By Ricky Rath
It’s April 2007 and the tensions between gangs in Pasco High School are high. Word around school is students are joining a pact to wear red the next day to represent a local gang.
Fourteen-year-old freshman Randy Le doesn’t want to get involved, but his friends suggest he join the pact to look cool.
Le goes along with his friends and leaves home with a red shirt to fit in. As he arrives to school, he hears that some students are being suspended for participating in the pact. Le immediately takes off his red shirt and changes into another one he brought with him.
Le realized how close he was to making a mistake that would have impacted his future.
As a Vietnamese American and first-generation student, Le is now a senior at Western who brings his passion for breakdancing to Woodring College of Education and the Bellingham community.
Le practicing in Red Square. // Video by Ricky Rath
Le grew up in Pasco, Washington, a city 300 miles south of Bellingham that has a large gang presence.
A 2015 study by Charles Katz, a national expert on gangs from Arizona State University, found that Tri-Cities was home to at least 25 violent gangs and more than a thousand gang members, The Tri-City Herald reported. The study found that Pasco has the highest risk for gang-related issues in the Tri-City area.
Throughout middle and high school, Le said student gang affiliations were common. The Tri-City Herald reported that Pasco High School reported 61 known gang members in 2015, and that schools in the Tri-Cities often had a “particularly aggressive” approach to these students, oftentimes expelling them.
Holy Chea, former assistant program manager at Northwest Leadership Foundation who helps guide Southeast Asian at-risk youth, said the pressure of fitting in leads many young teens into joining gangs.
This was the pressure Le faced in high school.
“It wasn’t more about the gangs, but it was more about fitting in and trying to be a part of the popular kids group,” Le said.
He began learning to breakdance during sophomore year of high school through his brother’s best friend. After Le invested more time into breakdancing, he developed a conflict between his friends and his new hobby.
“I had to make a decision. It’s either sacrifice a hobby to be popular or pursue something and hope for a better outcome from it,” Le said.
As Le began to practice four to six hours a day, his passion grew and formed a community of breakdancers.
“We basically breathed, slept and thought about breakdancing 24/7,” Le said. “It was my escape to step away from all of the stress and conflict in my life.”
The breakdance community in Pasco was small and Le said he was part of a rising generation in the community. He gathered a group of kids who were interested and they began learning through mentors and Youtube.
The countless hours of practicing and competing left him with bruises, scars and rug burns, and it eventually took a toll on his body senior year.
Le was practicing head spins and his knee shifted sideways. He tore his medial collateral ligament, but kept practicing until he finally realized he was causing long-term damage to his knee.
“As a passionate dancer, I could not control myself from resting. I always pushed myself even with a minor injury. I was kind of stubborn but today, I know when to take breaks,” Le said.
After two years of hitting windmills and top-rocking in high school, Le was faced with the question of what he would do after graduation.
As Le thought about his options, he began to develop a passion for math and teaching.
“After school, I would go to the freshman class and start tutoring students because I had so much free time,” Le said.
He decided to attend Western for its reputation for teaching programs, but it was his other passion that drove him to confirm his decision, Le said.
Fast forward four years later, Le is performing in dozens of competitions and shows while a full-time student.
Tracey Nguyen, Le’s roommate, has been by his side throughout college since meeting him four years ago. Nguyen said she’s noticed break dancing has been Le’s biggest outlet.
“Whenever he’s not home, I can only assume he’s doing one of three things: getting food, working or practicing. Sometimes I’ll be downstairs and hear banging and thumping from upstairs, and it’s just him practicing in his room,” Nguyen said.
After taking a quarter off from school in fall 2017, Le said he came up with the idea of building a breakdancing project in Bellingham paired with his service learning portion of Woodring College of Education.
Le presented the idea to the coordinator of service learning in Woodring and was granted the opportunity to teach breakdancing to children in Nooksack Tribal Community Center and Shuksan Middle School.
“I think it’s great that he can connect his passion for teaching with his passion for breakdancing. It’s a lot more than just the dancing itself, but he wants to teach people about the history as well,” Nguyen said.
As Le wraps up his final few quarters at Western, he said he is excited to graduate and become a math teacher — but not just an average math teacher.
Le said his goal as a teacher would be to innovative and find a creative way to teach math.
“I don’t want students to feel afraid every time they enter a math classroom. I want them to be open and willing to learn,” Le said.
As Le teaches students about multiplication tables, he looks forward to landing baby freezes and air flares 20 years from now.
Looking back on his journey from Pasco, Le said he is glad he picked this path for his life.
“I’m happy I chose break dancing. Who knew where I would be right now if I were to follow the kids affiliated with gangs,” Le said. “I could be in jail or working right now and I wouldn’t be at Western. But because of break dancing, it was my escape.”