Saying goodbye to my school
Today was my last day at my Daegu elementary school. On Sunday I move to Gyeonggi-do to teach at a tiny elementary school with less than 70 students.
Goodbyes are difficult for me. There are students and teachers here who I have become close to. I find that goodbyes can feel fraudulent, even when you truly want to be sincere. Because both of you know that despite your protestations of “Let’s stay in touch!” and “I’ll see you later!” you will never again spend much time together. Not because you don’t like each other, but because the life connections that brought you together are now gone, and when that happens the best you can hope for is to stay casually, occasionally in touch. So you strive for a tone of sincerity and authenticity, and that striving makes it insincere and inauthentic, because those things are defined by their lack of artifice.
But there is real sentiment there – it’s just hard to find the right words to express it. And it is harder when your relationship has traversed barriers of culture and language, and in the case of students, age and the strictures of Confucian relationships.
And so I think we try to substitute for those feelings of fraudulence – that our words are not truly reflecting our feelings – by saying more things, and delaying the final moment of goodbye. So my co-teachers walked me out of school, and yet it still felt hollow; as if there were some other words that I, or they, should have said, although I don’t know what those words might be.
And the goodbyes had gone on too long. At the end of last semester, I said goodbye to all my students. But then I had to come to school again for two pointless days after the holidays, due to changes to the school timetable brought about by the elimination of Saturday classes. Most of the students I saw were surprised that I was still there.
At the end of last semester they made me cards and gave me posters. There were lots of sentiments on those posters, mediated by their limitations in English. The thing that struck me about them was that a lot of them were clearly rote – the same stock phrases repeated over and over again – but in some cases, with students who I had been close to and helped, I could see them struggling through the limitations of their English to say something that had some meaning, that conveyed a true goodbye.
Hello? This is Na-eun. I’m 6 grader and class 1. Why you leave this school suddenly? I think all students like you. And me too. So our classmates write this letters. I bought this big paper. It’s expensive. I wrote this letter at first. You were a good teacher and I can’t forget you and thank you. In a future, I want meet you. And I want to go your home! Grammar is so hard. Teacher thank you and we can see you again.
That’s a goodbye! And:
Hello teacher. I’m Seo Hyun. I’m very sad. You know I’m sad? Yes, teacher go other school. Teacher I’m sorry. Always I’m troublemaker. Very sorry. Teacher is good and great teacher. I don’t forget nice teacher. Everyone like… No love you. Really! And I will come to school and see you during summer vacation.
Those messages, those kids that tried really hard to express something that was important to them, to break through the language barrier and say what they felt… they mean a lot to me. But perhaps they, too, were left frustrated at the limitations of words, foreign words, to express a true goodbye.
I sent a message saying goodbye to all the teachers. I spammed the school on the CoolMessenger system. One of my co-teachers said I should send a message saying goodbye, so I composed something in Korean and asked her to check it before I sent it. My co-teachers said, “No, no – send it in English. If you send it in Korean, they will think someone else wrote it for you.” I said I didn’t think that would be a problem; there is no way anyone would ever mistake my Korean for a native speaker’s. My co-teacher looked over my message and said, “It’s perfect!” I laughed and she said, “Well – it’s not grammatical, but I can understand it. And everybody will know you wrote it.”
It was the equivalent of my lousy students’ half-hearted goodbyes; the sentiments chosen for being ones I was able to express rather than ones that really meant something. So I spammed everyone with my pidgin Korean, and all the teachers took it as a cue to reply to me in Korean, so I spent twenty minutes trying to decipher their replies. They were like the students’ messages, mostly rote – a lot of generic Korean sentiments that could have been copy-pasted from one message to the next. Thank you for your hard work. Be healthy. You have given good teaching (a sentiment that doesn’t translate well).
And, in there, some genuine things from teachers with whom I had made a connection, despite the language barrier. The sports teacher told me in Daegu satori that he’d miss me, and that I needed to exercise, and that I should suck in my stomach in the meantime. That was real. The great fifth grade teacher who I did some co-teaching with last year, when my regular co-teacher went off to have a baby, said that she’d miss me, and that she’d enjoyed teaching with me. Which doesn’t sound like much – except it was a while back, and I’d enjoyed teaching with her, too, and we had never really communicated that to each other.
And then there were my co-teachers, the people with whom I’ve spent a lot of time and who all are good people. For one of my co-teachers I would have liked to say something like, “I’m not sure you ever really understood how much I admired you. I always got what you were doing, and you always made the right choices, and although we never had much success at having conversations, I really enjoyed working with you.”
I said, “I’ll miss working with you,” and she said she would, too – and I wondered if I sounded sincere, and if she was sincere. I never managed to get past a professional relationship with her, but I admired the hell out of her – she was smart, she could instantly tell a good idea from a bad idea, had no time for typical Korean nonsense, never gave a bad lesson, and could teach a modified communicative method that was perfect for Korean students and completely unlike the usual Korean approach of listen, fill-in-the-blanks, and memorize for the test – the method she had no doubt been trained and brought up on.
And so, because it’s impossible to express goodbyes properly – or perhaps just impossible to feel that you’ve expressed them properly – my three co-teachers came out with me and walked me to the gate, and we said goodbye for the fifth or sixth time, and then I left and that was that. And I felt empty, like there were other words I should have said. I’ll miss them. I want to know about the new teacher, I want to know how my sixth graders will get on in middle school and what their lives will be like…
…But I probably won’t. A few text messages, then eventually nothing. Or maybe not. There are still some kids from my first school who occasionally message me. They were third graders when I first knew them, and they’re sixth graders now, and they still remember me.
The co-teacher I mentioned? I think she is a great teacher. I write this website and I think I’m a pretty good teacher – good enough to write advice to people new to Korea and put it on the internet – but I’m not a great teacher. My co-teacher always made the right choices and treated every student equally and impersonally. But I am a great teacher for some students.Me – I can’t be that impersonal. Some students fascinate me, and others bore me. Some I can’t pick out of a crowd, and some I get close to, and they learn massive amounts of English because they want to communicate with me.
So I’m looking forward to my new school. Less than seventy students – a really unique opportunity to get to know every student well and do a really amazing job for all of them. I want to take these country kids and make them confident and capable of fluent conversational English and better at it than the privileged kids in Gangnam. It’s a big challenge, and I might not succeed, but I’m looking forward to it. 70 students – in the world of foreign English teachers in Korea, this is like being Socrates.