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Quality Pho


stuart grauerDr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuart

Back in the ‘90s we used film for all our photos and it took a lot of work to develop the film. It had to be done right and well. Near our school there was a shop called “One Hour Photo” that was owned by a Vietnamese fellow called Tam, and that was our go-to place.

Tam developed our school photos with the greatest of care and, as a result, I grew in friendship with him. You might think that photo development and friendship would not be related well, but to me, when someone is great at what they do, it becomes friendship. To me, great workmanship means, “I care about you” and “You can depend upon me.”

Over time I learned a lot about this unlikely friend, a Vietnamese refugee from the postwar days with hair touching his shoulders just like we all had in college back in the day. Had just a slight few things been different in each of our lives, Tam and I could have literally been hunting each other down with automatic rifles or napalm bombs in the jungles of Vietnam. Of course, that didn’t happen, and instead of opposing lives, we ended up with parallel ones. I don’t know how Tam got out of Vietnam, but I got out by drawing a lucky number in the draft lottery back in ‘69. As it happened, Tam had a daughter just the age of my own, and so every time I dropped off film rolls or picked up my gorgeously developed Kodachrome, I could swap fathering stories with my friend. As a photography shop owner, Tam wasn’t going to get rich or famous, but I doubt that motivates most of the best talents—Tam was motivated by digging into his craft, appreciating his product, and respecting his clients. Tam thought hard work was a good thing and I don’t think our connection was based on a whole lot more than that one core value.

With Tam, we documented a full generation of students coming of age. Then the digital age came sweeping across all of the arts, and photo development was the first to go. Tam tried to hold on and I did too, and I even bought my first SLR digital camera from Tam, knowing I could have got it cheaper at the Price Club. But there was no stopping digital technology any more than 9/11 and, one day, driving through the shopping mall the One Hour Photo sign was gone and so was Tam. The world’s last roll of Kodachrome would be processed on January 18, 2011.

I went home feeling loss and my family felt that way too, and we worried about how this middle-aged man could land on his feet now that his business had vanished. Was this a tragic life? What could we do?

If you’ve seen archival or early-era photos of The Grauer School, you’ve seen Tam’s handiwork. The photos were rich and colorful and deep, and even aromatic—try that digitally!—and we’ve run a lot of them through the scanner. All this handiwork and everything Tam did for our school is supposedly much cheaper and better to do today with Photoshop—and yet Photoshop was $1,849 bucks last time I checked. I’m not so sure things got better because of the digital age and its pixels and bytes.

Seven years went by and one morning we went out to the old Santa Fe Café for a classic oldtime breakfast such as they served up: hash browns, pancakes, huevos rancheros—straight up Americana. In fact, the last time I went there it was to take a Taiwanese houseguest, so I could show him a typical Encinitas breakfast shack. Anyway, on this morning, the doors were locked and a sign was posted on them saying, “Coming Soon, Pho Ever Vietnamese Restaurant.” Out front, a late-middle aged oldtime Californian, stocky, sandy haired, and tanned, stood studying the sign, just staring at it like he was lost. Santa Fe Café had been there forever, and now it was gone. I got out and studied the sign with him for a minute in silence and at last could only say, “Get ready.”



America is always changing and we’re not always ready. I got in the car and said to Sally, “No way am I going to a new restaurant there. The Santa Fe Café was a classic.” Did we really need Vietnamese noodle soup? It was the closest breakfast place to the school, too. That was last winter.

Then recently around lunchtime we were cruising around that area and on a whim we said, “Well, shall we check out the pho?” We walked in and the placed looked pretty busy, and there behind the counter doing two things at once was an unmistakable, slight man with dark, leathery skin and hair down to his shoulders. “Tam!” I almost screamed. “Dr. Stuart!” he returned, and put down a huge stack of dishes and came over grinning and gave me a hug.

“I was worried about you,” I said, “You were suddenly gone.” He explained he had started up a pho place six years ago a few towns away in Vista and it was so successful that now he could open another branch right here. “You can email photos, but you can’t email food!” he said. We caught up on our daughters and he ran back to the kitchen and brought his wife out, happy.

It’s a good country we live in. There are no more photo shops, but I have no doubt that before too long Tam will have three pho shops. Some people complain that they are put out of work, displaced by technology, or replaced by someone younger or more foreign, or put down by people who make the money we want for ourselves, but some other people–the ones that work hard, and really care, and are craftsmen and real teachers--always seem to land on their feet. Tam’s pho was rich and aromatic, deep and colorful, like Kodachrome.

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