious 15-year-old resident of Chattanooga, Tenn. can't contain her excitement. This week's ABC Disney Sunday Movie will tell the story of her life. She's eager for chums to tune in, but like any teen TV addict she's got bigger dreams. "Do you think stars will be watching?" she asks. She'd like to tell her favorites—John Ritter, Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner—that she'd cherish their autographs.

Her enthusiasm is contagious but incongruous, since the TV movie is nothing less than the depiction of a nightmare, a Disney version of The Killing Fields. Despite her jeans, slang and Southern drawl, Linn Yann stands apart from the other kids in her class.

When she arrived in Chattanooga from Cambodia in 1979, Linn was a frightened 9 year old hiding behind her mother's skirt. She had been imprisoned for three years in Khmer Rouge labor camps with her five brothers and sisters, had worked in leech-filled paddies and foraged for berries, leaves and even rats to eat. She had never been to school and spoke not a word of English.

Four years later Linn Yann was a success story in her adopted country. Memorizing the spelling of 3,000 words, she won the countywide 1983 Chattanooga Times Spelling Bee, a preliminary to the Scripps Howard national contest. She faced down about 60 contestants, correctly executing such toughies as "acronym" and "thaumatology." At the 1985 national finals in Washington, D.C., she lost in the fourth round ("verdigris" defeated her). But nothing dimmed her spirit. She remembers what President Reagan told her when he phoned congratulations in '83. "He said he was proud of me and what I had done," says Linn.

The remarkable story of Linn and the Chattanooga couple who "adopted" her entire family is dramatized in the TV movie The Girl Who Spelled Freedom. The film was the brainchild of co-producer David A. Simons, who caught Linn on The CBS Morning News after her Chattanooga victory and was convinced that her story had the potential to entertain and inspire. Linn visited the set in Vancouver, where the film was shot last summer and even played a bit part. Canadian newcomer Jade Chinn, 11, stars as Linn, and Wayne M*A*S*H Rogers and The Big Chill's Mary Kay Place are the adoptive American parents.

The movie brought back "good feelings and sad feelings," says Linn, whose elation fades as she speaks of her early life. Conditions in the camps, she explains, were much worse than those depicted in the film. Her father, a shopkeeper before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, became too ill to work, so he was taken away, never to return. "He was so skinny," Linn says. "If the people can't work, the soldiers take them away and kill them."

Linn's mother, Say Phoen Chov, now 42, had to take action. Gathering her six children, then ages 3 to 13, from the two camps where they were imprisoned, she walked 100 miles to Thailand, hiding the family in ditches and caves by day and traveling at night.

By contrast, the nearly 10,000-mile journey to America was less arduous. After hearing about the plight of the Cambodians at their local United Methodist Church, George Thrash, 41, a manufacturer's service representative, and his wife, Prissy, 40, a home-maker, decided to offer help to one or two refugees through AMG International, a resettlement agency. Asked to sponsor a widow and six children, a worried Prissy remembers thinking, "What have we gotten into? I don't even like kids—that's why we have just one." But with the agreement of their daughter, Laura, then 14, the Thrashes decided to follow their consciences. They outfitted their four-bedroom house with extra cots and supplies. When they saw the Yanns at the airport, their hearts sank. "They were the sickest, sorriest-looking bunch you've ever seen," says George.

For the Yann family, America was an alien place. None of them had ever seen modern conveniences. They were amazed by supermarkets, but, says George, "it was months before they trusted the food we gave them." In the beginning, they communicated with gestures, since neither family spoke the other's language.

Enrolled in a third-grade class, Linn proved to be a quick student, learning English "by watching people, TV and going to school." Now an eighth grader with straight A's at Red Bank Junior High School in suburban Chattanooga, Linn has turned her attention from spelling to other activities. In a recent cross-country race, she placed sixth out of 63 runners. She also sings in the school chorus, plays basketball and served as the manager of the boys' basketball team. Her dream is to become a doctor.

In 1980 the Yanns moved into a four-bedroom, $35,000 home about three miles from the Thrashes. (The Thrashes bought the house that year and rent it to the Yanns for $231 a month.) Linn's mother, who speaks little English, is employed as an assembly-line worker in a recycling factory. The money for the movie rights to Linn's story has gone into a trust fund for the children's education. The younger Yanns have made good grades and adjusted as well as Linn. Peter, 9, and David, 12, play football and soccer. Patty, 13, recently won a citywide art contest and Yieng, 17, is a school cheerleader. The eldest, 19-year-old Kiev, has experienced more difficulty with her studies, but she is expected to graduate from high school this spring.

Though Linn wants to visit Cambodia someday, she is now fervently American. "In Cambodia I was a slave, and I didn't have anything to live for," she says. Her new life in America has provided motivation. Still, certain wounds won't heal. The Khmer Rouge burned her family's photographs "right in front of us," says Linn, prompting a poignant realization: "I don't remember my father's face."

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