“What is love? Gratitude. What is hidden in our chests? Laughter. What else? Compassion.” – Rumi
I have profound gratitude for the presence of one teacher in my life. Her name is Ki Ki Gore. She was the daughter of Greek immigrants. She was my high school Spanish teacher. I attended three high schools over the four years of high school, and Ki Ki was at two of those schools. I first met Ki Ki when I was a 10th grader at Como Park High School and I landed in her Spanish class.
Como Park in the spring of 1981, was a challenging place to go to school. There were a mix of socio-economic classes and there was a new to the United States group of students from Laos. These students were Hmong and very little in 1981 was understood about who they were and why they were in Saint Paul, Minnesota attending Como Park High School.
I ended up at Como Park because I had started working at a local boutique gift shop called The Bibelot Shop that was a few blocks from my house. Several other girls who were also in 10th grade worked at the Bibelot and I liked them, so midway through 10th grade, I switched from Derham Hall, the all-girls Catholic school I attended, to Como Park. One of those 10th grade girls was Lia Gore, Ki Ki’s daughter.
One day late in 10th grade, about a month or so before I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, we had a fire drill. During the fire drill, as was the protocol, we all went outside and stood around. During this standing around, a white male student who was likely in 12th grade, threw a dart into the back of a younger, likely 9th grade, Hmong boy. I witnessed the entire event. What I remember most vividly was running over to the boy with the dart sticking out of his back, and touching his shoulder very gently and asking him for permission to pull the dart out of his back.
He was very quiet and he looked me straight in the eyes and nodded. I remember wondering who to go to, and I thought immediately of Ki Ki Gore, my Spanish teacher. I knew she would know what to do. She did. She brought the boy to the office and she made sure I identified the older boy who had thrown the dart.
Then I ended up in Ki Ki’s classroom because I was so upset by what I had witnessed. I didn’t understand WHY the older boy had done what he had done. Such hatred and cruelty didn’t make sense to me. A few of us gathered, and with Ki Ki’s guidance, we talked about the Hmong people and their role in the Vietnam war and how they had been given asylum in the United States because of their assistance of the United States in that war.
Collectively we realized that most of the white students at Como Park High School didn’t understand the backstory of the Hmong students. A group of us decided to do something. Thus began a project of awareness creation that took over most of my 11th grade year. This forged a few new friendships for me with Hmong students. It was also the start of my passion for understanding different cultures of the world and how people relate to one another, or don’t relate with each other.
The constant in my life was continuing to study Spanish with Ki Ki. I loved her class. I loved how much she cared about our learning and our progress. She had nuggets of wisdom nearly every day about the world, about people, about things happening. She was kindness and love and learning embodied.
For 12th grade, I transferred to Saint Paul Central High School. I think that’s the year Ki Ki moved to Central too. In any case, she did know my new Spanish teacher, Profe Richard Milles. Ki Ki and Richard planned to take a group of us to Mexico for two weeks in the Spring. I somehow convinced my parents to let me go. I then spent a lot of time fundraising to afford the $800 needed to go to Mexico in 1983. I did a bowl-a-thon as one of my fundraising efforts! The two weeks in Mexico with Richard and Ki Ki further ignited my love of learning about other cultures.
When I got to college, I thought I wanted to be a political science major, due to my interest in how policy and decisions get made for groups of people. I volunteered for the Walter Mondale presidential campaign and quickly figured out that politics was not for me. I was at a loss for what to study and do with my life. I went over to visit Ki Ki who lived in the neighborhood where I grew up. After a long, heart-felt conversation, I left with the solid decision to become a high school Spanish teacher, and to follow in the footsteps of Ki Ki. And that is exactly what I did!
Through the years I stayed in contact with Ki Ki, as our families were connected. Then, when I was 39 and living in Denver, Colorado, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Lia lived in Denver too and she had become a pediatric oncologist, and I called her up. Ki Ki had breast cancer when she was 29 and Lia was at risk, so she knew all the breast oncologists in Denver. I took her up on her recommendation for who to see. Once again, I was following in the footsteps of the iconic Ki Ki Gore.
In April of this year, 2019, I was driving home from my job at the University of Minnesota on the Saint Paul Campus and it was like I was suddenly struck by lightning. Lia had mentioned when I saw her earlier in the year, that Ki Ki had asked about me and that I should go see Ki Ki. I turned my car and drove right over to Ki Ki’s house, the same house she and her husband Warren had lived in since well before I met them.
Ki Ki was home. It was joyous to see her! She has always been one of the wisest, kindest, warmest, welcoming people I have ever known. We chatted for a little while, then she needed to keep working on her taxes. A friend was over helping her. I hugged her goodbye and told her I loved her and appreciated her. I left with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.
Ki Ki died on June 25th, 2019. She was 85 years old. My life, like so so so many of us, was blessed by knowing Ki Ki. I am grateful she was my teacher and my inspiration. Blessings dear Ki Ki for all that you gave and celebrated and inspired.
Lia and Paul, Ki Ki’s children, thank you for the care and love you gave your mother and thank you for sharing her with all of us.