Some students are charming and bright, and immediately demand your attention. Some students are deeply troubled: they show signs of OCD or parental neglect or abuse. The damaged ones are usually not much good at English – they have too much else going on in their lives to think about it. Sometimes you can help those students, if only by being available to them and being kind to them; despite the language barrier, or maybe because of it, you are outside the system enough for them to trust you.
It’s rare for a student to fall into both of those categories – to be both bright and charming, and also damaged. Actually, I can recall only one such student, and that was Yeti.
I still have a picture on my wall that she drew of me. In the picture a goofy, shaggy-haired and Koreanized version of me is waving, wearing shorts, and smiling through Asian eyes, and the caption says in Korean that I am the kindest and smartest.
Yeti was one of the first students I taught, in my first semester of teaching in Korea. And so I made some mistakes with her that I wouldn’t make today.
She was in the second grade when I met her. I didn’t name her; some previous foreign teacher had burdened her with “Yeti”. Or perhaps it had been corrupted from some other English name, or from her own Korean name. It didn’t suit her. There was nothing lumbering or bestial about her. She was a shy, pale girl with glasses, occasionally prone to overexcitement, but when class started she sat at the very front and watched me from behind her glasses with big, serious eyes.
She was incredibly smart. She was a “hear once” student – if you said a new English word and gave her context, she remembered it. In the second grade it’s not a common skill, but some of them can do it; their brains are still wired for that, at that age. By the time they get to sixth grade there are very few of them who can still do it. But more than that, it was her ear which set Yeti apart. Learning a new language takes a variety of skills, and they are distributed unevenly: a student may be good at learning vocabulary, but struggle with reading or pronunciation. In Yeti’s case, besides her memory, it was her extraordinary ability to hear and reproduce sounds that set her apart. As a result, she quickly developed an Australian accent that amused and horrified me. “What’s this?” I’d ask her, holding up an eraser. “It is an eh-ray-suh!” she would say. And my co-teacher would laugh.
Besides my regular after-school class with the second graders, I had an extra class with her – one of those after-school classes that are too late for all the wealthy kids who go to hagwons, and which get attended by only a couple of kids. I would mess around with her on the floor, looking at books and flash cards and teaching her by talking about what we looked at. I’d taught her “there is” and “there are”, and by then I knew how smart she was. So I asked her, looking at a flash card, “Yeti, how many yellow pencils and red pencils and blue pencils are there?” And she took a deep breath, and all of seven years old, said, “There are two yellow pencils and there are three red pencils and there is one blue pencil.” And my co-teacher, busy working on her laptop in the corner of the English room, looked up and said, “Oh my god.” Even with a simple sentence structure like that, most adult Koreans wouldn’t attempt a sentence that long in English.
I first realized that there was a problem with Yeti when I made some videos of students saying the alphabet backwards. It was a ridiculous task introduced not for any pedagogical reason but to emphasise the importance of “shiny stickers”, which I had set up as being almost unobtainable, given out only for tremendous effort. So I asked the second graders if they could say the alphabet – almost all of them could, and they got stickers. Then I asked who among them could say the alphabet backwards. None could, and I told them that if they learned it in a day they could get a shiny sticker.
Two of them decided to take up the challenge – Yeti and her friend Jessica. Jessica was one of those ridiculously perfect students blessed with intelligence, beauty, and charisma, and unlike Yeti, all the teachers adored Jessica. They both managed it and I made video of them and gave them shiny stickers.
A few days later I showed the video for the class. The kids loved it – party because another student, Punky, had done her best to derail Yeti and Jessica’s efforts by hiding in the background, making faces and giving their heads deer antlers with her hands while they recited. Jessica looked great, as always, but Yeti’s hair was messy in the video, and when she saw herself she looked shocked, touched her hair, and quickly looked away, and she didn’t look back at the screen until it was finished.
When the video was finished all the kids wanted to see it again, but I looked at Yeti and she shook her head at me, so I didn’t play it again.
Later, one of the teachers told me that Yeti’s mother ignored her because she wasn’t “cute” in the standard Korean way. I thought it was a strange statement, but I’ve since heard the same thing, about different girl students and different mothers, from three different teachers at three different schools. It seems to be a particularly horrible side-effect of Korea’s emphasis on physical appearance.
I realized that Yeti’s problems went quite a bit deeper than I had realized towards the end of the semester. Suddenly Yeti, who had always been friendly and happy to see me, seemed withdrawn, and didn’t say hello. And here I made some mistakes that I wouldn’t make today, because I wasn’t so familiar with Korean kids back then. These days, if a student did that, particularly one who seemed to have some problems, I would back off, give them space, let them come back to me in their own time. Instead, I made a joke of it, and pushed the point. “Hi, Yeti. No hi today? Why?” and she would shake her head and look down.
Later, I made a much bigger mistake due to my ignorance of Korean culture and language. After this had gone on for a week, I said, “Yeti, are we friends?” In English, this isn’t a particularly strange statement (although as a more experienced teacher, I probably wouldn’t say it now, even without the cultural confusion). But mentally translated into Korean, it is a very peculiar statement. In Korean, “friend” is 친구, and applies to relationships with people your own age. It is quite possible to be friendly with a teacher in Korea, but no student would ever describe their teacher as a friend. So Yeti responded, “No.” Which I, too, misunderstood.
Some time later, I asked her if she would be coming to my class next semester, and she said “No”, again. And she didn’t come.
After that I would see her around school and I would say hello to her, and she would say hi back, but she wouldn’t talk to me or smile. So, beyond saying hello, I left her alone. I got the impression she thought I was angry at her, which I wasn’t, but I couldn’t get her to talk, and anyway there was a language barrier.
Some time later in class, Jessica told me that Yeti was a bad girl.
“Really?” I said. “You and Yeti aren’t friends?”
“No, no,” she said. “Friends. But Yeti is bad girl.”
She explained to me that Yeti had been swearing and stealing things. From a good natured seven-year-old, this is a sure sign of trouble.
I asked a couple of the other teachers if Yeti was OK, but they weren’t much interested in Yeti. One of them told me she didn’t like Yeti’s face.
One day I was coming out of the local mart with some chocolate, and Yeti was coming in at the same time. We saw each other, and I offered her some chocolate. She took it and said “Thank you.”
After that she came back to my class for a few days. Then I saw her, and asked her if she would be coming that day, and she said, “Yes.” But she didn’t come. The next time I saw her, she was again back to not saying hello. I didn’t know what had happened, except again I got the impression that she thought I was angry with her – this time, for not coming to class. I realised how incredibly sensitive she was to even the appearance of criticism.
The semester ended. I had to do a week of summer camp, and then I was finished, and heading back to Australia. With only a week-long camp, my co-teacher had scheduled me for two days with the fourth graders, and three days with the fifth and sixth graders. But I was disappointed, because I wanted to say goodbye to my third graders – Yeti’s old class. So my co-teacher agreed to cut a day from the sixth graders, and give me one day of camp with the third graders so I could say goodbye.
A few days before camp started, Jessica said to me, “Yeti will come to English camp!” I was surprised.
So she came to my one day of camp. With only a day, there wasn’t much I could teach. So I decided to teach them some verbs: think, remember, forget, hope, and a couple of others.
I taught them, and Yeti was back to the person I had first known. Sitting at the front, happy, talking, instantly remembering everything I tried to teach.
At the end of the class, I said to them, “Thank you. I will remember you. I won’t forget you. I hope you remember me. I hope you don’t forget me.” Which was why I had taught them those words, because I wanted to say that to them. And I gave them my email address and said goodbye to them, a lovely class of smart, kind students.
And that night I got an email from Yeti. It said:
TEACHER how are you?
I am sad
TEACHER YETI remember
YETI TEACHER remember
TEACHER see you next time
A year later, when I came back to Korea, I went to visit my old school. I had a great day, played dodgeball with some of my favourite kids, talked to them all, got to see how they’d grown and changed. And they still remembered me, and that made me happy.
But Yeti wasn’t there. Jessica said, “Yeti go different school.” So I don’t know what happened to her. But I do remember Yeti.