Written by Andrew Cheng
August 18, 2013
I decided to take a walk tonight and, since I now live quite close, my feet led me toward the school. Your school. Our school. When the dormitory came into view from behind the new apartment buildings, I realized, to my shock, that it was the first time that I was back since July 12th, the day you died. The day I was supposed to go home with happy goodbyes and see-you-in-Augusts but instead left in hurried confusion and sadness. The day you were supposed to go home but never did.
The buildings looked exactly the same as they always have: grand, silent, with brightly-lit windows. It being Sunday evening, most students had already returned to their dormitory rooms and were probably preparing for the start of classes tomorrow.
I thought about what I would say and do when I arrived on campus in the morning, one silent month of summer vacation behind me. Ought I to speak openly of the tragedy and let the school community know that I still cared? Ought I to ask my students personally if they were coping healthily? I wondered if I should talk about you at all, even mention your name. I could waltz into class with the same familiar smile and vigor and begin to teach as if nothing had happened. As if real life had no bearing on the classroom environment. It’s been difficult to come to grips with your death, Tony. I haven’t told a single person about you.
If I did, I would say first that you were an exceptional student. That you were almost relentlessly positive, and that the only times you weren’t happy were when you were lost in thought and concentrating very hard on how to formulate a sentence in English properly enough to make your point understood. You volunteered to speak up in class every single week and did so purely from self-motivation, because you were actually paying attention to the discussion and wanted to give your earnest input, even if it wasn’t a popular opinion. Sometimes, you stayed after class to clean the whiteboards without being asked. It gave you an opportunity to chat with me as I packed up, not even because you wanted more English practice but because you simply wanted to chat with me. Tony, you deserved your Class MVP award, and although it was just a piece of paper, it meant so much more than that, at least to me. I actually wish I could impart even more meaning to it now, to shower you with verbal praise, to do anything in my power to affirm your intrinsic value as a human being. But it’s too late.
Do you remember our last conversation? It was over lunch earlier that week. The subject of the Korean educational system came up – yet again – and I went on my usual rant about how stressful and unfair it was for a student’s entire potential to be governed by a few arbitrary exams. You agreed and added that schools were not doing their students any good. Prophetically, you became a victim of the system just a few days later. No one even realized the pressure you were under, and for that I am so, so sorry.
Tony, I’m going to miss you in my classes this semester. I still don’t know what I will do when I have to face your peers, or how it will feel. Whatever happens, we must all move on, right? But for me, moving on will not entail forgetting. For you, I’m going to strive to be the best teacher I can be. For you, I’m not going to let a minute go to waste on anyone else. I will let my students talk to me as much as they want, whenever they want, and encourage them always to speak their minds. When they do occasionally say something brilliant, it will remind me of you.
I hope that you are resting in well-deserved and long-awaited peace.
Andrew Cheng is a 2012-2014 high school ETA in Changwon, Gyeongsang-nam-do.