Above: Loung Ung, acclaimed author of First They Killed My Father autographs copies of her book for grateful Girls Academic Leadership Academy students.

Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) students are engaged in an extraordinary lesson about bravery, resilience and community as they read First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung of the early years of her life during the Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia.

Girls Academic Leadership Academy students received a special visit by Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father, and Oscar-winning producer/director/actress Angelina Jolie, who made a film of the book. Photo by Paige MacMillan

The acclaimed author even paid a personal visit to the all-girls school where she talked openly about her experiences.

“This is not a book about war but about love,” Ung said as she greeted the room of ninth- and tenth-graders. “I remember when I came to America and was learning English when I was young, one of words I kept hearing was resilience. Over time, I really came to understand the meaning of that word and the importance of finding others who are always there to help you get up when you fall and start climbing higher than before.”

Accompanying Ung was Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, who produced and directed the film version of the book released last month on Netflix.

“I’ve heard a great deal about your school,” Jolie said as she greeted the awestruck students. “When I learned that Loung was coming, I just had to come along and meet all of you.”

Containing their excitement about having a celebrity on campus, the girls remained attentive and respectful, eagerly asking questions about the story they were reading for English and world history classes.

Ninth-grader Zooey Gastelo asked her guests if they ever felt vulnerable when writing the book or making the film.

“Yes,” Ung replied. “Recounting the experiences even many years later opened up a lot of feelings of vulnerability, so at times it was incredibly difficult. But, I felt it owed it to my mother and father to tell my story and honor their memory. I turned the experience into a learning process, exploring my understanding of what scares me, what triggers my fear and feelings of pain, and how to cope with those feelings and ultimately take care of myself and my family.”

Ninth-grader Zooey Gastelo shares a hug with a special surprise visitor to her school, Angelia Jolie. Photo by Paige MacMillan

The event came about through a partnership with GoodReads and Netflix. Ung had paid a recent visit to GALA’s sister school in New York, the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, and asked to visit a similar school in Los Angeles.

“I really admire her courage,” Gastelo said of the author. “Since this is a memoir, I know it’s really personal for her, and I am so thankful she took time to share her experiences with us. And, seeing where she has come after everything she has been through…it helps me know that I can do anything no matter how hard things may get.”

For Gastelo and many of the students, it was the first time meeting a published author. Students and educators alike expressed immense appreciation for the opportunity.

“Our girls are just riveted by this story,” said GALA principal Elizabeth Hicks. “They’ve been reading the book while going to and from school, at night before going to bed and first thing when they wake up. It’s already having a profound effect on them. And, now they actually get to meet the author herself. It’s really phenomenal.”

Brig Tratar, who teaches English at the school, described the event as a unique teachable moment.

“It’s really helping open their eyes to world events in ways they might never have imagined,” he said. “It has also prompted a lot of rich discussions about thought oppression, genocide and other topics that are important for the young women to understand.”

Tratar said he imagined that having the chance to talk to the author — who happened to be the main character in the book and the movie — would greatly deepen their understanding of the material.

“When you read the book, it feels like you are there,” said ninth-grader Audreona McRoy. “The way she uses language to describe her experiences…you could feel the fear and the sadness. It really touched me. It’s such an honor to get to meet the real person.”

Hicks said she is proud that her school, having opened its doors just last year, is able to provide such unique experiences for her students.

“What an incredible opportunity for our girls,” she said. “We strive to teach the importance of resilience, strength and sense of community, and today’s discussion touched perfectly on all of those themes. Our guests’ stories did a great deal to inspire our young women and help them understand how finding our courage can make such a difference in our lives.”