When I walked into my second class today, instantly I could feel the carefully cultivated positivity being sucked out of me. There was something about this freshmen girl’s class that just wasn’t right. The usual chatter that preceded every other girls’ class was missing. There was something negative in there.
Rather than succumb to it, I tried something new that I have been doing lately. When a class is in a rather bad mood, I try to be as positive as possible to sway the balance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. So I continued with the lesson about self motivation, which was entitled “How to be a Genius” because genius is a word they are very familiar with. The results were trivial at first, then slowed down toward the end like a car running out of gas. When I had finished the lesson there were probably only seven girls actually listening, seven sleeping, and the other ten with blank looks on their faces. I was disheartened to say the least, so I decided to be honest with them.
“Do you know that I only have four more months with you here? In four months, I will leave Korea and probably never see you again!” A few of the blank faces shifted. “I know, you’re life is not fair! You work too hard, and you are expected to know what you want to do in life right now and you are still so young! I didn’t know what I actually wanted to do until I came here and I am 24 years old!” There were no blank faces anymore. “In the time I have left, I want to help you as much as I can. So, I am going to teach you everything I know. Hopefully, something will help you choose your path in life… If you don’t want to listen, that’s you’re choice. I can’t help you if you don’t want to help yourself.”
After my CoTeacher Nora finished translating, there was a long silence. I sat down on a chair in front, facing the class, rested my chin on my hand and stared back at them with the same blank face they had given me. You see, in Korea, high school is by far the most stressful time in a person’s life. These days, students spend upwards of twelve hours a day at school, and sometimes even on Saturdays. They spend all that time studying for their SAT equivalent test, the SooNung. Korea takes this test so seriously, that on the day of examination, planes are not allowed to fly during school hours so as not to disturb the children. The score then determines what majors the student is allowed to choose from. Those majors in turn decide what universities they are allowed to apply to. And literally their ENTIRE LIFE depends on what university they get into. So, most of them are forced to decide what they want to do in life at the age of… 14? 15? 17?
The bell rang and I simply waved goodbye. Slowly they shuffled their way out of the classroom. After all of them had left, I had started cleaning up and pushing chairs in when one of the girls, who had been listening the whole time, came back into the room. Even before she spoke I could feel the determination behind her words. Her grammar wasn’t very good but I could tell what she meant simply by the order of her words. If her English were perfect, what she said would have gone a little like this:
“Teacher, I want to say thank you. Before today, I chose a dream just because when I was growing up, adults always told me I had to know my dream. But now, I know that it’s okay if I don’t know what I want to do. If I don’t get into the best university in Korea, that’s okay. Now I know that what I learn is more important that where I learn it.”
Then, she did something that is very strange in Korean culture… She reached out and gave me a quick, awkward hug, as if she had never given one before, and walked away. As soon as she had turned the corner to leave, tears welled up in my eyes… I leaned my head against the nearest wall and cried tears of joy.