Last July, flakes of ash were falling from the sky. Sung stepped outside my grandparents’ garage and tiny crumbles of gray drifted across his forehead. The air was heavy with smoke. Since I grew up in Northern California, I’m used to the effects of fire season. But Sung is from New Jersey so he was shocked. The timing was eerie: just last night he had told me that he wanted to be a firefighter.
We drove the box truck further north and moved into my old bedroom at my parents’ house. I could feel my life path circling back on itself as Sung enrolled in the fire academy at the community college I used to attend and we looked for rental houses in my hometown. I genuinely never thought I would move back here, but I felt content.
The fire academy combines EMT and firefighter training with over a dozen other certifications. Sung had to rent turnouts and buy a uniform, boots, PT clothes, and of course textbooks. He loved the drills, the workouts, and the hands-on stuff at the training grounds. He loved to iron his uniform and polish the boots. But in the classroom he struggled. He hadn’t cracked a book since high school.
The academy takes academics seriously. Exams are weekly and you have to get at least 80% on every test. You get one chance to retake a test, and then it’s goodbye. Most of the kids in the program either had their EMT cert already or had been volunteering with local fire departments. Sung felt lost on the first day. But he was determined to keep up.
Well, I may have been a textbook writer in a previous life because I have a weird premonition for picking out tidbits that will be on the test. So I volunteered to read Sung’s textbooks and try to condense notes for him. The classes seemed to move at lightening speed: at least 8 chapters a week, with endless new vocabulary.
By week 2, our little system was failing miserably. You can’t really learn material for someone else. All we did was frustrate each other. Sung did okay on the firefighting exams but he was not so successful with the EMT exams.
After a few more weeks he had to withdraw. It was humbling. Many people would have moped around. I definitely cried. But Sung simply said, “I’m doing the next Academy.”
I guess everything happens for a reason. The very next day, he was able to get in an EMT class. I was stunned by how much he flourished over the past semester. He figured out how to study, he earned an A on every assignment, and he passed the National Registry test on the first try. He also went through a pack of highlighters as he read the entire firefighting textbook in preparation for the academy.
Today is deja vu from last July. The setting sun is neon orange through the smoky sky. For the past 14 days, a wildfire has raged to the north of us. We are not in danger but our town is hosting many of the 5,400 firefighters who are battling this wildfire. When I’m out running errands, I see Cal Fire trucks at every corner and tired-looking firefighters grabbing a bite to eat at convenience stores.
I hope with all my heart that Sung will be one of them someday. I’m also terrified that he will be one of them someday. Well, for now, my whole focus is to support him through fire academy 2.0. Although, it’s looking much different this time around. Right now it’s only day 2 and he’s already done all the homeworks. The only thing he will let me do for him is pack his lunches! And this time, I don’t feel any anxiety because I know he will succeed.