Written by Nadia Ramirez
“Teacher, how to say sugohasyeotsseumnida in English?” Asks Minjin, as she comes up to me right after class. We’ve just had our dialogue tests, and I’m not surprised that she is the last girl in line, hoping to have a word with me. However, unlike all of her other classmates, Minjin didn’t come to ask about her test score.
At the time, I was unsure of what to do. My limited Korean, and her inability to enunciate her words, only made this more difficult. I tried to think of a way to get out of this predicament and as a last act of desperation I opened up Naver dictionary, a Korean-English translator, and handed her my smartphone. Her eyes immediately lit up and she showed me a beaming smile. “Ah! Teacher, thank you for your epports,” and just like that I felt my heart begin to glow, despite the biting and unforgiving winter cold.
The weather was just as cold the day I found out I’d been recommended for a Fulbright grant. After all, it would seem that the human mind is capable of remembering the exact time, place, and what we were doing shortly before we receive word of a life changing event. I was watching Pokémon in my room the day my grandfather passed in ’99. I remember how Mrs. Encarnacion’s photosynthesis lesson was replaced with emergency protocols during September 11th. I also remember being in Bogota and shivering under my ruana, a traditional Andean poncho, and cursing under my breath because it was “stupid cold” one January afternoon. I checked my email as a desperate attempt to distract myself from the weather, and it worked: I’d been recommended for a Fulbright grant.
After receiving this news, I stopped caring about the whimsical weather of the Bogota Savannah, and started thinking about cherry blossoms, gayageums, and ancient dynasties. Suddenly, all that mattered was that I had a high chance of becoming a Fulbrighter, a teacher in South Korea, and I had to prepare. The next day I desperately contacted the only person I knew could help: Pacho, a remarkable human being who dragged his family out of poverty by becoming an educator. He has been a teacher for as long as I can remember, and even tutored me as a child. Pacho is now a school administrator, but regardless, he was the only person I could think of at the time. My thoughts were proven to be correct when he knew exactly what to do, but like most people my age, I could not believe how simple the answer to my plight was. “Teaching is a labor of love,” he started. But it wasn’t until I met Minjin that I realized that out of all the people who supported me in this crazy adventure, Pacho had given me the single most important piece of advice.
I met Minjin on my first day at Gyeongnam Girls High School. She was the first student to approach me, the first student to visit my office, and she was also the first student to ask me about my future dreams. When I informed my students they could eat lunch with me on Wednesdays, Minjin was the first one to scratch her name on my calendar. Minjin could never leave class without having a conversation with me, and she could never pass by my classroom without peeking her head in, or uttering a hurried “hello” before running along. She has a small voice and a big smile, but she refuses to leave my classroom until she is finished with the day’s work, even if it means giving up that coveted ten minute break in between classes. Minjin has a will of iron, and a steadfast determination when it comes to learning English, even though it is very difficult for her. Needless to say, those first few weeks I thought Minjin was the typical, well-disciplined, yet low-level student. I came to the conclusion that she just wasn’t a language person, but I was charmed by how hard she tried.
During the fourth week of school I asked my students about their dreams. I set them off to write a few sentences, and had them create an accompanying drawing. While most of the girls spent the majority of their time creating vibrant pictures of nurses or lawyers, Minjin just stared at her paper, trying to find a way to put her dream into words. She was stuck. She needed one word and I could tell that it was right on the tip of her tongue. She was circling her hands around her ears over and over while saying “family… uhhh,” repeating the same motion over and over again.
The bell rang, and like usual, Minjin refused to leave until she finished the assignment. Body language failed us, so we decided to look up the word together. The word Minjin was so desperately in need of was ‘deaf.’ I felt a knot form in the back of my throat as I came to the shocking realization that she is deaf. Minjin is deaf, or at least nearly so, and it had taken me this long to realize it. Did this make me a horrible teacher? I had never scaffolded a lesson in order to meet her needs, and had never entertained the thought that there could be a reason behind her pronunciation issues. A million questions took over my mind as I found myself needing to sit down, in order to process this information and think about the way I had judged her. I felt so guilty I cried.
That day, I learned the reason behind Minjin’s infinite drive. Her dream, as Minjin puts it, is to learn English and American Sign Language so she can teach English to deaf people all over the world. Her biggest motivation is her parents, both of whom are completely deaf. Minjin has a hearing aid, but she hides it behind her tousled black hair and thick glasses. But more than her dreams, Minjin taught me to appreciate her for doing her best, even though she wasn’t the best. I understood why her pronunciation was so erratic, so full of mistakes, and I realized that the slight slur she uses when she speaks English is not for “intonation,” but something she simply cannot help. How could she? She can hardly hear what I or any other foreigner says, and so she lacks important pronunciation models. She has very few ways of checking her mistakes.
Yet, she understands me. She knows exactly what I say even though she cannot always reply. She sits in front of the class and when we talk, she is always staring at me with determination. After a few days, I noticed the way she furrows her brow as she focuses on the shapes of my lips as I pronounce each letter and vowel. I remembered how she never hesitated to ask me to slow down when speaking, and so I realized that this little girl can read my lips while speaking English, and that she can do it ridiculously well. I quickly became conscious of the fact that Minjin might be more advanced than her peers, yet she is unable to express herself due to her difficulties. This frustrates her to no end.
However, despite her frustrations, Minjin never complains about lessons, never refuses to do her work, and most importantly, insists on taking speaking tests like all the other students. Minjin outright refuses anything that would differentiate her from her classmates. She is also well aware that when it comes to English, she isn’t the best, but she chooses not to care because she knows she is doing her best and that’s all that matters. When I told her it was okay to write a six sentence monologue for her test instead of a ten sentence monologue, she shook her head with determination and said “teacher no, you said ten.”
We wrote together, most of her questions being about spelling and grammar. When she could not read my lips, tracing letters on her wooden table was more than enough. The way her eyes lit up once she grasped something will never cease to amaze me. After she left my class that day, I found myself crying again. And how could I not? I thought about all the times I’ve had petty complaints, or even the times I refused to do things because they were a little difficult. I am someone who has complete use of my physical capabilities, yet sometimes I refuse to do even the simplest of things. These days I find myself trying to be a better person, because every Tuesday I see a girl who is conscious of her disability, yet refuses to be treated differently. And she fights for this so earnestly that I do not give her any type of ‘special’ work, because first of all, I know it would offend her, but most importantly, because I believe in her.
Without knowing it, Minjin has set the bar for every single student I have, and will ever have, because she has done the only thing I ask them to do: try her best. Coincidentally, this was Pacho’s advice. On a cold January day, Pacho didn’t tell me to just love my students. He also told me to expect each one of them to do their best and nothing more but I didn’t realize how dangerous expectations could be.
During my first few weeks at school, I made the mistake of placing expectations on Minjin. Eventually, I realized that in fact, I had been expecting nothing of her at all. And I was wrong, so wrong, and her classmates would agree. As Minjin delivered her ten sentence monologue in front of the class, every other girl in the room held her breath with anticipation. Once her test was finished, everyone clapped and cheered, never mind her mistakes. I felt a weight being lifted off my chest because I knew then that Minjin is not alone; that she never has been.
Next semester, Minjin will be moving on to third year and I will miss her. I will miss her very much, but I will never forget what she has taught me, not only about teaching, but also about about life. Despite all of the mistakes I felt I had made, she was still there, thanking me for all of my efforts.
“I should be thanking you for your efforts,” I told Minjin, after her dialogue test. She noticed my mouth was doing something different from hers when I said the word “effort,” and I showed her that the right way to pronounce an ‘f’ is by putting her teeth over her lips, and letting the air pass through. Minjin was pleased, and she tried again, looking to me for approval.
“Teacher, thank you for your efforts.” Perfect pronunciation. And suddenly, my life was complete because knowing I had made a difference in hers is probably one of the most beautiful, indescribable feelings I have ever had. Once again, I found myself crying like a little girl, because Minjin, the girl who works harder than I ever have or ever will, was the first one of my students to treat me like a friend, and one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever met. That day she added another thing to her long list of firsts: she became the first student to come up to me and thank me for doing something simple— for just doing my job.
Nadia Ramirez is a 2014-2015 ETA at Gyeongnam Girl’s High School in Busan.