by Emily Shoemaker
“Tell me about your first year of high school,” you say to the student sitting across from you. It’s his end-of-semester speaking test and he smiles at you nervously, eyes darting to the stopwatch on the table. You start the time.
“Today I introduce my high school life,” he begins slowly, shifting around in his chair. “First, every day early wake up. So tired. Take subway for… for about one hours. When I arrive school, I play badminton. Homeroom teacher with. In the… the… teacher, what is gangdang?”
“Play badminton in gym. Then I go to classroom and…”
Though halting at first, your student warms up into his spiel as he goes. Just like the dozens of students you tested earlier today, and yesterday, and the day before that.
Before these speaking tests you hadn’t realized that most of your students live at least a full hour of crowded, miserable bus or subway rides away from school. It is a facet of their daily existence that you hadn’t really thought about, and that bothers you. You find yourself wishing, as usual, that you had gotten to know them more personally earlier in the semester.
But there were so many of them, and you were so focused on worksheets and lesson plans, and back then the sounds of their names kept slipping through your memory like water through your fingers.
Next semester you will not teach these students anymore. This is your third school. You know the drill. They will be busy with their new classes, and you will be busy with your new classes. There will be hallway greetings and lunchtime chats but things will never be quite the same.
With each new semester you’ve learned to spread your emotions a little less thin. Maybe this time, you think, you will finally be able to find some peace in the goodbyes.
You step toward them for the first time in the setting summer. You dance, twirling and pushing and stepping on each other’s toes as the leaves catch fire in fall. You love them as the embers fade into white winter ashes; then the soft smell of spring seeps into the air, and it is time for you to bow out and let them go.
Before you came to Korea and became a teacher you had no idea how much these kids were going to mean to you. How much you would look forward to their smiles and waves, how many snacks you would conspire to eat together, how hard you would laugh at their animated commentaries and hilariously blunt answers to your delicate questions.
How much you will miss the familiarity and trust shining in their coffee-mahogany-midnight gazes once they are gone.
You are ten years older than these students. Sometimes it feels like much more, but also sometimes like much less.
“I satisfied with my high school life,” the student in front of you avers, much steadier in his words now, “but also there is some problem.”
“What’s the problem?”
He sighs. “The friends at this school, they… they study very well. So good at study.” He scratches his head sheepishly. “But I am not good at study. I don’t like study. So hard for me.”
You pause. As you did for students earlier today, and yesterday and the day before that.
“Tell me more.”
There are many nuances of life that you won’t ever be able to properly communicate, to fully share with your students, but sometimes you get glimpses of the world through their eyes.
Peeks through body language windows. Sounds and syllables and offhand sentences are coin edges dragging through a scratch-away sticker as the insights flash by and reveal just a little bit more of the gift beneath.
In hundreds of speaking tests, your students always tell you whether or not they “study well.” That they got bad grades first semester because they didn’t study. That their grades are improving now because they are studying more.
You have never once heard a student say, “My classmates get better grades because they are smarter than me.”
You have never once heard a student say, “I failed because I am stupid.”
And you can’t know for sure what this word choice means to them, but to you it’s an important one. You know that at their age you didn’t understand that intelligence is far less valuable than initiative. This lesson took you years and years to internalize, and yet—time and time again—falls so casually from lips wrapping around foreign words on the other side of the stopwatch—mouths so much better at spinning a new language from muscle and breath than you think yours will ever be.
You are forever intrigued by how your students choose to express their life experiences in English, this non-native tongue. The way they translate their thoughts into words that are shallow from the words that are deep.
Day by day, you learn to understand a little bit more of everything left unspoken.
“Lastly I will say about my friends,” your student is finishing up with confidence, no longer glancing at the stopwatch. “First, Seon Ho. Seon Ho is very good face. First impression was cold, but he talk to me and now we very close.” You knew that, because they always sit and make trouble together, and you let out a short huff of amusement. Your student grins and continues without apology. “Next is Do Ahn. At first he looks like serious student. Very good at study… but real is no. Real is crazy boy.” And then you are laughing, because the idea of your loudest and most mischievous kid being studious for even half a second is the most ludicrous thing you’ve heard all day.
Your student laughs with you as he finishes his list, and after a quick wrap-up you show him his score on the test. He leaves. One more down. The next student comes in—this one ranked second in her grade. With the same nervous smile, she glances at the stopwatch.
“Tell me about your first year of high school,” you say, and start the time. She launches into a description of a daily schedule that includes classes, club activities, night study at academies and only three to four hours of sleep a night. The sentences are longer, the grammar is better, the words are bigger.
The meaning is the same.
You sit back and listen.
Your school sits on a hill in a touristy part of town. You descend to the street below, filled with hanoks [1. traditional Korean houses] and cafés and ddeokbeokki [2. Korean snack food made from soft rice cake, fish cake and sweet red chili sauce] stands. All the familiar sights and sounds and smells that lead to the subway. For you, this little neighborhood is a bridge between work and home—but you know it is also much more than that. Avoiding cars as you pace over cobblestones, you think about all the different paths that are layered into this road by your students as they travel.
You think of Jun Tae, walking to his daily hour-and-a-half commute home to Paju. Of Ji Won, going to help take care of her amnesic grandmother. Of Min Hyeok, heading to an after-school math academy because his grades are low.
Because he doesn’t want to go to business school.
Because he wants to be a baker.
And you think of all that your students have told you about their lives over the past semester. Words spoken or written or Korean or English or loud or quiet.
“My parents made me to be accountant, so I come to this school. But actually I don’t want accountant. I want to go to wood-carving school.”
“Something in my first year of high school was very hard for me. Because I have secret love. But I do not know her mind, so I can’t do anything. I am too scared. Teacher, love is so hard.”
“I like P.E. It is best class, and I better than the other girls, so I like it. My dream is be a soldier.”
“My special day is March 5th. I will remember it forever. On that day, my father… my father went to the sky.”
“Teacher. I am so afraid of my future.”
In the days and weeks and months you have known them, these kids have told you so many things. Some days their words make you frustrated. Some days they make you angry. Some days they make you laugh and some days they break your heart.
But every day, you learn little by little how to better meet your students in the middle of the time-distance-culture gap stretching between you, and for that you are nothing but glad.
You know, deep down, that this next round of goodbyes won’t be any less difficult than the ones before. You agree to accept that difficulty with each new semester. Each new student who walks into your classroom, and you will always be sad when they leave again.
But you have also learned how meaningful the short time you have together can be, and maybe — just maybe — the goodbyes might not be such a bad trade in the end.
There will always be too much you want to share with your students and too little time. You try your best to ensure that they always walk away from you with a new piece of information, a new way to think about the world. A new way to perceive the fractured yet whole, individual yet shared experience of being human. You are forever searching for the right words with which to do so.
Sometimes you find those words.
Sometimes you don’t.
But usually, you’ve noticed, it’s enough to just be there. Day after day, week after week, month after month, teaching and learning and living and breathing together in the same space.
That, really, is the reason you came to Korea.
To say things that can only be said without ever speaking at all.
You reach the end of the road and turn left, the subway entrance just ahead. You trudge down to wait for your train, just as you did earlier today, and yesterday, and the day before that.
It arrives with the usual rumbling, the slight screech of metal as it slows to a stop. You board, and as the doors close, someone suddenly hollers across the platform behind you.
“Teacher bye! See you tomorrow!”
You turn and catch sight of a student waving at you.
Smiling, you wave back.
The subway car shudders to life and slowly begins to pick up speed again, the student panning sideways as colors flash and edges slide out of focus. The platform lights snuff out as you enter the tunnel, leaving a reflection of your own face staring back at you in the window glass.
Tomorrow is the last day of speaking tests.
You wish it wasn’t.
Emily Shoemaker is a 2014-2016 ETA at Daedong Taxation High School in Seoul. She previously taught at Dodam High School and Mireu Elementary School in Sejong City.