3.1 Spring 2021

March 10, Travel School

These days I finish class around 11:40 or 12:35, have lunch, then enter a fugue state until 3PM where I am furiously and single-mindedly putting together a lesson for the following day.

Once I week I serve as a teacher at another school: today I took the bus with all the high schoolers to my travel school which is in the old center of town. I swung by a bakery before I arrived thinking that it’s never good to arrive empty-handed.

I discovered my travel school has no single, permanent native teacher and I was glad to have gifted them with treats, since they likely never receive much recognition. The school is tiny, two homerooms per grade, and the kids are a touch more wild. Luckily the classes are small and I wowed my new co-teacher Yana (name obviously changed).

Yana has two children and looks old enough to have neither; she is cute and friendly outside of class but seems more stern towards students in class.

“You really have a talent for teaching,” she told me after we had finished our four classes. I was touched, and then suddenly felt odd. Connecting with my students is not a challenge for me, so it feels like being rewarded for something I don’t deserve. She proposed me taking over our Wednesday classes for the rest of the year. We’ll discuss after our shared class next week.

These fifth and sixth graders are not as mature or have as much nunchi as my main school kiddos, but they’re good at heart. In my last sixth grade class of the day, I noticed one very distinct girl.

She kept looking at me with what I can only describe as recognition, and I felt for just a moment what it might be like to see your first minority figure as a minority child in the US. With what I could see of her eyes, and her hair, we could be related.

Maria, as I found at later, is not Korean. She is Colombian. Her father is in the navy and the family moved to Korea two years ago. Maria can’t speak much Korean or English.

At lunch where Yana ate at half the speed of Jack, to the endless gratitude of my digestive system, a kindergarten boy with the biggest doll-like eyes I have ever seen on a child, stared at me. I waved. He stared. I waved again. He looked at me with huge, Victorian-era eyes.

“That’s Maria’s brother. He doesn’t speak Korean.”

He had spent the majority of his toddler life around Korean kids, and probably had never seen a white person outside of his family. I spoke to him in Spanish instead but he made no other motion than to slowly swivel back and forth on his cafeteria stool to bore holes into my face.

I need to brush up on my Spanish to help Maria and also let her know she’s not alone. Unfortunately, I have a strange mental block: when I try to speak Spanish, only Korean comes out. My Czech professor once told me if she speaks Russian with a colleague, she spends the rest of the day in a strange rut and unable to quite readjust back to Czech.

This city is not very big but there seem to be a lot of kids; there were certainly a lot of high schoolers on my bus ride. I asked Yana where the parents work and she said “we’re not allowed to ask that anymore”. I almost laughed, since that wasn’t quite what I meant and also the very Korean notion of surveying parents about their careers, and waited for her observations.

“But many work in the navy, and a lot of students from the orphanage attend school here. Ten of the sixth graders come from the orphanage.”

I swallowed my shock. Maybe I misunderstood her and ten of the student population total are orphans, but it broke my heart nonetheless.

One sweet sixth grade boy bowed to me as he was exiting class and said in English, “thank you for teaching me”. Was he one of the orphans?? My mind spun wildly.

For any units about family, I will need to think carefully and empathetically about how to approach the content.

The school was renovated last year and as such there are actual drip coffee machines and cute furniture in the single teacher’s lounge and bidets; my other school has a lounge for each grade, but this school is so small that there is only one for the whole staff.

A group of ladies was drinking mix coffee and chatting, and while my coffee brewed (the machine also grinds your beans) I told them all to speak to me in Korean if they feel uncomfortable with English. The exclaimed and asked me about Florida (“Golf!” commented one teacher, and I thought her husband must be an executive) and told me to visit anytime.

Yana also took me to the teacher’s office to deliver the muffins I had brought, but the assistant directed us to lay out the pastries and directly deliver them to the principal, VP, and head teacher who were all meeting in the huge principal’s office. I had met both women earlier in the day and cheered for female power, which the VP joined in on.

The head teacher is actually a man and I saw him several times throughout the day, most notably in the afternoon when he came in to mark Yana’s and my desk for replacement.

I can’t find a paper cutter or markers at my main school but this little school certainly has some nice funds!

Yana met her husband at the college English club and remarked that he wants to practice English and said to invite me to their house. I see a dinner invitation incoming…

I walked down the mountain at the end of the day to the chorus of birds and entered the bus with a young man who later gave up his seat to a granny.

I kept thinking “orphans” and “teaching talent” and feeling teary but the bus ride home was filled with chatty students from the all-girl high school who helped to re-center me a little bit. I still felt a little off kilter and decided to go to the cafe behind my apartment. Another accidental hike!

It was getting dark and the uncertainty of street lights motivated me to leave without actually getting a coffee. In one of the tunnels, I heard footsteps approaching and decided to “look” at a flower until the person had passed. However, that person had another plan in mind:

“Wow, where did you buy that purse?” came an echoing Korean voice.

“…What?” I said, facing a middle aged woman in a pink workout jacket.

“I really like this, did you get it online?”

“Uh no, I got it in Seoul at a clothing store two years ago…” I answered.

“Oh okay!”

She sped walked ahead of me and I sighed in relief. No murder today!

Until 100 meters down the road she turned back again and I thought, oh no, is this when she asks me to join her cult? It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Do you mind if I take a picture of it?”

I looked around to see if this was some scam to jump me but it was just us and a jindo dog running around a field. She pulled out her phone only to find it dead then said a final goodbye.

I hate to say I’m used to mountains but the view would have been all the more stunning if it wasn’t a daily scene for me now.

I stared at the peaks toward the west: they looked exactly like a watercolor painting and I could not wrap my brain around the image.

But at the top I breathed out the bad and breathed in the good and looked at the twinkling lights of ships in the bay. cars in traffic and the dusky gray that stretched beyong Geoje, beyond Jeju, and holding a promise of being little in a big world.

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