Written by Colleen Mayo, ETA ’11-13
Yeomju Elementary School’s children are pint-sized, but the building itself could rival a castle. We have a 16-person 교무실 (teacher’s office) on every floor, two gymnasiums and three dumpster landings to collect 1,200 students’ trash. A giant would comfortably break bread in our cafeteria. Yet among the 30 girls’ restrooms, there sits but one heated toilet seat. A cold bowl in December is the worst, I tell you. The absolute worst. Really, it’s a race come late November.
It is warmer inside Yeomju’s castle walls than in the mountainous air outside our windows. I reason that the slight difference stems from the boiling green tea we all sip every ten minutes. At Yeomju, we synch our tea-drinking tighter than Big Ben. Even without tea, though, I always have to go by the end of a lesson. I, like all the other teachers, have ten minutes before I’m standing in front of my next class, and we all need to be fully leaked, dried and poised to orchestrate another forty minutes.
Ten minutes should be long enough. But break time inevitably morphs from a two-minute corridor stroll to a seven-minute march through crazy town. Some of us stuff our coat pockets with tissue paper to save time. The bell rings. We dismiss our students. They bound out of their homerooms. Now it’s a sprint to the heated bowl. We simultaneously power walk from our respective classrooms to Yeomju’s third floor, where the lone warm seat waits.
Students are oblivious to Yeomju’s arctic interior. They holler and chase each other down the hallways, choosing to enjoy their ten minutes of freedom rather than be cold. Or pee.
I round my way up to the third floor. Kids shoot past me.
“What’s up, Coco!” most shout.
Some are more creative. “Give me the money,” says my favorite troublemaker, Tae Han. Tae Han’s best friend chases after him. “Sex on the beach,” he chants.
As I bustle through the hallway, my left coat-pocket bounces with foil-wrapped chocolate kisses.
Su Yeon, the fourth grade English teacher, gave me the chocolate. She used to offer every teacher in the office a single kiss every day after lunch. It was our ritual and it felt absolutely sacred as I peeled off the foil and slipped the treat in my mouth. Su Yeon still performs her afternoon ceremony, but she’s been giving me special treatment since the cold weather started. Rather than pluck just one chocolate kiss out of her bag, she jangles the it upside down over me as kisses rain out from a small hole cut in the corner.
“Warm Coco. Christmas Coco, Christmas Coco,” she sings every day. “Stay warm in Christmas.”
Plastic sliding windows separate classroom (order) from hallway (chaos). In chaos the students stampede back and forth as if reenacting “Jumanji.” Their language is not fully Korean or English—they howl in both. They take off their rubber indoor slippers and chuck the shoes at one another (and consequently at me). They reclaim confiscated materials—bouncy balls, comic books, airplanes and stuffed animals appear from nowhere. The students screech, waving this loot in my face as I pass. Stand in the hallway too long and you might just may lose your mind. However, to never breach it risks forgetting that the studious, well-postured bodies warming your classroom belong to fifth graders. And any fifth grader—from any country—will explode with primordial joy when finally released to exercise the natural itch for free and joyful destruction.
But not all the classrooms are free just yet. The hardcore teachers remain oblivious to both break and bladder; they continue class. Our ethics teacher, Mr. Mun, is the oldest man in the building. He looks like he wrote the original code of ethics. A definite wisdom has taken hold and it enfolds him. I slow down as I pass by his class to drop a ninety-degree bow. Mun sees me through the windows, nods his head like a king and the students are dismissed. They swarm out of his classroom. “Hi, Coco! Hurry hurry,” he says in English and gives me a thumbs-up. Some students freeze when they hear his English; Mr Mun’s general presence suggests penning Hangeul together with King Sejong. Like a champion marathoner, I return his thumbs up and continue through the hall.
“Hurry, for the happy pee,” he calls after me.
My fifth graders yell for my attention and, although my gut is approaching rupture point faster than I can score the heated seat, I wave back. They know I’ve memorized almost every face but they still love to rename themselves.
“I’m Iron Man,” says Do Bin. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I know you, Do Bin,” I say. “How are you?”
“I’m POOP thanks, and you?” Do Bin answers, straight-faced.
“Goodbye, Do Bin.”
I feel like I’m inside a video game. I am one of seven female teachers, striving for the heated seat. We must navigate through the troves of children. Carry the necessary paper. Ball it discreetly in our winter pockets. And hurry—hurry—to our destination with a teacher’s demeanor, with swift steps and administrative poise.
Su Yeon and I simultaneously arrive on the third floor, see each other and trade poise for a giggle explosion. Then a third winner arrives: Yu Ri, who teaches Home Economics. Our game is finished; like most good games, we played it more for the act than the win. Good manners take over. Yu Ri insists that I enjoy the heated seat because I travelled the furthest. I demand she use it because she supplied the toilet paper in my right pocket.
Yu Ri sits next to me in the office. She houses four rolls of toilet paper in her desk alongside an English slang book. Every morning before we head to class, she hands me my daily supply and tries out new terms.
“For my G,” she said today. “Keep it real.”
Yuri’s favorite English slang phrases are accurate yet outdated: most were probably used by ‘N Sync members or the cast of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“Don’t josh me,” she likes to tease when I refuse to let her set me up on a blind date. “I’m your homie.”
Next period’s bell rings before anyone takes the heated seat. We shriek again. Third floor is sixth grade territory and a circle of moody girls raise their eyebrows at us.
“Classy time,” Yu Ri calls to them in English. “It’s time to party.”
They filter into their rooms while Su Yeon does a potty dance for me in the hallway. “WTF?” Yu Ri mouths, then joins the dance. We walk downstairs together. Chaos over. I tell them Mr. Mun spoke English to me again.
“Oooh, mysterious,” says Yu Ri. “Like Bigfoot and Santa.”
“Like an angry American bear,” says Su Yeon.
“WTF?” Yu Ri says, interlocking each of her arms with one of ours. “Girl, you whack.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what you mean,” I admit.
Su Yeon just shrugs and reaches into my pocket. She pulls out a chocolate kiss. “I don’t know either,” she says. “But it makes a lot of sense.”
Colleen (Coco) Mayo is a 2011 – 2013 ETA at Yeomju Elementary School in Gwangju.