I've been working really closely with these guys for the entire year, as most of them have joined the English club and the newspaper class. There are the two hours a week we meet regularly, and then there are all of the other hours -- during lunch, break times, before and after school, which we've spent editing articles, practicing speeches and songs, and working on their reading comprehension, whenever they have the time to stop by, and all of the evening, weekend and vacation emails we've exchanged in the meantime. They've all worked so hard. Most of them want to attend a foreign high school, but several of them don't have the finances to go to English academy, so they've taken full advantage of the open door policy to come in and get as much help as they can. I'd say on average, I've been spending between six to eight hours with them each week. And it has been the most rewarding work I've done, since I've become a teacher. Watching them go from turning red and barely able to mutter a full sentence when I approached them, sitting with a white sheet of paper in front of them for forty-five minutes at a time, without the courage to write down a single sentence.
It was a struggle at first, because they are all type A personalities, and they don't like to make mistakes. We ground through the first couple of writing assignments, with them stopping every three words to check in with me about something they were unsure about. But I kept pushing them -- you don't need an answer right now. Just write. We will fix it later. Trust me to understand you, even if you're not perfect, and trust yourself enough to believe that you can make yourself understood, even if you make some mistakes.
This week, three of them came in after school to sit at my office table and work on their final article. I sat beside them the entire time, and every now and then one would stop and ask a question. But for the most part, within the space of an hour and a half, they all put down an entire page of writing.
They ask me questions now, without feeling too self-conscious about whether or not what they're saying out loud is perfect. They speak to each other in English without feeling embarrassed, just because. In short, they are evidence of what a group of young people are able to do, when given the opportunity and the resources.
Today, to start with, there was Yeongwoo. Yeongwoo is the little brother of another very sweet student I had two years ago. Yeongwoo is one of those ones who just feels like an adult, already. He's a kid, but he's smart, he's mature and he's responsible. No one ever has to tell Yeongwoo what he should be doing. His brother was the same way.
He came to camp this past month, and during the camp, I taught "Count On Me" by Bruno Mars. It's a bit fast, but the lyrics are simple enough for the students to understand with a little explanation, and it's a catchy tune right in line with what the older students like these days. When Yeongwoo took the stage with his guitar, which I didn't even know he played, he started by saying in English that before he started he wanted to say that he was dedicating his song to Liz Teacher. He sang the song we had gone through, word by word, the month before. It's only the second time I've ever had someone play a song for me, and the other time was a beardy redheaded metal singer in a Glaswegian pub -- Britney Spears, "Baby One More Time". It was quite a different experience, this time around. For one thing, I didn't wind up cornered in the bathroom by a couple of rough looking groupies giving me the third degree about who I was to Yeongwoo.
Yeongwoo is the kind of kid it'd make you cry to say goodbye to. I'll leave it at that.
Next up was supposed to be Minho, but Minho wasn't ready. I'm not sure what's up with Minho and these activities. Minho's smart as a fucking whip -- genuinely, and without trying. But the "without trying" part is key -- Minho's got a bit of an attitude issue these days. He's alright if you get to know him well enough one on one, and he'll never give you shit if he respects you. But he's just not feeling the whole try hard angle at the moment. I don't know if Mom puts him up to this shit, or what. But Minho wasn't ready, because he didn't have the lyrics to his song down, so we moved on to two second graders who did a great job with "Let It Be", and from there on to Gyu-in and Yeongseok.
Gyu-in. Let me put it this way: Gyu-in is the president of the environmental club. And whatever you picture when you imagine the president of the environmental club, that's what Gyu-in is. He was my biggest challenge when we started out, because he just got so uncomfortable every time I tried to speak to him one on one. He could have understood me if he had calmed down, but he never would. But he's fine now.
So. They take the stage. Gyu-in breathes in deeply and pulls at his collar. He looks like he's hyperventilating a little. He and Yeongseok exchange a nervous smile. And this song starts to play over the speakers:
And Gyu-in. Fucking. Busts a move. Understand? I mean he busts it out. Full on Hongdae club style. I could not believe my fucking eyes. You think you know a kid. And, I'm not fucking kidding, this kid, with his partner slowly withering and backing away beside him, steps forward and shouts out for the room full of 20 students and teachers to put their hands in the air and leads them in the final chorus of the song.
It weren't the best of the day. But it was my personal favorite. I'll never look at Gyu-in the same. Unfortunately, the aviators he brought along for the performance didn't make it on stage, because the other kids told him he looked like a taxi driver. I can only imagine how fucking epic that would have been.
Next up was Jihoon, who has been a darling of mine since he was a first grader, and Yongseong, who is the most easily misunderstood of the bunch,besides maybe Minho. Jihoon, I don't know what to say about him. He's got a sweet freckled face, he works diligently at absolutely every task set in front of him (including helping his parents run their meat restaurant after school), he's a bit bashful, but loud as all hell when he's with his friends. He does things because they should be done, and not because anybody told him to, or because there's any credit or reward. He gives a hell of a speech, when it's just me and him. But he shrinks in front of a crowd. He reminds me a lot of myself at his age, except he is more adventurous, more willing to put himself out there and go for what he wants. It's not that he believes in himself, exactly, so much as he sees every opportunity as one he deserves to take. Jihoon is the one I have to be most careful about, because any slight correction is taken deep inside himself, where he keeps it to continuously mull over and over. The look that crosses his face when this happens is one of the most heart-breaking things I've ever seen. Nobody will ever be as hard on Jihoon as he is on himself.
Yongseong is an anomaly in my time as a teacher. I've never seen another kid quite like him. On the surface, Yongseong seems sarcastic, irritable and above it all. He sits back in his chair, sighs often, and is one of the rare students I've ever seen roll eyes. But it is only an appearance -- it's not even an attitude. His posture and demeanor completely belie what's going on inside. In reality, he is sweet and genuine, and painfully eager for praise. He's shy. He'd rather die than put anybody out. He's a touch awkward. He's been one of the most touching parts of this whole experience. During vacation, I let the kids know I'd be at the school for the two weeks during camps, and free in the afternoons, so if they called ahead, I'd be happy to coach them through their speeches for the speech competition we had last week. Yongseong sent a message one night, and came up the day after. He brought a vitamin drink. He sat quietly, awkwardly, in the chair beside me. And when I prompted him to begin talking through his speech, so I could give correction, he turned red and looked down. "Do you want me to read it first, and you can follow me?" He nodded.
Two days later, I came out of the camp classroom to grab something from my office just in time to catch the back of Yongseong speeding down the hallway away from me. He hadn't wanted to send a message to come again, because he knew, in part, I was staying late just for him, so he had decided to take his chances by just dropping by. When he saw I was in classes, rather than interrupting, he tried to just run off.
They sang "Way Back into Love", and although I had sat in on their practice the day before, in which Jihoon totally dominated, he fell back on stage and was barely audible. I wanted to go up on stage and shake him -- he did the same exact thing during the speech contest last week. Yongseong, on the other hand, lost a bit of his street cred today. He sang the love ballad with genuine heart.
Then there was Minho. Minho was finally ready. He was going to sing "You Lift Me Up", which they've been working on in their music class for the last couple of months (minimal effort -- comically dramatic). His friend stood behind him on the stage holding up a piece of A4 paper with a mountain scenery sketched across it in colored pencil. The painfully long musical intro started, and Minho stood poised, with his hands clasped in front of him, and his chin in the air.
The part where the singing should have started came and went, and Minho remained unmoving in his pose. The mountain scenery wearing gym shorts danced back and forth across the stage behind him. Slowly, sniggers started to spread across the room. "시작했...어요?" Minho's nose crinkled up into his forehead in the way that it does when he's confused.
New HT restarted the music. Minho took up his pose. New HT cued him. He glanced casually around the room, and then started to hum. After a few dozen seconds, during which the sniggering became full blown laughter, he shouted out that he needed the lyrics and dashed off the stage.
Take three. Same pose. The music started. He missed the cue. He sang a bar or two, did a deep bow, said thank you and took his seat. Someone shouted out from the back, "개그콘서트네!"
I'm not even really sure if he was joking or not. That's Minho.
And finally, Honggyu and Minjae. They're not English club students. They're in the school band. But Minjae lived abroad when he was younger, so his English is some of the best in the school. Honggyu -- I've never seen him a day without his guitar, since he was a first grader. Honggyu is never wearing his uniform -- he is always, always in his gym clothes. He has a round face and a confident demeanor. He doesn't speak English well, but he never sweats it when I speak to him. Minjae is like an ajeosshi stuck in a teenager's body, and he has been since he was in the first grade. He's unflappable. He smiles easily, and chuckles often, but never gets excited or upset about anything. Honggyu has a new, sky blue guitar. He sits with one foot up on his knee, leaning back and tapping his other foot, totally at ease. The guitar is just another limb by now.
They sing "All About You" by McFly, which I have never heard before. They do the harmonies, the whistling, the whole lot. It's brilliant. And Honggyu, who doesn't speak much English, has spent so much time over the years singing English pop songs, that his pronunciation comes out perfectly. Everybody instantly knows they've won, but nobody is upset. They're all busy enjoying the music.
And I realize, in that moment, that I'm never going to get this time back. I'm never going to feel the exact same way, in any situation in the future, that I do watching these kids. Even if I have my own kids someday, it won't be like this. To have popped into their lives at a such an awkward stage, to never have spoken to them in their native language (although they speak to me in it, plenty), to see them, at most, a few hours a week for three years. But to love them so much. I'll be lucky if three of them remember my name in a few years, but they'll never know, unless they become teachers some day, how much of my life has been made up of them. How important they have been to me. How many hard days they've gotten me through (at least as many as they've given me), how connected to this country they've made me feel, and how much I'm going to miss them.