never say never

Sunday, February 24, 2013

When I was young, I wanted to be a teacher. When I got older, I said I could never teach kindergarten. Next week, I’ll wrap up eighteen months of life as a kindergarten teacher.

What started out so foreign but became so familiar will soon seem like a past life – the three minute walk from door to door, the mandatory watered-down Americanos from the only cafe open early enough, the one-story stair climb to the entrance of the school, muffled squeals of early arrivers behind the doors, kids occupied with water cooler talk too busy to say good morning, the smells of mini sweaty feet from the shoe room and steamed rice from the kitchen at 11:45, like clockwork – all of it.

In the beginning, no teacher in history was more awkward. If the kids asked their parents for an exchange when they got home, I would not have been surprised. Ship her back to 미국, Mom! You said English school was going to be FUN!

If I were to do it all over again, I would be more prepared. I would read more about education, in general and in Korea. Time was what I didn’t have, and I was on a plane before I could change my mind. Though the learning curve was steep, the whole process was game-changing, and I’m anticipating a loss I’ve never felt at the end of a job before.

Last Tuesday, I bit my lip and told my students they’d be getting a new teacher soon. Jed cried on my lap for six minutes, but the rest took the news pretty well. They shrugged their shoulders like yeahwell, nice knowin ya. Can we please color now? Larry put his finger back up his nose, Philip asked if it was time for gym, and it was back to business as usual.

My kindergarten teacher was Mother Theresa. She never yelled. She was patient and fair, and she glided from one end of the room to the other in her long denim skirts with the grace of an Olympic figure skater. Her taste in classroom pets, however, was questionable. One morning when we came to school, there was a cage on a table with a  black and white spotted rat inside. We quickly named her Honey Huggles Phyllis II, and then we took turns holding her. I was terrified that she’d escape while in my custody, so I squeezed her so tightly her little eyes bugged out a bit. That was the only time Miss T ever scolded me, and I cried. When summer vacation came and Miss T needed a home for Honey, my mother volunteered to take her in. Honey died at the end of that summer, and I cried again. Because she knew, my mother replaced her three times within the next year. Some people had dogs. We had domesticated rats. Whenever I tell this story, I try to sell off Honey as a hamster, just with a longer, scalier tail.

A RAT?! they all say.

Well, not like a cat-sized subway rat. A domesticated rat. It’s different.

Like children, they’re never easily fooled, but they usually give me the benefit of the doubt, if only to switch subjects.

One extraordinary effect of teaching is that you get a peek of what you’d be like as a parent. You see your weaknesses and insecurities with glaring acuity. On good days, you handle anything thrown your way with grace, humor, and agility. Your job is the best in the universe, and to your bewilderment, you are a damn fine teacher! On bad days, you feel no more equipped to rear children than Mama June. Bad days rain, and when they do, they pour. I can’t say I’ve never yelled, and I’ve lost my patience once or twice. When the best pet I could give our class was a baby bird made of cotton with a paper beak and googly eyes, they went along with it like champions. But maybe they’ll remember our blindfolded taste tests, how to sing to Barbara Ann, and the difference between a hug and a bear hug.

Tomorrow is my last Monday, and though I’ll probably forget what it feels like to be near the end, I won’t forget how it feels to love these kids.

All names changed to protect the innocent, except Honey’s.

  • Joan ault

    Thank you for sharing your adventures in South Korea. I loved reading about your experiences and getting the recipes to try in cold Minnesota. Can’t wait to see you in person, if you have time call me.

  • Annie

    Isn’t it amazing how you come to love your students as you do? And you were right when you said teaching is a glimpse into parenting.. often times difficult to deal with the reality. Whether you went there prepared or not, those kids were so blessed to have you as their teacher. I can close my eyes and picture you with them, and it’s a beautiful movie to watch.

    I am speaking from experience when I say that the goodbyes will be tough… but, they will remember you, just as you remember Mother Theresa.

    Beautiful writing, Jaq. I can’t wait to give you a bear hug.

  • Destiny

    I, too, never thought I could be a teacher. I took the jump in college, and it’s funny how the students work their way into every part of you. One of my favorite quotes is from a MPLS public school teacher I worked with when I was still working with middle school students: “From the best teachers, we learn life.” And it goes both ways because students are as much the teachers as we are to them.

    You’re always a good reminder to take risks in life even when scary and seemingly random, thereby forcing yourself to not let your past selves (I’d never be a teacher!) hinder the growth possible in your present and future selves.

    Enjoyed reading, as always!

  • Krissie

    love this jacqui… ah, how far we have all come :)