It’s Friday afternoon. The first week of spring has brought with it sunshine and warm weather, and a gentle breeze ruffles the classroom window shades. Children’s laughter and shouts drift up to me, but I’m more focused on the hushed voice murmuring in the corner. He stands in the library section of my classroom, clutching a book close to his face and reading aloud to himself with a quiet determination I’ve rarely ever seen in a student. When all the other middle school kids have chosen to spend their free time outside with their friends, playing soccer or gossiping under a tree, he came here to read English books.
His name is Yung Jin, and he is one of my favorite students. He isn’t necessarily gifted with a natural intelligence, but what he lacks in intellect he more than compensates for with hard work. What impresses me most about him is that his drive to study is not motivated merely by a desire for good grades; he talks about his goal of becoming a diplomat, and possesses an overwhelming thirst for knowledge that makes me shake my head in awe. Of course, he also frequently mentions his love for Taylor Swift, musicals, and naps.
He approaches my desk with a grin to tell me about the story he just read. As he’s about to leave he pauses and adds, “Oh, and Gyu Rin wanted me to tell you that the topic for our next meeting is ‘how to be happy’.”
Gyu Rin is a girl in his grade, and the two of them asked me last year if I would spend lunch with them twice a week talking about various topics. We’re now starting our second year of meeting and I have to admit that I really enjoy our discussions. Gyu Rin is the opposite of Yung Jin in many ways, yet the two of them complement each other nicely; for his loud jokes are her gentle laughs, and for his strange questions are her reasonable ideas.
Gyu Rin is the kind of person I wish I could have been at her age. At 13 years old she has a maturity and worldliness that baffles me; when I was in middle school, my main concerns were clothes, boys, and trying to fit in–typical, though not exactly admirable. Seeming to sense the mounting pressures of her peers to conform, she told me at the start of the term, “This year, my goal is to try to only impress myself, and no one else.” I sometimes wonder if she is real.
I fear that, in the long run, these students have taught me more than I have taught them. Each day I am inspired by Yung Jin’s diligence, and Gyu Rin’s humility. With each conversation, I am increasingly amazed by their ambition and compassion. Most importantly, though, these students have no idea what a difference they’ve made in my life in the last year. Working at a rough and tumble school rife with violence and disrespect, there were more than a few days when I’d nearly reached my breaking point. Right as I was about to crumble and declare that there was no way I could continue at this school, they would tap on my classroom door with a friendly “hello teacher!” and come running in, warming my heart with their infectious smiles.
I wish I’d known, as a student, how much of a difference I could make in a teacher’s life. I wish I’d realized that teachers are human beings and–gasp!–they DO exist outside of school! I wish I’d been less afraid of looking uncool and more interested in developing a relationship with a teacher, and soaking up the extra wisdom they could have shared with me. I wish I’d known that some teachers might have been interested in hearing about my life, or in having a friendly conversation. I wish I’d known being friends with a teacher might even mean extra candy or presents!
But most of all, I wish I’d understood that teachers are not the only ones who inspire and that, as a student, I could have inspired a teacher. I wish I hadn’t had to come all the way to Korea to learn that lesson the hard way, but I’m glad I know now to never take a teacher for granted again.