For the past two weeks I’ve been popping by my my main school to teach English to a handful of third and fourth graders for a couple of hours during winter vacation. On Mondays, I sit there with Eun Soo and Yeon Hwa, two 11 year olds who couldn’t be more different, and strain to connect with them. Eun Soo doesn’t like to sit still and out of his dislike for girls and English and foreign girls who speak English (moi) he is almost completely mute during the first few classes. I think it’s because he doesn’t like reading Korean either.
I try to imagine being the sort of child that likes numbers or lizards instead of words and then being confronted with a language as foreign as Korean. It might as well be Farsi. I can barely read it after nearly a year and when I do, I’m sure I sound like a very illiterate overgrown child. There I am day to day in the middle of the side walk depending on the cartoon depictions of cows, pigs and chickens painted on restaurant banners to decide where I’m going to eat, or worse, I squint at the Hanguel scribbles and sound them out at a humiliating pace.
One morning, I have to track Eun Soo down to where he is hiding behind a bookshelf in the darkened library. Then I have to convince him to stop hiding under a table and to sit in his chair, which becomes any chair. He opts to sit the farthest away in the back of the room and peer at me through some Christmas tinsel he found on the floor. In the beginning, he likes to hide his face. When his friend Jae Wook comes, my empty classroom goes from my sole voice bouncing off the walls to the sounds of two boys giggling at my expense. Jae Wook helps Eun Soo learn, but they still both pretend they have no idea what I’m talking about, even though I know they know that I know they know. Hmmmm… It’s a funny game for them and I’d rather let them play it and learn something new than become some militant old miser.
Yeon Hwa usually comes the latest and finishes the earliest. When she comes in on Thursday, Eun Soo and Jae Wook are doing circles around me, tossing a volleyball globe of planet earth back and forth, shouting “February, month! Baseball, sport! English, subject!” Before long, Yeon Hwa hands me her finished worksheets and looks pleadingly up at the clock through her pink-rimmed glasses.
Yeon Hwa has a knack for English. I can tell when she looks at a sentence and reads it, she understands how the letters fit together to make the sounds that they do. She gets consonants. When she reads she sees words and not scribbles. She’s a girl and she likes English, so Eun Soo looks at her as if she is an alien.
I have eleven on my roster and these three are the ones that come to the one warm classroom on campus every morning. The boys are restless and Yeon Hwa is bored towards the end of our two hours together. I like them because at each class at the final 30 minute mark they would rather play Uno or Jenga with me, than watch a movie. Yeon Hwa sits still and concentrates on the wooden Jenga pieces and how she will respond to the question I will ask once she’s carefully pulled the piece, while Jae Wook improvises and Eun Soo goes back and forth from table to chalkboard to window to chair, anticipating the fall of the pieces and not the English.
I was disappointed when so few came to camp after planning activities for up to 15 students, but I never would have gotten to know these three as well had that been the case. I do think, had the class been bigger they would rather watch a movie, but being able to work with each kid more closely showed me that in the end they prefer to be engaged with. Last week Eun Soo was silent. Today he came early, and said “Helloooo!” really loud with a smile on his face. I measure my successes in baby steps.