By Robyn Kincaide, ETA ’16-’18
I know that all too soon I’ll look back and miss my days in Uiseong, the rural garlic town where I’ve lived for the past year, but right now I’m feeling drained. An all-boys middle school is not the most tranquil work environment, and I haven’t felt truly relaxed at my homestay for some time.
It takes a while for my muscles to warm up and my breathing to normalize, but by the end of the first lap I’ve eased myself into a familiar rhythm. Despite the slight physical exertion, I feel almost at peace.
This state of mind is quickly disturbed. Just as I’m starting into the curve of lap two, I hear quick footsteps coming up behind me.
I glance to my right to see Young Cheol, one of the few 1st graders whose names I know, running beside me. I feel a bit guilty about how few of their names I actually have down, but the 1st graders have only in the past week begun wearing uniforms with their names embroidered in Hangeul 2, and to be quite honest I don’t feel as close with them as with the 2nd and 3rd grade students whom I have taught for an additional semester.
“Teacher, tomorrow—I want chocolate.”
I laugh. The students know I keep a bag of chocolates stashed in my desk, but only a few are bold enough to approach me and request to have some in English.
“Okay, tomorrow you come and I will give you chocolate.”
Young Cheol grins and speeds off. I assume this will be the last I see of him tonight, having obtained his objective in coming to me. However, he keeps running about 10 – 20 meters ahead of me—his speed isn’t exactly the most consistent. From time to time he glances back at me, with a surprised and slightly tired expression on his face. I can almost hear his thoughts, something along the lines of: Oh God, she’s still running. I realize that this is likely some boyish attempt at displaying masculinity, and feel compelled to warn him that he may be in for more of a workout than he had anticipated.
At the end of the lap we are running in sync again, and I say, “I am running eight laps,” holding up eight fingers, and gesturing in an oval shape. Young Cheol, panting, nods as though he understands, then picks up speed to run ahead of me again. We continue like this for two more laps, then he finally stops.
As I pass by, I ask, “Finished?” He nods, and I give him a thumbs-up before waving goodbye.
I finish my eighth lap and slow down to a walk, planning to walk two more laps before stretching out and heading home. About 100 meters into my walk, however, my unexpected running partner joins me again, wanting to chat. I am somewhat taken aback. My boys rarely try to engage in conversation past a “Hello! How are you?”. I often feel that the lack of engagement in meaningful conversations with students is one of my biggest shortcomings as a teacher, so I am determined to keep this one up for as long as possible now that I have a seemingly willing participant.
I begin asking him simple questions about school, sports, his family; he follows up with inquiries of his own, starting off with the three I hear most often from students (and to be quite honest, from most people in Korea):
“How old are you?”
“How tall are you?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Kakao! Kakao! Young Cheol’s phone screen lights up as it announces in a cutesy voice that he has new text messages. He holds up his phone, sheepishly grins, and says, “Teacher, this—my girlfriend.”
I raise an eyebrow and with a sideways smile reply, “Oh really?” in a skeptical tone. The girls and boys middle schools are on completely opposite sides of town, so the two sexes rarely get to interact. Many of my boys enthusiastically express interest in “making a girlfriend,” but those who actually have one are few and far between. I interrogate Young Cheol a bit about his “girlfriend,” and as he supplies details I begin to suspect he may in fact have one. I now feel a bit guilty for doubting him.
Two laps turn into three, and as I start to say that I need to go home and drink some water to replace what I have sweat out, Young Cheol looks at me and says, “Teacher, uh…pal ssireum?” motioning with one arm in the air.
“Um, arm-wrestling?” I make the same gesture back at him.
“Yes, arm-wrestling.” He repeats the phrase as though it’s one he’s heard before and is trying to re-commit to memory.
“Wait—you and me?”
Another nod, accompanied by a boyish grin.
I give a sighing laugh, or perhaps a laughing sigh, and look down at my scrawny arms. Young Cheol is only 13 years old, but I’m pretty sure he can out-arm-wrestle me.
“Okay. But I think you will win.”
We begin to wander the athletic complex, searching for a suitable arm-wrestling spot. As we do so, we pass by two middle-aged men smoking, a not uncommon sight in the evening hours.
“Teacher—I don’t smoke.”
From the way he is speaking, I take this to mean both that he does not smoke now—thank God—and will not in the future.
“Good,” I reply. “Smoking is very…unhealthy.” I know this word is likely not yet part of his active vocabulary, but hope that in the context he’ll understand its meaning.
Despite the higher-level communication skills needed for this topic, through employing a fair amount of dramatic gestures and facial expressions we manage to carry on a chat about the ill effects of smoking until we finally find a bench that will work for our competition. He annihilates me in the first round, but when we switch to our left arms, I hold my own and manage to pull out a win, much to our surprise.
“Okay,” I say, standing up and trying not to look too smug about what is actually a thoroughly unimpressive victory. “Now I really need to go and drink water.”
I chuckle. “Yes. Tomorrow, chocolate.”
We say goodbye and part ways to walk to our separate apartment buildings. Although my legs—and now my arms, too—are a bit worn-out, I think that I may have the energy needed to make it through the rest of the week.