The Student Becomes The Teacher

As is often the case, the true value of an experience cannot be fully appreciated until long after the experience occurs, in moments of reflection. On that note, I would like to wind the clocks back to the morning of Tuesday June 11th, 2013 (4 days after arriving in South Korea).

I had just boarded a bus and was headed deeper into the countryside, for my first day of teaching English at Donggye Middle and High School. I was still feeling the effects of jet lag, and had spent the first night in my unfurnished one room apartment staring at the ceiling. Alone with my thoughts and deprived of sleep, I wondered how I managed to get myself into this situation. I was a man on a mission that morning; get into the office, log onto my computer, e-mail my family, book a flight home, get the hell out of there. Culture shock is as real as it gets, but more on that later.

Donggye Middle and High School

Heo Jae Seok (허재석) was in 6th year of secondary school (a senior in high school) at the time, around 17 years of age, and he changed my life on that morning. I was slumped in a window seat completely zoned out, running through the mission objectives in my head, the escape plan. I was dragged back into reality by a young man who was sitting at the back of the bus. He introduced himself, and we began chatting. I was shocked not only by his level of English but also by the way in which he spoke, coming across as an extremely happy, confident, and positive person. He led the conversation, giving me a sort of crash course on Korean culture. I took it all in, merely offering one word responses in return. It was as if he was the English teacher, and I was the student struggling to keep up. His warm and friendly nature was infectious, and I became excited to meet the rest of my students after speaking with him. The escape plan suddenly became less urgent; I would go back to my apartment when the day was done, and unpack my suitcase once more.

I got to know Jae Seok more and more as the months went by, both inside and outside the classroom, and we would chat most days on the bus to and from school. I learned that he worked part-time in a bakery most evenings (and some mornings), and he was always excited to tell me about the delicious cakes or sweet breads he had made the previous day.

He was a model student in every sense; well rounded, confident, popular amongst his peers (he was the student body representative) and a high achiever. As graduation was approaching, I asked him about his plans and ambitions. He expressed to me with all his enthusiasm, that he was going to start working full time at the bakery. I was surprised, and I’m ashamed to say that I was a little disappointed at first. I had pictured him attending a top university and graduating with honors, the world was his oyster.

It wasn’t until I spoke with my co-teacher Ms. Kim, that I became aware of Jae Seok’s desire to travel to France one day, where he would learn about French cuisine. I came to understand that he was indeed pursuing his culinary dream, his passion. He worked hard each day towards achieving his goal in his part- time job, he was doing what he loved, and he was doing what made him happy. That to me displayed incredible courage and maturity at such a young age, and he truly inspired me.

Jae Seok and Myself

I sometimes wonder had Jae Seok not been on the bus that morning; would I have gone ahead with my escape plan? He had no way of knowing the effect that conversation would have on me, he was simply being himself. Of course, I thanked him for everything on his last day of school (oblivious as to what exactly he had done to merit my gratitude), and I wished him luck for the future.

Looking back now, I can’t help but smile at the irony of the situation.

Here I was coming into class every day hoping to encourage the students to communicate using the English language. Perhaps spark their interest in it, possibly even evoke a desire to one day travel and experience foreign cultures.

All the while, a 17 year old high school student was imparting valuable life lessons to me:

  • A simple greeting or act of kindness towards a stranger can prove more powerful than you know.
  • Whatever your passion, whatever it is you want out of life, whatever brings you happiness- embrace it, and pursue it with desire and purpose.

The student becomes the teacher.