Alumna Heather Shannon Wins Fulbright to Teach in Korea (Summer 2016)

 

Winter Classes, Ocheon, 2015

Hannah Shannon, (Class of 2009) attended  Hampshire College where she studied sequential art and brain development, and graduated with a teaching certification from Mt. Holyoke College and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Hannah recently completed  a 2014-2016 English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Ocheon Elementary School in Pohang, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Korea.  While working in Korea, Hannah  sprained and/or broke her ankles (yes, both of them) a minimum of 5 times. She continued to go to TaeKwo regardless.

Hannah Shannon

Hannah Shannon

In addition to teaching, Hannah also served as the Assistant Design Editor for Fulbright Korea Infusion where three of her stories about teaching in Korea were published : “Jumping,”  “After School”  and “Study Sessions.”  The stories are reprinted below with permission of the author.

What’s Your Five Year Plan?

Around the same time I was graduating from college, I was trying to decide what to do with the next 5 years of my life. It’s a question you’ll get often in that time – what’s your five year plan? I had no 5 year plan, but I knew that I wanted to get abroad. I figured (though I’ve now been proven wrong countless times) that your 20’s was likely the last chance you had of living abroad. I also didn’t want to give up teaching – the thing that I had gone to college for. That all led me to a TESOL (Teachers of English to Learners of Other Languages) course during my final month at college.

While in this course I learned something I had never known before – there was a program called Fulbright that would pay me to teach abroad and look good on a transcript – and my school had a person whose job it was to help students get a Fulbright. So I went and talked to her. Pam, my Fulbright Coordinator, had lived in South Korea for many years, and only had good things to say about it. South Korea was a country I had studied a few times during my international education classes, and it also had no language requirement. So without giving it too much thought I applied, and almost exactly a year later found myself on a plane towards what was definitely some of the best years of my life so far.

Forehead Game, Ocheon, Spring 2016

I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone for it. Statistically I was pretty unlikely to get a Fulbright, and I had never lived abroad before. I didn’t speak a lick of Korean never mind read it, and I had to consider a lot of other factors like health and mental health issues. But in the end I went for it and it was the best thing I could have done. If you’re thinking of a Fulbright, or more broadly of living abroad, my recommendation is to go for it. If it’s a Fulbright you want find the person in your school whose job it is to help you get that Fulbright — They’re called the Fulbright Coordinator. If there is no one like that, or you find that you don’t get along with them, hit up the Fulbright Alumni communities and talk to them. Recent Fulbrighters will have plenty of advice on what to do.

And if it’s just getting abroad that you want to do, do the same thing. Find the person in your school who can help you achieve that. Or take a look at expat communities and ask questions. Talk to me. Do whatever it takes to help you reach your goal, and worry about what’s gunna happen when you get there, when you get there. After all, as my mother is fond of saying, you can do anything for any amount of time that you need to.

Cheers everyone,

Hannah Shannon

Jumping

Originally published in Fulbright Korea Infusion, Vol. 9, Issue 1

Taekwondo Class, Jungwon University, Summer 2014

Boredom never suited me well. When bored, I tend to become irrational and prone to poor decisions, the sort that leave me with broken phones, terrible exes, or expensive bills to the mechanic. The problem is I grow bored easily. Patterns are nice for a while but eventually they become tedious.

At first Korea cured my boredom. The adventures resumed for a while, but a pattern emerged once again. Each day consisted of school, students, classes and dodging cars on my walk home. I needed something to do.

I suppressed the urge to jump into the first thing I could find, ignoring advertisements for dancing clubs, and suggestions from my co-teacher to try swimming. After a few days I found my answer. Every day I saw a large banner that read “오천 태권도” in Korean and “Ocheon Taekwondo!” in English underneath it. It seemed to me that the answer to my boredom was literally staring me in the face.

In the U.S. I had studied a myriad of martial arts. I had never acquired a black belt, but I had always felt that if you added the three belts I did have–one from Yeun Yen Do in middle school, one from two years of Tang Soo Do in high school, and one from my six-month Taekwondo stint in college–together it would have equaled one black belt. After all, black is just a conglomerate of all the colors of the rainbow.  

When I walked into class on the first day and surveyed my fellow students, I immediately felt a surge of confidence. I would probably outdo all of them. We had been the ones to naturally read words off flashcards, count by twos before our peers, and touch our toes with an outstanding amount of flexibility.   There was also the fact that most everyone else in class was half my height and probably a quarter of my weight. I grinned with the secret knowledge that I would soon outshine my classmates and, in time, gain their trust and secure my leadership over them.

In all my self-congratulating, I had forgotten to take into consideration two very important factors. First, I was an outsider. Blonde hair and blue eyes in a country of blacks and browns stands out. Second, I had failed to consider that I may be attending taekwondo with own students. These guys knew me as teacher but I did not have that role here, which placed me in the awkward position of ‘not friend’ but also ‘not teacher’ either.

On that first day, it became obvious that the other students had a system, a caste. At the top stood the team players, mostly sixth graders who practiced in the back room. We plebeians could not compare to them. I immediately knew that I did not compare to them. Sure, I could kick above my head and do a split. But could I do that in midair while aiming for a target the size of my coach’s curled fist? I could not. These gods ranked far beyond me and likely beyond what I hoped to achieve. When their coach closed the door, separating them and their skill rather clearly, I knew that I didn’t need to worry about them. They no longer counted in the caste.

Next came the older kids who stood in the back of the classroom, practicing alone. Some threw spinning kicks to the bag, while others practiced hooking their feet behind each other’s heads, hoping to send their friends to the ground.  They spent a few minutes gawking at me before the teacher sent them back to the bags with a sharp command in Korean. I solidly felt the separation between me and them, but surely a grown adult could do better.

Young ones straggled below these students. Most of them were too young for elementary school English, and too young to be taught to kick in a straight line. Here, at the bottom of the pyramid, I had found my unlikely brethren. Together we would work our way up the ranks until we too stood at the top, looking at those below with equal parts scorn and sympathy.   

After a few brief moments of stretching the teacher barked something in Korean. I watched as my brethren lined up at the back and the teacher placed cones around the room for laps. Excellent. Once upon a time, I had run a mile or two on a daily basis. I was ready. Before I could prove my superiority, I had to prove that I deserved my place here at all. This became particularly obvious when, confused by my lower belt, but obvious status as “elder,” the students tussled for a moment, trying to decide where I should stand.  To save them the anguish of having to tell a teacher what to do, I kindly took my place in the back, between the red and green belts.

At the teacher’s whistle, we ran.  And we ran hard. My moments of confidence over my ability to run well quickly dwindled as I began to feel a sharp stabbing kick in my ribs. This made it difficult to overtake the kids as they raced around the room, pushing each other, trying to jump in front. It annoyed me; how was I to prove to them that my physical skill was worthy of attention if they wouldn’t look? Still, I knew better than to try and push them away or yell at them. You don’t gain popularity by shoving down a seven-year old.

The running ended and I turned my attention to the teacher, assuming that we were about to start practicing kicks. In all my classes in America, after warming up, students practice kicks and forms in straight lines spread out across the room. The teacher takes time and care demonstrating each kick, correcting positioning and technique among the students. Not once during kicking drills does one consider that their target may be moving. Apparently, in America, one assumes that their opponent will likely be staked to the ground during a fight.

In Korea, however, it seems that people expect their opponent to move, causing them to move too. Also, the teacher expects that you already know everything about kicking. No sooner had we lined up than the coach shouted out the name of a kick. I watched anxiously, desperately trying to understand the technique.

I began to panic. Soon, my turn would come and most likely, I would shuffle forward awkwardly between static kicks instead of executing beautiful kicks like the others. All my feelings of grandeur and confidence left over from the running began to vanish. The sound of massive praise I had imagined moments before faded in my mind. In its place, I imagined the teacher yelling at me for my incompetence, or worse, sighing sympathetically at my obvious inferiority to her little assassins.

When my turn came, I lined up with my partners at the front of the line. At the teachers’ shout I kicked my leg out, executing what I still believe to be an excellent roundhouse kick. To my right, Namu, the second grader who would eventually become one of my best friends in Korea, leapt into his second, third and fourth kick, leaving me shattered in my mediocrity. This was no good. I continued my awkward steps until I made it to the end of the line. My height did not give me the immediate physical prowess I had hoped for, but it did allow me to make it across the room in half as many kicks as my partners. This, at least, prevented me from appearing too out of place.

As I had predicted, the teacher gave me a sympathetic smile, but offered no real advice. The older kids who had stopped for a moment to watch simply returned to performing triple kicks in the air.  I could feel my position sinking again.

The kicking continued for the rest of the class. Slowly, bit by bit, I pieced together how my students moved swiftly and fluidly across the room. The well-meaning second grade boys standing beside me showed me the way with their repeated demonstrations. All the while, they talked in Korean, no doubt asking how I didn’t already know this. Whenever I didn’t answer, they simply smiled and looked at each other as though to say “Well, she’s not one of us, so what did we really expect?” I was surprised to find that I was reassured by their attitude towards me.

I had done nothing in class to demonstrate to them that I was a teacher, in fact I had subconsciously made a decision to be one of them as best I could. True, I wanted to prove that I was better than them, but only in the sense of physical skill and prowess, not in a way that would make me seem aloof or above their friendship.  As their hands patted my arms sympathetically, I realized that I had made a very good decision. Surely I could be better than them without being above them, I thought. As we returned to the front of the line to once again leap, or perhaps hop, across the room, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to prove that I was better.

Eventually, this drill in humiliation ended and we moved to stand along the back wall while the teacher took out mats and stacked them in the center of the room.  No doubt our teacher meant to train us for the many walls we would have to fly over in our lives. Even the tiniest of students cleared these mats easily. I hopped over them, but my new companions sprang themselves up like gymnasts.  

After this initial jump, our teachers stacked the mats again, adding a new mats until they reached as high as my shoulders. This was beyond most of the students’ skill level. Even the older, taller students barely skimmed the top of the mats.  The youngest students ran at full speed and launched themselves with a fury found only in the smallest of humans. Few managed to get higher than they had planned on, and after their feet left the floor their face did most of work. Many of the turns ended with a resounding smack as the face of a six-year-old sent the tower tumbling over.

The boy in front of me, a measly blue belt like myself, went running at the mat, stopping just short of touching it, before skipping to the side of the room. The teacher looked up, shaking her head and called for me to come forward. I eyed the mat wearily, having the sudden realization that this could be my chance. I may have failed to kick in a manner expected of my perceived status, but no doubt I could clear this mat with ease. Not even all of the highest ranking members of the students had managed that.

My moment had come.  The sounds of cheers and praise revved up again in my mind. I recalled briefly my lessons learned during my circus training years in college. I had never really needed to vault myself over something like this. But, I had watched closely, observing what my fellow comrades had done or had failed to do. The method seemed to involve running as fast as one could, jumping as high as one could, and landing as gracefully and soundlessly as possible. Missing the mat, or landing too hard, caused laughter from the peanut gallery rather than admiration.

I looked my new teacher in the eye, set my jaw and ran. When I was close enough to reach out and touch the mat, I launched over the mats, narrowly avoiding kicking someone in the face. My hands never touched the mat below me.  Instead, I reached out in front of me, bracing myself for the very likely chance that I would hit the floor or the ceiling, face first. Neither happened. I landed upright and the floor shook beneath us all.  Behind me, some of my new comrades gasped while others cheered and laughed. A fourth grader of mine shouted out “Teacher! It’s good!”

I had done it. Perhaps, I had done it accidentally, and not with nearly as much grace as I had intended, but nonetheless I had done it: I had proven to them all that I was someone worthy of attention and a healthy dose of awe. Even the teacher gave me a congratulatory pat on the back before leaning forward to tell me “천천히” –  slowly.  She demonstrated that I should have used the top of the stack to aid me in gaining height while also keeping me steady as I came down the other side.

This piece of advice didn’t dampen my mood. The teacher had noticed what I had done, had praised me, and had considered me worthy enough to try and help. The students had cheered for me as they had for each other, showing me that they accepted me among them, already forgetting their moments of uncertainty. I felt accomplished, I felt fulfilled and I felt like a student. A student who would, over time perhaps, still prove that I was more capable than any of them.

  1.  Cheoncheonhi ↩

After School

Originally published in Fulbright Korea Infusion, July 11, 2016

Postech Toastmaster, Pohang, Spring 2015

The school guard is getting ready. He opens the door to his warm office and steps out into the cold winter air. It’s midafternoon and the sun is at it’s brightest, but he can only feel the wind biting his cheeks. He observes the school in it’s quietest moments. Three pale yellow buildings stand strong against winds that have been beating them for almost a hundred years now. Most windows are closed, barred against the cutting wind, trying to keep in what remains of the heaters, but a few are open; an attempt to get out the bad air. The neatly manicured every green bushes and trees as bare as bones shiver but do not bend to the wind. Litter scatters across the red brick road and lodges itself under cars and against the cold metal grate that separate the school from the rest of the town. The yard is quiet, picturesque even.

The guard tugs on his vest, and opens the white gates to the outside world. A moment later the music begins, marking the end of the school day, and the start of after school.

Before the last notes of the ending bell ring the students come. They race out of doorways and down rough stairs, they fill the courtyards with screeches and laughter, the sound of soft soled shoes slapping on frozen ground. Big groups of students split into smaller groups, or pause at the gate to wait for friends who are only just being let out.

Three girls, taller than the rest, intertwine their arms together, blending into one being. They walk towards the far building, singing K-pop songs amid squeals of laughter and the sound of friendly bickering. They can see their breath in the air, puffing out in short bursts, mingling in the cold.  Past two buildings and up another three flights of stairs they go, and into an empty classroom they stumble, still latched together. The classroom is filled with older students, girls and boys who will move to middle school in a month.

At the front of the class a tall girl with short black hair zippers up her sweatshirt, and turns facing the students. She calls out in Korean, stretching her arms far above her head, then down to the floor. The three in the back unlace their arms and follow instructions, still giggling. More students come filing in, dropping their bags, and lining up, doing their best to catch up as the rest of the students. One student attaches cheap dollar store speakers to their cellphone, and the dance class begins.

First, there is the shimmy of the hips, arms poised outwards, then the full turn towards the front. Three exaggerated steps forward, before turning sideways, and dropping the hip, shoulders slanted, eyes towards the front. They are just beginning their second turn when laughter makes them look towards the door. Three boys stand there, watching from the open door, grinning. The short haired girl shrieks at them, another girl stops and music, while one of the tall girls slides the door closed with force, barely missing the last retreating fingers.

The three boys keep laughing, until they hear their names being called. Up the stairs they can see one of their teammates holding their sneakers. They dash up the stairs, nearly knocking over one of their classmates coming down the stairs. This boy is nearly a head shorter than them all, despite being the same age. The oversized coat he is wearing only makes it worse. The boys shout an apology back to him as they keep going. The small boy barely notices, turning to enter the classroom at the end of the hall.

This room is brightly lit and warm. Heat blasts from the ceiling, and the students cluster themselves around wooden table and plastic chairs. Jackets are thrown into a pile in one corner of the room, while bags are lined up neatly along the wall. Students of all ages are in here, mostly doing homework, or artwork, or even just playing card games together. At one table a group of the smallest kids sit, snacking on crackers and juice. At another table, a little girl pushes her long black hair back from her face, being careful not to smudge the paint from her half finished project onto her cheek.

The teacher greets the small boy as he enters the classroom, motioning for him to sit. The small boy does so, reaching into his bag and taking out a few battered notebooks and one brand new looking pencil case. The case is colorful, with a small backboard on the top where the boy has written “I don’t know” in Korea. The smiles at this as she joins him at the table.

Glancing through a worn yellow folder the teacher see’s he has math homework, and he needs to finish something from Korean class. There is English homework too, but the teacher cannot help him with this. She asks the boy to get a pencil, but when he opens his pencil case there are no pencils. No pencils, no erasers, nothing but the chalk that came with it. She lends him one of hers, it has “교육복지실” or “student welfare office”, written on it. The boy takes it and begins to write on the math paper. His notebook lays unopened beside him; he wants to save the last few pages for class.

As the small boy begins his math work, the after school teacher sticks her head out the door in time to see three sheepish shoulders slouch their way up the stairs to the waiting Taekwondo coach. She smiles at them all, before looking down the hall in hopes of finding a few more students walking towards her door. But the only students in the hall are the small figures of second grade boys, returning freshly clapped eraser to their teachers before turning on heel and racing down the stairs and out onto the dirt field.

On the field the soccer team has started practice. Standing in a big circle they stretch. Each boy is dressed in black pants with brightly colored dashes down the sides. They aren’t talking to each other, but are shouting out numbers while their couch, standing in the middle, turns slowly to make sure they are all stretching. The coach is worried. Today is the last practice before the game tomorrow. The team has won their last two games, and he hopes they can win the next. It will be the last one of the season, and for a number of them, their last chance to play a soccer game before middle school. All the coach wants is for them to enjoy the end.

The coach steps towards the tallest boy in the group, and instructs him to lead the next exercise so he can go and get the equipment. The captain stands straight and calls out in a strong, deep voice towards the rest. He shifts lower to the ground and drags his feet out, kicking up dirt and dust. The day is cold, and dry. It hasn’t rained for a week now, and the legs and cleats of each boy is coated in soft, dry dirt. His own shoes, normally so white, have started to turn a light shade of brown. They have also started to grow snug, something he is reminded of when he presses his heel into the dirt and feels his toes tap the front of his shoes. He would ask his parents for a new pair, but he doubts he’ll have time for soccer anymore anyways. Unlike most of his peers he won’t go to either of the middle schools in this village or the next. Instead, he’ll get up at 6, and take the bus for a half hour downtown with a few other bleary eyed individuals. He thinks he’s lucky though. The taekwondo boys will ride the bus with him and then past him, for another 45 minutes until the line ends at a school that specializes in taekwondo. His new school only specializes in getting students into the best high schools in the city.

The captain stands up straight again, and shouts out across the circle, counting down each exercise. He is about to shift the group into jogging when he realizes that one of the boys, standing almost directly across from him, is not one of his players. Scowling, he shouts across the field towards the boy. The intruder laughs, and stands up to face his accuser. He is a head taller than the boys to either side of him, and the captain stares even with his nose. He is bigger too. He resettles his hat, imprinted with BOY, back on his head and turns on heel, waving towards his friend. The captain frowns back, annoyed like usual at his lazy counterpart.

The laughing boy walks back towards the school and up the cement steps. Standing just inside the door, and out of the wind is his friend. The friend is bigger – like the laughing boy – but a head shorter than his counterpart. The laughing boy claps his buddy on the back, and picks up both their bags. With his arm gently guiding him he leads his friend through the hall and out the front door towards the graying gates. He is full of questions, asking the other boy about his classes, and what he did at lunch as they make their way past the bare branches of the trees in the courtyard. His friend mostly smiles shyly and says nothing. Neither boy minds, they have been neighbors for a long time. The laughing boy knows his friend is just quiet because he worries people will laugh at the way he stumbles when he speaks.

Together they walk out the gates and past another group of girls saying goodbye to each other. They stand near the crosswalk, frustrating the guard whose job it is to stop traffic for them, and keep them safe. He shouts towards them to either move back from the road, or cross now, but the girls pay him no mind. They are all checking their phones, promising to message each other as soon as class ends. They make a strange sight: some are tall and look out of place in front of the old elementary school, while a few others are so small people may assume they are younger siblings. Each girl is dressed in the latest fashion trend; skinny jeans, sneakers, and black sweatshirts with bold English words on them. One of them is dressed in a pair of shorts and tights, and has abandoned her sweatshirt, despite the cold, to reveal a tight fitting, short, t-shirt underneath.

In groups of two or three the girls say goodbye to each other and set off in different directions, towards different after school academies, until only the girl in shorts is left. She stands by the entrance, until she sees the guard looking at her. Then, she turns back into the school.

She walks slowly, looking at her phone and pretending not to notice anyone near her. She is careful on the uneven brick, not wanting to trip and call attention to herself. She doesn’t want to be sent to the after school program. She walks around the second building and into the main building, the safest way to avoid most of the teachers. Here she pauses to look outside at the kids playing soccer. She watches the tallest boy, her class captain, stand in goal with his arms on his hips, waiting for the boys to line up and take their shot. She knows he can’t see her through this window, but her face is still warm at the sight of him, and the knowledge that she must walk across the dirt field to get to the apartment building beside the school, her apartment building. At the same time, she wouldn’t mind if he did see her.

Taking a deep breath, she checks her appearance in her cracked phone, before stepping outside, down the cement steps, and onto the field. She keeps her eyes forward, wanting to appear as though she doesn’t notice the boys. Or, at least she tries. Just as she is walking past the boys lined up to shoot on the goal she glances over, and makes eye contact.

From the goal the captain waves to her, smiling one of his rare smiles. The coach yells for him to pay attention, and the other students start to laugh. Both the boy and the girl turn red, but neither of them says anything.

The girl continues on her way, walking the length of the field and past the three young students on the swings. She pushes open the rusted gate and walks past the empty plots of farm land on either side of her, skipping over potholes, trash, and puddles that never seem to dry. When she reaches the entrance door she skips the first step, knowing that the crumbling cement may finally give out at any moment, and types in her code. Up four flights of stairs, cheeks still red, a smile still on her lips, and she pulls the key from her bag, tied to a small piece of ribbon, and uses it to open the door. She drops her bag and unlaces her sneakers, carefully placing them on the shoe rack beside her mother’s heels and her sister’s slippers. She then opens the door to the one room apartment. It reeks somewhat of the beer her mother brought home from work, and of the stale smoky clothes that lay unwashed in the corner. She doesn’t notice though, she can only think of smiles.

Study Sessions

I’m 12 years old and staring at a Spanish test. The words are twisting together so that all I can see are blurs on the paper. I think I may actually be crying. I don’t even understand what I’m supposed to be doing, all I know is that I need to pass this test so I won’t get a bad grade in Spanish. I failed the last two tests though, and I don’t think I can pass this one either.

I can’t do it. And I can only cry at how stupid I am.

******

The test in front of me has strange words swimming across it. They make no sense. I know that it is English, and I know that I recognize a few of the letters, but the rest is a mystery. What sound is that supposed to make, and what sound is my teacher making? She’s standing at the front of the classroom, reading from a paper with all the words we are suppose to know. But I don’t know, I don’t know any of them.

My paper blurs, and my eyes sting. I know I’m too old to cry. I know that I can’t let anyone else see. But it’s not fair. I’m good at everything else. I pass all my other classes, so why can’t I pass this?

Maybe I’m just stupid.

******

I’ve been in Korea for two weeks now, and I’ve been studying Korean for equally as long. I’ve mastered the alphabet, though in truth I had studied that before I even set foot on this continent. Back home I had the help and encouragement of half a dozen Korean students from the adult English classes I taught. They praised me for memorizing the alphabet so quickly, and they were excited to teach me words and phrases. It felt good, exciting. I couldn’t wait to get to Korea and show how much better I was with this language than I had ever been with Spanish, or Latin, or French.

But two weeks in and all I could do was grit my teeth and complain as loudly as the students beside me that this was unfair. Why would the teacher cover their mouths when speaking the vowels and consonants? When would we ever be talking to someone without seeing their mouths? And when would I ever need to know exactly what vowel sound they had just made? How unfair was this test? And why, when I had been so confident the weeks before, could I not get it now?

What was wrong with me?

******

There is a new English teacher today. She smiles at us and says hello. She shows us pictures of her home and her friends, and she talks about something. She seems nice, but I have don’t have a clue what she’s saying. Everyone around me is nodding in agreement, sometimes they even ask something, in Korean, or in English. But I don’t. I don’t ask anything, not to her. I couldn’t understand her anyways.

A new picture is on the screen and there are people in it doing taekwondo. One of the students asks, in Korean, who they are. The new teacher doesn’t understand but our teacher, the Korean teacher, says something. The new teacher laughs and says something too I think. I don’t understand.  I want to though; I want to know how she knows these people. I turn to my friend and ask him. When he doesn’t answer I ask again, and then a third time. Finally, I hit him. Why won’t he listen to me?

The new teacher comes over and scowls at me. She says something I don’t understand. I do understand she is angry. She crosses her arms. And I cross mine.

I hate English.

******

In a brightly lit and very cold room a woman hands me a certificate of completion. I have finished the intermediate Korean course offered at city hall. I smile, and shake her hand, laughing towards the man with the camera. My teacher pats me on the shoulder and says something in Korean. I don’t know what. But I smile and laugh and pretend to understand.

After the ceremony, and after the dinner, I take a long bus ride out to my little village. Once off the main street the path becomes windy, and dark, and I have to wedge myself into the corner of the seat to keep from falling over. Outside the window the few lights from the small houses that line the road blur past, until suddenly we are once again washed in the yellow street lights of a main street. I get off the bus and wrap my scarf tighter around myself, shoving one hand into my pocket while the other one clutches the certificate. My fingers ache in the cold, even with the gloves. I want to drop the stupid thing just so I can get my hands warm. I want to leave it in the frozen mud where it will get buried under leaves and dirt, and by the time the spring comes again it’ll be unrecognizable. I don’t deserve it. I didn’t learn a thing in that class except that I am as bad at languages as I remember being in seventh grade.

Instead, I take it home. I pack it in a box in the laundry room, along with all my Korean books, and both sets of notebooks almost completely filled. There’s no point in pretending anymore. I’m never going to understand this.

******

It’s the start of the new semester, and I’m on top. My new teacher likes me a lot, and my coach is proud of me because I helped to win the last match. She tells my teammates it’s because I never do anything halfway. When I get into the ring I go at it with all I’ve got, even if it means I might make a mistake. I put as much force as I’ve got into every kick, every swing, every dodge, and I win.

My parents are proud too, because even though I train until 7 each night, I am still doing well in all of my classes. My dad says that now that I’m in 6thgrade, everything I do matters. Next year I will have to pick a middle school, and I know which one I want to go to. But you have to be good to go there. Good at taekwondo, and good at school. So this year, I have to try hard.

And I will try hard. I’m already trying hard. I’m ready for anything.

Well, almost anything.

The new English classroom is smaller than the old one, and the new teacher is older. The words are longer but make no more sense than they did last year, or the year before that, or before that. I wonder if English really matters in middle school. Really matters for what I want to do that is.

The new teacher is standing at the front of the classroom, pressing play on the computer. I am supposed to be listening, and answering questions. But I don’t know; I can’t.

I leave the test blank, and I don’t care.

******

My new co-teacher and I are going through the tests of my 6th grade students. Most of them did alright, though the pile of those who failed miserably is stacking up as well. My co-teacher is concerned about these students, she says she worries that they will do poorly for the rest of their years in school. I know what she means, but we also both know that most of students won’t be worrying about academics for much longer. We don’t work in an area with high expectations. We work in an area where we hope just a handful will make it to the better schools downtown.

I sift through one group of papers in particular, frowning. All three boys, my co-teacher says, do well in all their other classes. They’re popular, and athletic, and one of them has some of the highest math scores in the school. But they’re all terrible at English.

“Right,” I say, “because you can’t pick up a foreign language like you can other things. All of these guys just go to taekwondo after school, none of them go to hagwon. You have to study really hard, almost every day, to learn a language.”

I can hear the hypocrisy in my own voice. But what I said gives my co-teacher an idea.

******

School has ended, and outside the window I can see most of my friends walking away. They’re headed to hagwon, or home. They’re headed to the arcade, or to play soccer, or maybe just to watch TV. By the time I head home it’ll be dark. But I’m use to this, and I don’t mind. I’m not the only one after all, and the other two will be my teammates for life. That’s far more important.

The teacher gently taps her hands on the desk in front of me, and calls my name. I look at her, thinking I should scowl, but she’s smiling. She’s holding cards with English letters on them. One by one she points to a letter, and says “이거 뭐예요?”

Her Korean is strange sounding. But I understand, she wants me to tell her what letter.

“C” I say and she nods. Then she tugs her ear and says something in English. I don’t know what she wants, I don’t get why she’s tugging her ear. I turn to look at my teammates, and they both start to laugh, shrugging their shoulders. Great, they’re idiots to.

The teacher says my name again, and I look back at her. She’s still smiling. She points to the letter and says “C.” She tugs her ear and says “ㅋ.” She picks up a new card and says  “D” before tugging her ear and saying “ㄷ.” She points to a new card and says “이름, G” then tugs her ear again and says “ㄱ.” I think I understand what she wants.

When she picks up a new card I say “C!” and when she tugs her ear I say “ㅋ.” The teacher smiles at me.

I smile back.

******

The weather is growing warm again, almost hot. Outside the rest of the students are practically sprinting to the gate, eager to get out and savor a few moments of freedom. In front of me all three boys are sitting, slumped forward, stifling yawns. I feel the same way.

I lay out stacks of cards, each with a hastily written letter, English word, and illustration on it. I’ve been using these cards to test how far the boys have some since they started. But today I have a different activity in mind.

I rap my fingers on the table and all sets of eyes shift from the window to me. They glance at the cards, and I can almost feel their own frustration growing. I look at the boy sitting directly across from me. He smiles, but it’s the sort we give each other only when we are trying to conceal our frustration. I smile back, feeling mine is more genuine.

“Ok boys, listen to me. 선생님 들어봐1.” I motion to the cards in front of me. “I will say a sound, like ‘a.’ You pick up the card, as fast as you can. 선생님2 “a, a” 말해3. You 잡다. 빠래 잡다4.”

I know my Korean is rough but over the weeks I’ve noticed that if I say anything in Korean they respond better. So I’ve started to try and practice some key words before we meet. I told my coteacher that I think because my Korean is so bad, they feel like we are on the same level. She laughed, but I wasn’t joking. They’re right, after all.

******

It’s reading day in class again. I kinda hate reading day. Everyone else finishes and the teacher gives them a small red sticker to paste to the reading board. Each name has a line of stickers beside it. Each name except for mine.

I watch the teacher give another student a sticker, then stare back at my book. The words are swimming again. I don’t really understand. I can’t make sense of any of it. I think I should probably just close the book and wait for class to end.

Before I can close the book the teacher places her hand on my book. She shakes her head at me. Using her hand she covers all the other words and all the other letters except for the first letter in the first paragraph. “What sound?” She asks.

“즈”I say. She moves her hand over so I can see the second letter. We’ve done this in after school, I know what she wants me to do. “이…느…스…오…Jinso!”

When the bell rings we’re only halfway finished. But the teacher is grinning, and so am I. She gives me a sticker, and I get to start my own line.

******

Summer break has come and gone, and the second half of the year has started. It’s hot and humid, just as it was right before I went home to visit my family. The afternoons are the worst, the classrooms are not only hot, but smell like adolescent students. All the windows are open, and the AC is off, but it’s still unbearable; these faux leather seats don’t help any either.

On my computer I hit “인쇄5” and listen as the printer begins to spit out the flashcards for the game we will play in phonics class. Some of the cards are easier, they just want sounds and names of letters, others will be more difficult. They want students to read, or tell me the first letter in a word. I’m not sure that all my students will be able to handle it, especially after the summer break. But they have come so far since we started these classes, that I don’t want to make it too easy. They’ll get it, and if they don’t, we’ll just study a bit more, and try again the next day. They’re dedicated, and so am I.

I collect the cards, and place them in the phonics folder. I settle back into my stifling, sticky chair, and open up my new Korean book. My students are not the only ones who have decided that some things are worth studying hard for.

******

Hannah Teacher is standing at the front of our table. She is leaning over us, and frowning. I hand her the card for the phonics game.

“Teacher, what?” I ask, laughing as I do.

She frowns for a moment more, and says something in English. I lean in closer to hear.

“Small is…big…ah….ah!” She grins and looks at me “B 대문자 쓰기….write the big B!”

I race to write the B before my friends. English is easy.

  1.   Seonsaengnim deureobwa, listen to the teacher ↩
  2.   Seonsaengnim, teacher ↩
  3.   Malhae, says ↩
  4.   Japda. PPalae japda, catch. Quickly catch ↩
  5.   Inswae, print ↩

About Fulbright Korea Infusion

“Since the publication of its first volume in 2008, the Fulbright Korea Infusion has presented the literary, artistic and academic talents of Fulbright grantees and scholars. While Infusion is a showcase for the Fulbright Korea family, it also serves as the Korean-American Educational Commission’s annual forum for grantee news, journalism, research, literature, artwork, poetry, photography and video. The magazine aims to capture the diversity of the Fulbright Korea experience by publishing work from Fulbright Korea senior scholars, junior researchers, English teaching assistants and program alumni. During the 2011-2012 Fulbright program grant year, Infusion inaugurated its online website, making print content and exclusive online material available for readers worldwide. The Fulbright Korea Infusion is published by the Korean-American Educational Commission, or Fulbright Commission.”

Jai Ok Shim,
Executive Director of Fulbright Korea

 

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