Skilled students of the human condition have probably already deciphered: I returned to Toronto for a funeral. We’ll plunge into the deep pools of neuroses this generated in a few days, once I’ve fully expunged my very soul of all that icky sadness. For now, let us bask in the glory of people trying to communicate sincere sadness and genuine kindness over a language barrier, like trying to delicately pass soufflé dishes over a 12-foot-high concrete wall. Here are snippets from life at my Korean school to whet your appetites for catharsis and linguistic awesomeness.
– One of my grade six boys, NB, sort of epitomizes the word “goon” in my brain. He’s heavy-set and grimace-y, aggressive, and cannot take a joke. He regularly punches and kicks other students. His English vocabulary is approximately 10 words, one of them being my name. When I wandered into school on Monday, he spotted me, got wide-eyed, and immediately approached me. “Grandmother!” he said with sincere regret and sadness in his eyes. I corrected the gender of the noun because I am a nerd and want to improve his vocabulary, but I was touched that he remembered. When I next saw him in class, not only did he use the right English word, he asked a plaintive Korean, 괜찮아요? (are you okay?) with actual concern glowing across his face. When I told one of my co-teachers, she stared at me with shock. “I did not think he had these kind of emotion.”
– I need to teach my kids some gentler verbs and adjectives. One of my better grade six students approached me after lunch to discuss how delicious the rice was and to show off his vocabulary. I asked him about last week, JB asked about mine, I mentioned I was tired and sad. “Oh, yes. I listened to [coteacher]. Your grandfather is dead, right?” I tried not to cringe. It was a grammatically correct, if gutting, sentence.
– A grade 4 student, with pitch-perfect English, came in to give me her condolences. The grade 4s and 6s were informed of the reason for my departure, and thus have approached me in different ways if they feel confident (or unconcerned) enough to express their feelings in English. JY came after class, as she often does, and told me, in florid and remarkably capable prose even for a native-speaking fourth-grader, which she is not, how deeply saddened she was to hear about my grandfather’s passing.
– A homeroom teacher sat in our office, fixing a computer for a new co-teacher. I wandered through to head out to the bathroom, he noticed that the other English teachers had departed. There was no one to save face around. He approached me. “I heard your grandfather passed away. I am very sorry.” I thanked him sincerely, took about five steps, and then remarked on the top-notch English he was jamming all of a sudden. “Oh. Uh. I learned this speaking just before now.” That this guy spent the time approaching one of the English teachers in the school and practiced a proper condolence phrase is pretty sweet.
– My grade 4s made some cards for me on origami paper, glued into a magical, splendorous accordion of lifting spirits. Apparently my co-teacher taught them some key phrases, as they use the more delicate, dainty “passed away” in all its variegated possibilities, rather than the harsh “die” and its cousins on which they usually rely. At least twelve of the cards also include the phrase “I will always be with you.” They are a massacre of English spelling and grammar, and (maybe because of this) they are possibly the sweetest things I have ever read. They threw caution to the wind and just wrote what they felt. I don’t like to pick favourites, but, well, here are my favourites: