Again and again, Ponloeu Le’s father reminded him that he would amount to nothing without an education. His father had been a teacher and a journalist in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge pushed him and his family into a refugee camp. Now, just by being a fifth-grader at Seat Pleasant Elementary, Ponloeu had been given the opportunity to make something of himself in America.
But Ponloeu had difficulty keeping up with his classes because he spent so much time caring for his six younger brothers and sisters. His mother worked full time as a cashier at a convenience store. His father weighed 85 pounds and was constantly sick, leaving Ponloeu to cook, clean and do the laundry. How was he supposed to do his homework?
When he began attending Prince George’s Community College, Ponloeu still lived at home with his parents and took care of his brothers and sisters. He worked as a security guard to help pay the bills, then as a deliveryman. During those solitary hours on the road, Ponloeu thought about his life. He was getting older and had no plan for a career. All that money that he had been offered to go to college — what did he have to show for it?
Ponloeu did not tell his parents when he dropped out in 1997. He did not want to hear another lecture from his father about how a person wasn’t worth anything without an education. Instead, he called Tracy Proctor, the mentor to the Seat Pleasant 59.
“Let’s try something different,” Proctor told him.
He suggested that Ponloeu enroll in a computer class in Silver Spring. Arriving for the first session, Ponloeu looked around the room and recognized one other student: fellow Dreamer Jeffery Norris.
“Hey man!” Ponloeu said. They had not seen each other since Northwestern High School’s graduation day.
During breaks, Ponloeu and Jeffery talked about their aspirations. When Ponloeu said he was interested in law enforcement, Jeffery reminded him that his father was a commander in the Prince George’s police department. A meeting was arranged.
In 1999, Ponloeu graduated from the police academy and became a member of the Prince George’s police department. At the ceremony, Proctor was in the crowd cheering the new recruits.
In 2006, Ponloeu was recognized as one of Prince George’s most productive officers and rewarded with a new cruiser. Three years later, he nearly died when a drunk driver hit him while he was on patrol.
Sometimes, Ponloeu still broods about his decision to drop out of community college. He thinks about his two kids and their homework. What right does he have to tell them to study? he asks himself. Why should they listen to him? What kind of role model is he?
“You don’t even have a college degree,” he imagines them saying. Ponloeu sometimes wishes he could return to that day when he left college. He wishes he could have pushed himself then. Get to class, he would have told himself. Get that degree.
Now he’ll tell his kids.