I’m 12 years old and staring at a Spanish test. The words are twisting together so that all I can see are blurs on the paper. I think I may actually be crying. I don’t even understand what I’m supposed to be doing, all I know is that I need to pass this test so I won’t get a bad grade in Spanish. I failed the last two tests though, and I don’t think I can pass this one either.
I can’t do it. And I can only cry at how stupid I am.
The test in front of me has strange words swimming across it. They make no sense. I know that it is English, and I know that I recognize a few of the letters, but the rest is a mystery. What sound is that supposed to make, and what sound is my teacher making? She’s standing at the front of the classroom, reading from a paper with all the words we are suppose to know. But I don’t know, I don’t know any of them.
My paper blurs, and my eyes sting. I know I’m too old to cry. I know that I can’t let anyone else see. But it’s not fair. I’m good at everything else. I pass all my other classes, so why can’t I pass this?
Maybe I’m just stupid.
I’ve been in Korea for two weeks now, and I’ve been studying Korean for equally as long. I’ve mastered the alphabet, though in truth I had studied that before I even set foot on this continent. Back home I had the help and encouragement of half a dozen Korean students from the adult English classes I taught. They praised me for memorizing the alphabet so quickly, and they were excited to teach me words and phrases. It felt good, exciting. I couldn’t wait to get to Korea and show how much better I was with this language than I had ever been with Spanish, or Latin, or French.
But two weeks in and all I could do was grit my teeth and complain as loudly as the students beside me that this was unfair. Why would the teacher cover their mouths when speaking the vowels and consonants? When would we ever be talking to someone without seeing their mouths? And when would I ever need to know exactly what vowel sound they had just made? How unfair was this test? And why, when I had been so confident the weeks before, could I not get it now?
What was wrong with me?
There is a new English teacher today. She smiles at us and says hello. She shows us pictures of her home and her friends, and she talks about something. She seems nice, but I have don’t have a clue what she’s saying. Everyone around me is nodding in agreement, sometimes they even ask something, in Korean, or in English. But I don’t. I don’t ask anything, not to her. I couldn’t understand her anyways.
A new picture is on the screen and there are people in it doing taekwondo. One of the students asks, in Korean, who they are. The new teacher doesn’t understand but our teacher, the Korean teacher, says something. The new teacher laughs and says something too I think. I don’t understand. I want to though; I want to know how she knows these people. I turn to my friend and ask him. When he doesn’t answer I ask again, and then a third time. Finally, I hit him. Why won’t he listen to me?
The new teacher comes over and scowls at me. She says something I don’t understand. I do understand she is angry. She crosses her arms. And I cross mine.
I hate English.
In a brightly lit and very cold room a woman hands me a certificate of completion. I have finished the intermediate Korean course offered at city hall. I smile, and shake her hand, laughing towards the man with the camera. My teacher pats me on the shoulder and says something in Korean. I don’t know what. But I smile and laugh and pretend to understand.
After the ceremony, and after the dinner, I take a long bus ride out to my little village. Once off the main street the path becomes windy, and dark, and I have to wedge myself into the corner of the seat to keep from falling over. Outside the window the few lights from the small houses that line the road blur past, until suddenly we are once again washed in the yellow street lights of a main street. I get off the bus and wrap my scarf tighter around myself, shoving one hand into my pocket while the other one clutches the certificate. My fingers ache in the cold, even with the gloves. I want to drop the stupid thing just so I can get my hands warm. I want to leave it in the frozen mud where it will get buried under leaves and dirt, and by the time the spring comes again it’ll be unrecognizable. I don’t deserve it. I didn’t learn a thing in that class except that I am as bad at languages as I remember being in seventh grade.
Instead, I take it home. I pack it in a box in the laundry room, along with all my Korean books, and both sets of notebooks almost completely filled. There’s no point in pretending anymore. I’m never going to understand this.
It’s the start of the new semester, and I’m on top. My new teacher likes me a lot, and my coach is proud of me because I helped to win the last match. She tells my teammates it’s because I never do anything halfway. When I get into the ring I go at it with all I’ve got, even if it means I might make a mistake. I put as much force as I’ve got into every kick, every swing, every dodge, and I win.
My parents are proud too, because even though I train until 7 each night, I am still doing well in all of my classes. My dad says that now that I’m in 6th grade, everything I do matters. Next year I will have to pick a middle school, and I know which one I want to go to. But you have to be good to go there. Good at taekwondo, and good at school. So this year, I have to try hard.
And I will try hard. I’m already trying hard. I’m ready for anything.
Well, almost anything.
The new English classroom is smaller than the old one, and the new teacher is older. The words are longer but make no more sense than they did last year, or the year before that, or before that. I wonder if English really matters in middle school. Really matters for what I want to do that is.
The new teacher is standing at the front of the classroom, pressing play on the computer. I am supposed to be listening, and answering questions. But I don’t know; I can’t.
I leave the test blank, and I don’t care.
My new co-teacher and I are going through the tests of my 6th grade students. Most of them did alright, though the pile of those who failed miserably is stacking up as well. My co-teacher is concerned about these students, she says she worries that they will do poorly for the rest of their years in school. I know what she means, but we also both know that most of students won’t be worrying about academics for much longer. We don’t work in an area with high expectations. We work in an area where we hope just a handful will make it to the better schools downtown.
I sift through one group of papers in particular, frowning. All three boys, my co-teacher says, do well in all their other classes. They’re popular, and athletic, and one of them has some of the highest math scores in the school. But they’re all terrible at English.
“Right,” I say, “because you can’t pick up a foreign language like you can other things. All of these guys just go to taekwondo after school, none of them go to hagwon. You have to study really hard, almost every day, to learn a language.”
I can hear the hypocrisy in my own voice. But what I said gives my co-teacher an idea.
School has ended, and outside the window I can see most of my friends walking away. They’re headed to hagwon, or home. They’re headed to the arcade, or to play soccer, or maybe just to watch TV. By the time I head home it’ll be dark. But I’m use to this, and I don’t mind. I’m not the only one after all, and the other two will be my teammates for life. That’s far more important.
The teacher gently taps her hands on the desk in front of me, and calls my name. I look at her, thinking I should scowl, but she’s smiling. She’s holding cards with English letters on them. One by one she points to a letter, and says “이거 뭐예요?”
Her Korean is strange sounding. But I understand, she wants me to tell her what letter.
“C” I say and she nods. Then she tugs her ear and says something in English. I don’t know what she wants, I don’t get why she’s tugging her ear. I turn to look at my teammates, and they both start to laugh, shrugging their shoulders. Great, they’re idiots to.
The teacher says my name again, and I look back at her. She’s still smiling. She points to the letter and says “C.” She tugs her ear and says “ㅋ.” She picks up a new card and says “D” before tugging her ear and saying “ㄷ.” She points to a new card and says “이름, G” then tugs her ear again and says “ㄱ.” I think I understand what she wants.
When she picks up a new card I say “C!” and when she tugs her ear I say “ㅋ.” The teacher smiles at me.
I smile back.
The weather is growing warm again, almost hot. Outside the rest of the students are practically sprinting to the gate, eager to get out and savor a few moments of freedom. In front of me all three boys are sitting, slumped forward, stifling yawns. I feel the same way.
I lay out stacks of cards, each with a hastily written letter, English word, and illustration on it. I’ve been using these cards to test how far the boys have some since they started. But today I have a different activity in mind.
I rap my fingers on the table and all sets of eyes shift from the window to me. They glance at the cards, and I can almost feel their own frustration growing. I look at the boy sitting directly across from me. He smiles, but it’s the sort we give each other only when we are trying to conceal our frustration. I smile back, feeling mine is more genuine.
“Ok boys, listen to me. 선생님 들어봐[1. Seonsaengnim deureobwa, listen to the teacher].” I motion to the cards in front of me. “I will say a sound, like ‘a.’ You pick up the card, as fast as you can. 선생님[2. Seonsaengnim, teacher] “a, a” 말해[3. Malhae, says ]. You 잡다. 빠래 잡다[4. Japda. PPalae japda, catch. Quickly catch].”
I know my Korean is rough but over the weeks I’ve noticed that if I say anything in Korean they respond better. So I’ve started to try and practice some key words before we meet. I told my coteacher that I think because my Korean is so bad, they feel like we are on the same level. She laughed, but I wasn’t joking. They’re right, after all.
It’s reading day in class again. I kinda hate reading day. Everyone else finishes and the teacher gives them a small red sticker to paste to the reading board. Each name has a line of stickers beside it. Each name except for mine.
I watch the teacher give another student a sticker, then stare back at my book. The words are swimming again. I don’t really understand. I can’t make sense of any of it. I think I should probably just close the book and wait for class to end.
Before I can close the book the teacher places her hand on my book. She shakes her head at me. Using her hand she covers all the other words and all the other letters except for the first letter in the first paragraph. “What sound?” She asks.
“즈”I say. She moves her hand over so I can see the second letter. We’ve done this in after school, I know what she wants me to do. “이…느…스…오…Jinso!”
When the bell rings we’re only halfway finished. But the teacher is grinning, and so am I. She gives me a sticker, and I get to start my own line.
Summer break has come and gone, and the second half of the year has started. It’s hot and humid, just as it was right before I went home to visit my family. The afternoons are the worst, the classrooms are not only hot, but smell like adolescent students. All the windows are open, and the AC is off, but it’s still unbearable; these faux leather seats don’t help any either.
On my computer I hit “인쇄[5. Inswae, print ]” and listen as the printer begins to spit out the flashcards for the game we will play in phonics class. Some of the cards are easier, they just want sounds and names of letters, others will be more difficult. They want students to read, or tell me the first letter in a word. I’m not sure that all my students will be able to handle it, especially after the summer break. But they have come so far since we started these classes, that I don’t want to make it too easy. They’ll get it, and if they don’t, we’ll just study a bit more, and try again the next day. They’re dedicated, and so am I.
I collect the cards, and place them in the phonics folder. I settle back into my stifling, sticky chair, and open up my new Korean book. My students are not the only ones who have decided that some things are worth studying hard for.
Hannah Teacher is standing at the front of our table. She is leaning over us, and frowning. I hand her the card for the phonics game.
“Teacher, what?” I ask, laughing as I do.
She frowns for a moment more, and says something in English. I lean in closer to hear.
“Small is…big…ah….ah!” She grins and looks at me “B 대문자 쓰기….write the big B!”
I race to write the B before my friends. English is easy.
Hannah Shannon is a 2014-2016 ETA at Ocheon Elementary School in Pohang, Gyeongsangbuk-do.