Its almost the end of September and I have been teaching for about a month now. It would be easy for me to feel somewhat discouraged and angry right now. I leave school feeling emotionally exhausted each day and still haven’t made as much process as I’ve hoped with my students. But its weekends like these past ones that rejuvenate me and refuel my sense of purpose. My Friday night started with dinner with my co-teachers. I learned that one of my co-teachers owns a bar in Gwangju (basically living a double life – teacher by day, bar owner by night) so he invited myself and my other co-teacher there to hangout and play pool. The night was a mix of awkwardness and fun. I never knew what was happening next, but it was nice spending time together outside of school.
My weekend continued with Saturday, I started my morning skyping with college friends from Elon’s Center for Leadership. It was great to reconnect after awhile with everyone and the catch-up session was just a humbling reminder that I am the person I am today because of those many friendly faces and many others. My morning also was kicked off with another sobering reminder that I always try to over-schedule and it never works out as I plan … Sorry Eryn (We will skype soon!).
Anyway, after chatting with friends for an hour, I enjoyed breakfast with my host family and then headed out with my host-dad and sister. My host-dad was dropping me off to go hiking with some of my students and taking my host-sister to Saturday school to practice computer literacy. My host-dad dropped me off at my school where I was suppose to meet my students. I texted the group to let them know I am here. They respond with a picture of a parking lot that was not the school and I knew instantly we had some serious miscommunication. I responded telling them I am at our school and that I don’t know how to get to the park entrance. They tell me to wait there in so many words and they will come get me. I’m skeptical, but hopeful that this is going to work out. 10 minutes later they call me and tell me they are at the school. I look left, I look right, and see no one. It turns out they are at Naju High School and we go to Naju Technical High School. At that moment I made a mental note to myself to learn how to say “technical” in Korean. We finally found each other after lots of picture texts and me repeating “remember the directions lesson I taught, do I go forward, backwards, left or right.” Despite all the confusion I was so thankful for my students. They had walked all around Naju to find me (thankfully the city is not very big) and were the ones who initiated this get together.
So now the hike could start. We arrived at the parking lot to meet a few others students, two I had never met because they went to a different school, so in total there were six of us. At the entrance to the trail was an air station to clean shoes for after you finish. Of course my students see this and decide that the air station is better suited to cool us off then clean our shoes. And best of all an air fight ensued: think nerf gun style with air. This shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise because if any of my friends were here this exact same thing would happen with me being the main target (you all know who you are).
So now the hike really started. We hiked for about 30 minutes until we reached the small pavilion overlooking the city. It was a nice rest point and fun to hear students point out different landmarks. At the rest-point we met two families who immediately noticed I was not Korean. In my broken Korean I introduced myself and said I was from America. The students helped me out and explained I was an English teacher in Naju. The families were overjoyed to meet me (aka an American) and welcomed me and my students to eat some kimbap (rice rolls with veggies and stuff). In Korea gift giving and demonstrating generosity to strangers is not uncommon, in fact its considered appropriate manners. The other family instead of giving food offered Makgeolli (rice wine). I refused explaining that I am with students and feel uncomfortable. The students looked at me and said you have a cup or its seen as rude. So I joined the father of the family in a shot and bowed saying my goodbyes. My students of course were excited to see Mathew teacher drink and I was just laughing in my head about the situation. The man and I exchanged smiles and all was good. But before he left he decided that I should keep the bottle of Makegeolli as a gift. I insisted he keep it, but he was more persistent and ultimately won out. Now imagine 5 high school boys in this situation. Immediately, they asked me if they could have some. I was pretty firm on my answer, no, but to their credit they showed some determination. Finally, I agreed that I would pour a cup and they all could share it. My cool status as a teacher was lifted infinitely and I was satisfied how I handled the situation. Everyone was happy and we continued forward.
Continuing on the hike I learned there are somethings that transcend cultures and languages and that was music, particularly frozen’s renowned song “Let it go”. My students knew almost all the words (better than me actually … although for anyone who knows me well, that’s not a surprise). However, after the song I would ask them, so do you know what the phrase “Let it go” means and they give me a blank stare and just sing out the melody. I smiled and entered teacher mode and tried explained the words using a combination of hand gestures and translator apps. It was this moment and many more instances throughout the day that I was reminded how the classroom is not a four-walled building and we can learn from every opportunity. And not only is the outside walls of a classroom great learning opportunities, but I felt that I was teaching more in the few hours we were together than my weeks of class. One of the students I was hiking with is one of my lowest level students, but by the end of the hike he was demonstrating greater confidence and willingness to speak.
We had finished the hike and it was now mid-afternoon. I decided to surprise the students with buying pizza. (Well my students ordered it and got it delivered, I just paid) Again my cool points rose. We spent the next hour or so just hanging out, eating, and playing a few games. I walked back with the students until our paths split and we said our goodbyes.
That afternoon I relaxed at home until dinner time where my host family and I went out to the park to walk around and then later had dinner at home. After dinner I headed to town to meet some ETAs and hangout. Good way to end an awesome day!
Sunday I woke up early to head to the bus terminal to meet some students who invited me to their basketball tournament. I met them at 9:00am and we piled into a car together. It was me and four other students squished in the back with a student’s mom driving and another student in front. We arrived at the school’s gym and we ushered up to the bleachers. The stands were empty and dirty and I wasn’t sure what to expect at this point. There were some students playing on the court, but they were all from different school. I tried talking with my students, but I didn’t know this group well because all of them are second years so I only see them once a week. However as the morning progressed the students became more comfortable talking with some added help from mr.translator, but I was happy they were talking. Our team of 4 played the second game against who they said was the best team in the tournament. It was funny for me to watch them play because I am that nonathletic kid who cares nothing about sports and tries to look for alternatives to competition, but in the moment I was so riled up (in terms of me) for my students that I was yelling defense, and block, and rebound (all things they had no idea what they meant, but they heard me and that’s what mattered). Unfortunately, we lost the game, but that was okay. I saw the loss as an opportunity to talk about the importance trying. Nevertheless, my students were pissed about losing and felt strongly that they could take the team in soccer (which was probably true). After the game some of the students and I dispersed. I headed back by bus with two of the students. After getting back we went to a PC 방 and one of the students taught me to play League of Legends (LOL is what it is better known as in school). PC 방s are very popular in Korea and almost all the high school boys I know visit them to play games or just watch people play games when they don’t have any money. Envision a dark room with rows of comfy black leather chairs and high screen computers. I was terrible at LOL and I didn’t really have a clear idea on how to play, but it was fun to change up the roles and have him be the teacher. Some of the stats included me dying 12 times and him just once. After two hours I was amazed by how fast time went and finally better understood how students can be trapped in a timeless daze in these places. I realized I need to be heading home and said my goodbyes ending a fun day with students. At home I relaxed for a little until dinner when we began prepping for a barbecue. In Korea a barbecue is not complete without pitching a ten and eating some traditional samgyupsal. I helped my co-father with cooking and at dinner we enjoyed many rounds of meat. After dinner we also had a beautiful surprise of dessert brought by one of my host-mom’s friends. The dessert was a cherry pie and persimmon tart. I was a very happy boy!
By the end of the night, I rested my head on my pillow smiling. I was exhausted, but filled with good memories and a renewed clarity of my love for mentorship.