Yong Duckworth Is Making the Grade—first Grade, That Is—in Order to Learn English

updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Yong Duckworth's school day begins like this: First, she removes a white plastic pencil case, a box of crayons and a Phonics Is Fun workbook from her book bag and places them on her desk. Next, she and her fellow first graders go to the side of the classroom and sit on the floor for a discussion. After that the teacher might ask Duckworth to read some words printed on a series of flash cards, as she did one Thursday last month. "Picked, an, too, worm, feed, duckling, fly," recited Yong, who got a gold paper coin as a reward for her perfect answers.

This kind of scene is typical of first grade classrooms across the country. But Yong (pronounced young) is not a typical first grader. At 35, she is the oldest student at Chrisney Elementary School in Chrisney, Ind. and probably the oldest first grader in the U.S. The wife of a forklift operator at an aluminum plant and the mother of a 4-year-old son, Duckworth enrolled in first grade last September in a desperate attempt to learn English. Since arriving in the U.S. 13 years ago from her native South Korea, Duckworth (nee Sun Chang) had tried tutors, adult education classes and correspondence courses. Nothing worked. "I got smart brains," says Yong. "But I lazy."

Then the 5'1", 108-pound Duckworth called Chrisney principal Leroy Meyer. "I could barely understand her," says Meyer. "The best I could make out was that she wanted someone to help her learn English. She wanted to know the language by age 40, so she could open her own business."

After trying and failing to find a tutor for Duckworth, Meyer suggested that she enroll in first grade at Chrisney. (Since Yong became a U.S. citizen in 1979, she was as eligible as any 6-year-old.) Yong agreed immediately. But the faculty at this small school in a farming community outside Evansville was skeptical. "I was scared because I thought she would be evaluating me," says first grade teacher Bobbie Wilhelmus, who is three years younger than Duckworth. "We all had some doubts about how to handle her," adds Meyer.

Although she is excused from gym, Duckworth is treated like any other student in most ways—a situation that has led to some unpleasant moments. Once a teacher berated Duckworth for leaving a school assembly without permission to take some medication. Yong was so upset that she went home crying. Yet most of her experiences at Chrisney have been happy ones. Even though the other students call her by her first name, she is as much a mother as a classmate to some of them. During story hour they put their heads in her lap and lean against her shoulder. She reminds them to say "please" and "thank you," scowls at them when they misbehave and hugs them when they need comforting. To some students she's a celebrity—one girl asked Yong to sign her autograph book—and to others, she's just another kid. "She's like one of us," says Tamarah Hust, 10, "only quieter."

Duckworth grew up in a well-to-do family in Seoul, where her stepfather and mother owned a successful construction company. She got top grades in high school and attended a year and a half of college in Seoul as an art major. She studied English in junior and senior high but never learned to speak fluently. "I could read and understand books for myself," she says. "But if I read for you, you no understand."

Then she met Ben Duckworth, a U.S. Air Force sergeant stationed in South Korea. "Her English was better then," says Ben, 33. "She took more time and care with it." A year after their wedding in April, 1973, the Duckworths moved to Evansville. By day Yong worked as a food service aide at a local hospital. She tried to improve her English but lacked discipline. Her efforts were further thwarted in 1979, when her mother moved from Seoul to Evansville. At the older woman's urging, Yong spent a lot of time at the local Korean church, where Korean was the language spoken most of the time.

Duckworth believes that her inability to read and write reports in English cost her a job teaching arts and crafts at a mental hospital. After she left the hospital, she formed a partnership with a woman acquaintance to open a tailoring shop. She says she lost money on the business, which eventually failed, because of the language barrier. "Too much people hurt me because I speak broken English," says Yong. "In Korea I had a lot of people tell me I smart lady. I come stateside, and broken English make me down."

These days, her son, Simon, is her main motivation to master the language. "Yong knows she's going to have a challenge raising Simon," says Ben. "He's going to start coming home with questions and she's going to have to be able to answer them." Adds Yong: "I worry some day he asks me, 'Mom, what is this?' If I can't tell him, I am embarrassed."

In a year, when Simon is ready for kindergarten, his mother hopes to be close to graduating from elementary school. Meyer estimates that it will take Duckworth, who is already doing fourth grade math, three years to complete grades one through eight. Meyer says Yong has become an important symbol at Chrisney. "When young students see an older person going to school," he says, "they realize how important education is."

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