Every once in a while, you come by an exceptional student.
She didn’t have the top grades, nor did she ever speak in class. Whenever I shook the little cup with the numbered strips of paper in it, her mouth would clamp up tight, as if the force of her lips could sway gravity and chance just so, and her numbered slip would hide behind the others, out of sight. And that was how she stood, too.
Hee Ju was the tallest girl in the sixth grade. Straight brown hair, shoulders built for rugby, yet if I approached her with too much intention she would stand behind her (much shorter) friend, hands on her friend’s shoulders and head bowed slightly, like a big, big puppy who feels guilty for even thinking of raiding the garbage can.
“Hi, Hee Ju!” I’d say with cheer.
Her voice was sheepish and kind. “Hello, Teacher…”
And then they’d scurry off, two girls giggling down the hall.
Sometimes you meet an exceptional student, and it’s not the eloquent, keen-eyed boy with the logical disposition (Korean Spock, I called him) whose prepared speech was so highly developed that the department head had me slash it down with red ink, much to my dismay. It’s not the boy with the glossy powerpoint with animated gifs, bilingual slides, and upbeat music. It’s a girl who, every day, knocked on our office door to say hello and struggle through a single sentence.
I hadn’t been at Donghwa long before it happened. It was maybe my second or third week, after the students overcame their timidity around the new teacher and started poking their quivering noses out of the mouse hole.
I was sitting at my desk, when there came a knock on the door. There are often knocks on the door, after classes are out. Then the door swings open (students here act much like North American parents, in that they seem to believe that so long as a knock is applied mid-swing, a door can be opened with privacy still intact), and a chirpy child will say, “Shopping please!” Then A or I will come out of the office and play shopkeeper with the kids at the “Stationery Store,” where they can buy pencil cases, notebooks, puzzles, and other knick knacks using play money they’ve earned in their homeroom class.
The knock that day, though, came at a very odd time: mid-day, just after lunch.
“Augh…it’s Hee Ju,” groaned HY, my co-worker. “She comes here every day.” Then she put on a smile, turned to the door, and said, “What is it?”
“Oh!” You could hear Hee Ju beyond the door, muffled by the glass. Hee Ju was one of the few who waited before coming in, and always gave that little, “Oh!” as if she were surprised we had noticed her.
“What is it?”
With a hesitant motion, she peeked her head in through the door, bowed stiffly (her hair flying about), and said with her eyes on her shoes, “Hello, Teacher…”
“Hello, Hee Ju. How are you today?” HY would say. Then Hee Ju would do what I found incredible and admirable.
She would stand, scuffing her shoes, swinging her arms about (or, as the months wore on and she became more comfortable, bending her knees up and down and bobbing in place), and say, “Today…today…”
“Yes?” HY would ask.
“Today I…No, no, no. 선생님, 어제 뭐예요?” she’d whisper, bending into HY’s ear.
“Yesterday, I…보러 가다…?”
“Ah!” Hee Ju would say, eyes bright. “Yesterday, I…visit grandparents my!”
“Oh~! You visited your grandparents?” I’d ask with enthusiasm. “Did you have fun?”
“..Euh?” she’d ask, confused.
“At your grandparents’ house…재미 있었요?” HY would clarify.
“AH! Yes, I haddeu fun.” Then Hee Ju nod emphatically. I’d smile at her, and then her joy would crack with the sudden realization that she was being watched. Stumbling backwards out the door, Hee Ju would bow her head and mumble, “Goodbye, Teacher…”
So it was every day. During break, after lunch…even after classes were out, we’d find Hee Ju kicking around school grounds for one reason or other. Sometimes she would peer in through the window until one of us saw her, then grin cheekily and run away. In class, she’d still shrink from openly aired questions or the looming possibility of being called upon to read out loud, but whenever I entered the classroom she’d perk up in her seat and give me a shy smile.
You may remember my post about Pepero Day in November. 3 students were kind enough to bring me boxes of Pepero. Hee Ju was not one of them.
But the next day, November 12, she tiptoed up to the English office, checked that no one was around, and whispered for me to come outside.
“What is it, Hee Ju?” I asked.
“For you,” she said, and pulled out a single, ENORMOUS pepero stick. Then she put her finger to her lips and shushed me to secrecy.
“Ah~” I said, winking, and slipped it into my coat sleeve, where no one could see it. “Wait here!” I said, and ran back to my desk, pulling out several Reeses Christmas Bells. “For you and your friend,” I said. She accepted them with astonishment and munched avidly.
“Peanut butter!” she said. They’d learned that in their special cooking lesson: PB&J edition. “Delicious!” Then, like a squirrel with a fresh pile of nuts, she scurried off with glee, her small friend appearing from behind a doorway and following her out.
I saw Hee Ju nearly every day…one time she came in tears after a fight with a friend. Another time she didn’t come at all, for weeks, after an incident in HY’s class.
“I told her she needs to speak louder. I really like it when she comes to the office, but even she is still my student. I need to treat her like all the other students, otherwise it’s not fair,” said HY, but I could tell she felt bad, and for those few weeks we felt the oppressive silence of Hee Ju’s absence. But, come the Christmas season, Hee Ju was back at it again. Timidly at first, and then with the same springiness as at the beginning of semester.
Last week was graduation week.
“Goodbye, Teacher,” she said Thursday. I gave her a hug – she squeezed me tight, and when it seemed we would let go she squeezed me tighter still. She rocked me from side to side, and when she finally let go her eyes were red and teary.
“See you next time,” I said. That’s how we always said goodbye. “You’ll have fun in Middle School!” But she didn’t seem convinced.
Friday morning was the ceremony proper, so I decided to make a graduation card for Hee Ju. I had my backpack and my watercolours all packed up for a weekend in Cheongju to visit Marta. Here is how it turned out:
It was a long ceremony, at least to the young siblings of the graduates, who hung off their mother’s chairs and paced up and down the aisles as the sixth graders went up on stage, one by one, to collect their diplomas. Most students I recognized as their pictures came up on the projector screen, and each time I was hit with a pang of sadness. They were in grade six? They’re leaving? Even after 4 months, I have a hard time distinguishing which kids are from which classes. There were even some that I knew by face, boys whose cheeky comebacks and silly responses always brightened my day, and yet when their name came on the screen I thought, That was what they’re called!
After an endearingly out of tune recorder concert and a third grade “Bar Bar Bar” dance off, the principal gave his last words and let the students go. HY and I went straight to Hee Ju – HY with some chocolate, and I with my card.
“This is for you,” we said. “Andrea drew that for you.”
“This is for you,” said Hee Ju, handing us two letters.
Her eyes were teary as she pulled us in tight.
“Don’t worry Hee Ju, you’ll visit again!” I said. “You’re going to Munmak Middle School, right? You’ll meet my friend, S-teacher!”
“Right! And if you’re bad to him, we’ll know!” HY joked. Hee Ju sniffled and smiled.
“Goodbye, Teacher,” she said.
“See you next time,” I said.