I haven’t been sleeping well as of late. And by as of late I mean since arriving in Seoul in May. I have slept all the way through the night approximately once since touching down. At first I chocked it up to nothing more than a severe case of jet lag, combined with the stress of starting a new job, and a fucking stressful job at that. Working for 14 hours a day might have enduced exhaustion in some but not this girl. Nope. Having to move 3 times in 2 months while hauling 2 suitcases, 1 backpack and an assload of emotional baggage also might have taken its toll on some. But not this girl. Watching the curtain close on yet another significant chapter in one’s life while being confronted with uncomfortable realities that one was seemingly unprepared for, might also have sent certain others into an emotional coma. But not this girl. I can’t sleep. And it’s starting to get to me.
Last week I had one of the worst days I’ve ever had in Korea. It was Friday and after a (yet another) night of next to no sleep and being forced to say goodbye at a ridiculously early hour to the person I’m not sure I could have survived Korea without,
I was attempting to approach my final classes of the week with something resembling professionalism and dignity. And I was succeeding, somewhat, or surviving at least. It was grammar day in my writing class. My favorite fucking day. We were in the middle of going over the answers to a drill they had just finished and my head had started throbbing about the time the fourth question regarding pronoun ambiguity in a misplaced modifier clause had been thrown at me. Knowing something is wrong in a sentence when you’re a native English speaker is easy. Try explaining WHY it’s wrong to a group of teenagers who have spent the better part of their childhoods in classrooms learning the intricacies of English grammar is another. So I had paused to try to wrap my brain around the concept I was trying to explain for the fourth time when I heard a snicker from the back row and the smug voice of one of my students asking their neighbor if THEY actually knew the answer.
Something inside me snapped. Broke. The Steph of 5 years ago would have broken down crying right then and there and fled the classroom. The Steph of now slammed her fist down on the desk in front of her so hard the water bottle sitting on it bounced. I freaking lost it on them, in a way I have never lost it with any of my students ever. I was in the middle of asking how many of them had gotten perfect on the grammar section of their diagnostic and that maybe until they did they should shut the hell up when the person who’s been working her ass off to try and help them do just that can’t answer one of their questions quick enough because her head feels like it’s being split open from the stress of trying to teach ungrateful brats how to speak one of the most complicated languages on the planet, when there was a knock on my door. One of the Korean staff members poked his head in and waved a fistful of papers at me. Teacher surveys for the students to fill out.
I didn’t care. I grabbed my coffee cup and told them to take their time because I didn’t even want to look at them right then and stormed out of the room. I went to the teachers lounge and put my head between my knees for a solid 20 minutes. When I felt good and ready, I walked back into the silent classroom and for the next hour it was dead quiet while I made them write 2 in class essays, watch while I loaded them down with over 20 pages of extra grammar homework “…seeing as they were grammar experts and all...” and was the first to stalk out of the room when the bell rang at the end of class. Two hours later I got the results of my student’s surveys. And they were all positive. Glowing. Best teacher, one student wrote.
I do not get attached to the students I teach. I realize this may make me sound cold (particularly in context with the story above) but it’s the truth. There have been students that have made me smile, even laugh. There have been students I have actually enjoyed passing the hours with but I have been just as happy as they, when our time together draws to a close. So you can imagine my surprise when, during this past month, I had the pleasure to meet not just one, but two young ladies, who I actually shed tears with, that’s right, with, when it came time to say goodbye. I have spent close to 17 months teaching students in Korea. These two have been the ones who have touched me.
Grace. Lovely Grace. Grace from California, who switched her class schedule so she could be in both of the classes I taught that month. Grace who speaks four languages at the age of 16 and is working on her fifth. Grace who told me she now wants to go to university in Canada instead of the US. Grace, who lit up my classroom from the inside out and made me breath a little easier because I knew that she was there, and that she was listening and that she cared. Grace who bought me a caramel macchiato and said goodbye with tears and a hug. She really was. Grace.
Elissa. Sweet Elissa. Who broke my heart when she confided in me how lonely she felt in her own family because her father loved her older brother and her mother loved her younger sister and that there was no place for her eleven year old self. Whose face broke out in a slow secret smile whenever I called on her to answer and praised her when her answer was correct. And it was. Always. Elissa. Who laughed when I played her Hungry Like The Wolf the day she wore a t-shirt with the words Duran Duran on it and had no idea what it meant or who they were. Who shyly presented me with a plastic bag with my own Duran Duran t-shirt inside the next day. Elissa, who blushed and blinked back tears of her own that last day, when I gave her a new t-shirt with the words The Beatles printed on it. She smiled, “Teacher! I know who they are!”. Elissa.
Precious few. And I feel so lucky to have met them both. Diamonds. Both of them. Not just because they are smart, though they are. Not just because they are beautiful, though they are. Inside and out. But because they shared with me, and I with them. In the strangest of circumstances and unlikely conditions. We connected. No games. No bullshit.
(It goes without saying that neither of these ladies were in the aforementioned writing class…snotty little fucks…..)