Life, Death, and a Side of Kimchi

Written by Leigh Hellman ETA’08-11

“Teacher?” Middle of roll-call. No raised hand, just an impatient voice that presses everything with the same urgency.

“What?” A pause for the language barrier. I give him a beat to assemble his sentence before I start ignoring him. I have a headache and secretly hope it falls apart in his head rather than tumbling across my classroom.

“전쟁.” No dice. YH is lazy but consistent, so I give him points for that. He offers me the same intentioned, if slightly shorter, pause. “미국 가?” (“Are you going to America?”)

“I don’t know.” I keep my answers clipped and honest.

I don’t look back down at my clipboard because I know he’s not finished.

“같이 가자.” (“Let’s go to America together.”) A leapfrog of giggles and I roll my eyes. YH would be the one to say that. With him I can’t differentiate between sincerity and mockery. YH doesn’t mean harm, but he doesn’t mean particularly well either.

I think, not for the first time, about what war would mean for my students. Imminent — as it has been for two and a half years now. I can’t form a clear picture of it in my mind. I see vignettes from the original — and still the only — Korean War or scenes I’ve probably filed away from overzealous Hollywood war epics. Bloodstained school uniforms, slow-motion bursts of wood from where the bullets slice into our old doors and walls. Noble charges, last stands, sand and dust and a deafening silence that really hooks the audience. But that’s not war. Not real war.

Even the loops of footage streaming in from 연평도 aren’t real war to us.

I have no idea what that is or what it would be.

YH smugly congratulates himself amid his cluster of friends, all seeds from the same rotting apple. My rotting apple, but I still taste the bitterness. I resume roll and wonder if I imagined the hint of uncertainty, of innocent fear in his interruption.

I wonder what YH sees when he thinks of war. What he sees when he thinks of danger in his life. Can he imagine finality like that?

I can’t imagine finality for any of these boys, ripe and sour alike.

Then one boy is twisting another’s arm and thoughts of war and ends trickle back to the edge of my mind.

KS died in the fall.

I am the last to know. I don’t know why it surprises me. I understand my school’s subconscious; I know its motivation to stifle as many opportunities for unfavorable judgment as possible. Maybe I’d just been forgotten in the sweep of things — as I often was, even now. Or maybe they hadn’t thought it relevant to tell me. After all, it was probably something I wouldn’t care about.

But I do care about it.

A teacher lets it slip during a car ride. “The school has to be careful these days to let the third graders leave early.”

“Why?” I ask it reflexively, not fully committed to the conversation.

“Because of that student who died.”

The sentence rolls out casually, wrapped in only half a thought. My ears buzz low and I swallow a laugh. I’m not so sure that this is one of his awkward jokes.

“What happened?” Maybe this isn’t something I’m allowed to know, but the teacher keeps talking.

“He fell in the water and died.” There is more to it, of course. He tells me what he heard from the administration. The tale flirts with a subtle implication of badness in that student, a faulty moral compass that led him from the guidance of his school to that cold river path.

I keep thinking: It must have been so cold that night.

“Who was it?” I flip through snapshots of third graders I’ve seen recently. I am suddenly, painfully aware of how little I see those boys now — boys who I saw weekly for a year and a half — and how they really could be up to anything and I’d never know it.

The teacher isn’t listening; he’s racing to make a left-turn arrow. Once we’re safely through, I repeat my question. He shrugs.

“I don’t know.” A lump of rage rises out of the bottom of my stomach. How can he not know which one of our — my — students is dead?

“It happened a while ago. I can’t remember.”

Pieces start to fall into place. “When did it happen?”

“Two, three months ago. I’m not sure exactly.”

I nod mechanically and feel the strangeness of the movement. It amplifies the strangeness of everything else.

Another teacher answers my chat message later. She writes his name: KS.

KS, KS, KS. I run it through my memories, certain that it’s familiar but still missing some necessary clue to this unwanted mystery.

The lump pulses with guilt. Guilt for my impotency, guilt for not protecting my boys but mostly guilt for not being able to match a damn face to a name. Guilt that one of my babies is dead, and I can’t even remember who he was.

I remember it later, possibly in the shower while my mind is on defrag for the day.

I remember my first Teachers’ Day, and how I was the only teacher they forgot to prepare a corsage for. I remember his disbelief, his disgust, and how he raced off and reappeared five minutes later with some poor sucker’s pilfered flowers. I remember how he mugged for our picture. I remember how I indulged him.

He must have been so afraid.

I remember his class, one of the lowest level classes I taught. I remember how he knew maybe five words in English and employed two of them to keep the class in-line. “Shut up” is a perennial favorite with my low boys.

I hope he wasn’t in pain.

I remember patting him on the shoulder one day and him wincing. When I asked what was wrong he pulled back his collar, exposing gashes across his shoulder and down his arm. He mimed an accident and boasted about his part-time job as a motorcycle delivery boy for his parents’ chicken restaurant. I remember I shook my head and made him promise to wear a helmet and be careful.

“I don’t want you to die.”

I hope he didn’t feel alone.

I remember his first day in class, a transfer student near the end of my first teaching semester. I remember our first Christmas party and how I offered students cards to make for me. Out of 800 or so students, he was the only one who did.

I remember him whispering to the co-teacher. When I asked him about it he turned away without saying anything. She told me later that he’d wanted to know if he could write, “I love you”.

When he gave me the card at the end of class, “I love you” was noticeably absent above his signature — KS.

I hope he knew — knows — that I will never forget him.

I stare at the card now, taken out of its plastic cover amongst the compulsively organized memories of my Korean life. Then I put it away quickly, worried that my tears might smudge the ink.

YH is late again. Granted, he’s not alone. But it’s almost finals week and I’m not in the mood.

They stand in the back. Most of them sway idly, shifting from foot to foot. A few chat despite my warning looks. But YH props his book open on the edge of a desk and follows along. I know because I can hear his obnoxiously distinct voice repeating with the drone of the rest.

It’s more effort than he’s ever really made. I’m careful not to be impressed. There are seven minutes left and we’re pushing through. The dance of fifth period feels more like a slow gulag-trudge most days.

Then it’s there, like an exclamation point in the middle of endless ellipses. YH’s arm stretching, straining up, and I don’t know why but I acknowledge it.

“What?” I’m not as angry as I sound, but they can’t know that.

“Teacher, teacher!” I grit my teeth and consider that maybe he has nothing to say.

What?” I press more, challenging him to surprise me.

And he does. “I want to learn.” It hits me like a sucker punch and I’m out. A boy one year older than YH was feisty like that too.

KS wanted to be an actor. He was studying; that’s why he’d been in that city with that river. I don’t know what YH wants to be, but I know that in this moment I still have time to find out.

I struggle for my balance between leeway and backtracking, strict and totalitarian.

“Alright,” I finally exhale with only one corner of a smile. “But you can’t sit down.” YH nods, bouncing his whole body. I pull back to the march — five minutes to go.

After class the others throw glares at YH, a mix of envy and resentment for his grandstanding. I watch them shuffle out of class and suddenly feel how short my time with my boys really is.

From within the ebb and flow of everything else, it’s so easy to forget how soon they’ll be gone.