YJ was one of the first students I felt close with at CPHS. She was always peppy during class, but I got to know her during the weekend long county-wide speech competition. I started eating lunch with my students instead of with the other foreign teachers, and I ended up sitting with her group a fair amount because she’d always call me over and welcome me. Teachers need just as much welcoming as students sometimes.
I needed all the welcoming I could get. This was late September or early October, I don’t remember, and I was still adjusting to my new and intensive teaching schedule, as well as the school’s much higher on average English level. I was also adjusting from being the first foreign teacher ever at my school, and being the one to set the standard for what a foreign teacher does, which was a blessing and a curse, to going to a school that has had F*lbright teachers for over twenty years. The previous ETA had been there for two years, had done a stellar job, and had left massively big shoes to fill.
YJ, during one of our contest lunches, told me “Teacher. I like your class.”
“Really? Thanks. Sometimes I worry that my style is too different from S—- Teacher’s.”
“It is different, but you are different. And I like your difference. I liked S—– Teacher, and I like you.”
After the conference we were solid. I knew that, though her English level was among the lowest in terms of test scores, she was in my corner. She would always volunteer, always smile, always laugh. Other students would lightly tease her, saying that her English sounded like Korean, and it did – she said everything with the telltale up and down intonation that betrayed her natural tongue and would add long vowels to the end of every word, whether it belonged there or not. I told her not to worry, and that her intonation was cute. “Yes. Cutie.” She’d respond.
I saw YJ become a second grader, and over the course of the year toward test times I’d see her get more upset. I ran into her in the hallway once with two other friends holding a slip of paper.
“Hi girls, what’s up?
“Teacher. We got our scores back. I am the worst in my class.”
“Well, remember test scores aren’t everything – in terms of speaking your English is very good, probably better than what your test score says.”
She still seemed fine though. I’d run into her at the local coffee shop on weekends when students were allowed to go home to visit their families. “Hey YJ! Why aren’t you at home?”
“Teacher, I live in CP remember?”
“Oh right. Well are you having a good break?”
“Oh, it’s okay.”
“Well, see you on Monday!”
“Yes teacher, byeee!”
YJ didn’t come back after summer vacation. I had misunderstood her living situation – she lived with her uncle who was a teacher at CPHS, but her actual family lived in Gangwondo, which is a province far to the north. As it would have taken her at least six hours by public transportation one way to go home, she was rarely able to visit her family. That coupled with the academic stress, caused her to leave school. I never got to say goodbye, and I didn’t know until today that she had transferred.
Maybe it slipped her mind, and she forgot to tell me – I’m not upset, I only saw her once a week so if she forgot to tell me at the end of class, she didn’t have a great way to let me know. It’s possible that she decided not to come back after summer vacation had started, after spending time with her immediate family for the first time in six months, or maybe she was too embarrassed to let anyone know. Maybe she just had too many goodbyes.
It hurts, because I’m never going to see her again, and I never told her how much her initial words validated my stay at CPHS, and propelled me to become a better teacher. It hurts, because this is going to happen to all of my students, but it’ll be me leaving, and leaving them with inadequate goodbyes and memories. I hope she’s doing well at her new school, and that they have a foreign teacher who realizes what an absolute gem she is. It just hurts…