I fell in love with Dukbum when all his classmates were busy writing in wrestlers and pop stars on their worksheets, while he would constantly reference Chopin and Beethoven. Dukbum was patient with me, because in the beginning, I didn't really clue into the fact that it was the same student writing about classical composers every week. Every week I would be surprised when I would come across his paper. But eventually I caught on. And that's when Dukbum suddenly started speaking English.
Amongst my enormous student population, I am aware that these little guys exist. They sit quietly through every class, and never dare to utter a single sentence in English, until you catch on to the fact that they are capable of it, first. I've learned how to spot these guys fairly well by now. Once they know you're on to them, they drop the act fairly quickly and are suddenly chattering away. God knows why this is. But Dukbum was one of these.
Dukbum is one of the rare students who I look at and think, jesus christ if you were ten years older. And, there has to be hope. Because if you exist at this age, you must still exist at my age, as well.
He has an incredible inner struggle. He is ridiculously diligent -- in his manners, in his studies, and in the pursuit of his passions, the main one being (obviously) music. His appearnce is neat, classic and modest. He keeps his hair cut army-short, and he was always in full uniform, with everything tightened, tucked in and folded down the way it ought to be.
Then, one day, I noticed that Dukbum's hair was getting a bit unruly. Not unruly, exactly. He always kept it neatly combed. But just, I guess, longer. I commented on this every single time I saw him, and how handsome he was looking. Eventually, I figured out what it was all about.
On the day of the school festival concert, at which Dukbum was to perform with the band, he walked into the third grade office and I nearly fell out of my chair.
He stood proudly in front of my desk wearing ripped black skinny jeans, red converse, a strategically tucked/untucked white button down shirt, skinny black tie, and distressed black vest.
"Dukbum oh my god!"
He grinned like loon. "Teacher how do I look?"
"You look amazing! Like a rock star! Dukbum, can I have your autograph?"
For this one day, Dukbum went all out. He had waited for it with baited breath all year long. Because, on this day only, Dukbum had the chance to be himself. Dukbum can't keep his hair long. He can't wear skinny jeans and ripped clothes on the street. He can't even play guitar all that often (he usually has to focus on piano and cello). Because Dukbum would rather die than let his parents down.
Dukbum and I spent a lot of time talking together in the office alone during Winter vacation, and even spring break, after he had graduated. Dukbum always talks about his 'duties' with absolutely no remorse. He has no girlfriend, because he must focus on his studies. He cannot be a good boyfriend until after he has finished his studies, and his army service. Then, he can properly take care of a girlfriend. Until then, he won't waste a girl's time. Although he loves music, there is no future in music. He must secure a good job so that he can take care of his parents later in life, and raise his children well. He wanted to go to a more relaxed high school with his friends, but he decided that he would have to go to an advanced high school, because, ultimately, he could handle it and it was his responsibility to do the very best that he could.
This is one half of the conversation that I have with Dukbum. The other half is about music, art and poetry. How human relationships are magical and the only important thing that we have. How art opens a door in our souls that nothing else can move. How we are able to communicate great things to each other, even though neither one of us is particularly gifted in the other's native language, although Dukbum is significantly moreso than I am. How when he listens to certain songs, no matter how many times he's heard them, he can't help but to cry, not because they are sad, but because he doesn't know what else to do with what he feels when he hears them.
And only on one occasion was I able to get him to admit that he does, deep deep down, have some struggles with himself in relation to his "duties".
When Dukbum left on that last day, I did something I have never done with any other student -- I handed him a slip of paper with my email address on it. "I know you will be quite busy this year, Dukbum. But if you ever want to talk, I want you to keep in touch. I will miss you very much."
The rest of the vacation rolled on and the new school year started. I missed him and his classmates a great deal, and felt lonely walking down the halls without their familiar faces and sounds. But there were new students to contend with, and to fall in love with. The second week of the school year, I came into the office one morning to find a letter on my desk. Written on the front of the envelope was this: "I think that the relation between human and human is important. That is 'endless smile'." Inside was a letter from Dukbum. He said emailing was fine, if that's what I wanted, but he thought letters were more 'romantic', and that if I gave letters to his dongsaeng in the first grade, he would deliver them to Dukbum. Dukbum would send letters back through the same student.
So-called, we become the pen-pal. Be healthy and may you go well on your everything. From your pupil Dukbum.
This Sunday, after going for an early morning walk through the neighborhood, I was thinking about him. I know he's having midterms now, and must be riding himself to the point of ill-health. So I sat down to write him a letter. I told him not to push himself so hard, because he's smart enough to succeed without killing himself studying. I told him about my walk through the neighborhood, and how kind the older people are to let me speak my terrible Korean without laughing or misunderstanding me. How I'm not like him -- I'm a terrible student, and these days my apartment stays very clean, because when I sit down to study, I suddenly realize there's some dust in the corner I must attend to. How I hope, someday soon, to be able to write to him in Korean. I wrote down one of the Korean phrases I had learned that day to show him that I'm trying. I asked him what rock songs he was learning on guitar (as he had confessed to me, right before leaving, that this was his new top secret guilty interest). I called myself his "friend", because I am not his teacher any longer.
Next month is Teacher's Day. Although a whole boatload of students asked if I would still be at my school on this day (the day that students traditionally visit their old teachers in Korea) last year before they left, I don't have high hopes that too many of them will show up. They've all had Korean teachers who have had a much stronger impact on their lives. Suffice it to say, however, that I'll be looking forward to seeing Dukbum on that day. And it might break my heart, just a little, if he doesn't come.