Goodbyes are always tough. But yesterday, during my last day as an English teacher at Ulsan Sports Science School, I experienced a whole new level of emotional farewells. Over the past year, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by wonderful coworkers and enthusiastic students, all of whom consistently went above and beyond with their generosity, kindness and sincerity to make me feel welcomed and cared for.
To explain why the day turned into such a sob fest, I should back up to a few weeks ago when the regular semester ended. On July 20th the school held a closing ceremony to mark the conclusion of the first term. It was then that I said a formal goodbye to a majority of my students, since most of them would be spending their summer vacation in training or at home, instead of taking summer classes. With a few broken Korean phrases, I tried my best to convey my gratitude and well-wishes, but ultimately I resorted to simple English. However, even then, since most of my students are very low level it was evident that the exact meaning of my words were still getting lost in translation. I’m sure they understood my sentiments, but I was sad for both of us that our final goodbye was falling somewhat flat. Especially to the students with whom I had connected despite the extreme language barrier, there was so much that I wanted to say but couldn’t. The disappointment left me feeling emotionally stunted.
Fast forwarding through three weeks of summer school camp with my two advanced classes, August 13th arrived and it was time for the last round of goodbyes. Earlier in the week I was treated to three separate dinners/lunches with my principal and coworkers, many of whom also gave me some thoughtful parting gifts. By yesterday afternoon I had thanked, hugged, and smiled at the camera with most of the teachers and staff at the school. All that remained were my first and second year advanced high school students, known as 1-3 and 2-3, respectively.
Unlike the student athletes, who are on a sports-bound track at the school, 1-3 and 2-3 students follow a curriculum that more closely reflects a regular high school/college prep focus. In general, they are stronger and more enthusiastic academically. So naturally, their overall English abilities are the highest in the school. During my year with them, I held weekly conversation clubs after lunch, gave and corrected short essays/creative writing assignments, and challenged them with open-ended projects. Because we could actually communicate, we truly got to know each other and established deeper bonds. They could tell me about their weekends, their interests, their problems, and their hopes for the future. And in return, I could share my experiences of living and traveling in Korea, ask them questions about Korean culture and make comparisons with that of America.
In preparation for our last day, I wrote each of them personal goodbye letters, thanking them for their hard work and dedication, commending their improvement and abilities with English, and wishing them all the best. Little did I know they had a few things planned for me, too. In our last class together, we made a Korean dessert called “bing-su,” which consists of frozen milk shavings topped with fruit, candy or cookies. And as each class came to a close, they dimmed the lights and presented me with two amazing farewell videos. I immediately welled up with tears both times, and by the end I was a blubbering lost cause. I fought through more tears and sniffles to thank them from the bottom of my heart and reiterate all the things I had expressed in their letters. My reaction brought out much of the same in them, so at least we were all one big sappy mess together.
Ninety-percent of those emotions were connected to them, 1-3 and 2-3 students, and the memories we made together. But the other ten percent, I think, came from all my thoughts and feelings for everyone else at the school that the language barrier had stifled 3 weeks earlier. Finally those words were being understand and received. It was just happening vicariously rather than directly.
After many group and individual hugs, I cleared the last few things from my desk, stopped by the shoe locker to change out of my slippers one final time, and headed for the door…all the while being escorted by shouts of “Teacher! Don’t forget me! I always remember you!” “Teacher! I love you!” “Teacher! Don’t go!” “Teacher! Will you marry me?!” “Teacher! You’re the best!” Through the front door, down the long row of concrete steps, and to the front entrance we went as one. Following one more wave and the biggest smile, I turned and headed down the hill to the bus stop.
Then, just as the echoes of “Goodbyeeee teacherrrr!” had faded away, a horn beeped at me from behind. It was Cho Gi Hong, the school athletic coordinator whose house I was invited to for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving/Christmas) when I first arrived last September. Given his limited English but unlimited care for me, he gestured that I should get in the car. Speeding along the highway towards town, both doing our best to converse using any and all words we know in each other’s native languages, it occurred to me what a beautiful, full-circle ending this was to the whole experience. Outside my apartment, we shared a hand-shake-turned-hug and he said to me, “I…..uhh……you……hap……happ…..happiness….happy….life.” And I said, “나도요,” which means “Me also.”
Cho Gi Hong
I don’t know when I will be back in Korea. But I do know that the value of the friendships and memories I’ve made here far outweighs the cost of any plane ticket, and to see these people again someday would be an incredible gift.
The Korean language has two expressions for goodbye: one that you say if you’re the person leaving, and another that you say if you’re the person staying. The former applies to me, so I guess it’s “안녕히 계세요” (an-nyeong-hi gye-say-yo), Korea. 감사합니다 그리고 우리는 다시 마날때 까지. Thank you and until we meet again…
Ulsan Sports Science Secondary School
First year high school student athletes
Thoughtful goodbye messages from 2-3 students, preceding individual handwritten letters.
2-3 students: (top row, left to right) Sol, Chae-won, Hyeon-ji, Min-ha, me, Yu-gyeong, Shin-yeong, Da-ye, Cheong-hyeon, Yu-bin, Wu-seok; (middle row, left to right) Hae-na, Seok-jun, Min-seok, Dae-yu; (bottom row, left to right) Min-jin, Han-na, Eun-bin, Hye-jin, Seung-hye, Yu-bin, Ju-heon. Not pictured: Gyeong-do and Geon-yeong.
2-3 girls, most of whom attended conversation club with me every Monday after lunch for 30 minutes. We’d talk about everything from America culture to what music, movies or books we like. When the weather was nice, instead of talking inside we took walks around the track or sat on the balcony that overlooked the nearby coastal town and far-off ocean.
2-3 boys, all of whom are practically professional soccer players. I played sports with 1-3 and 2-3 classes each week for an hour to informally practice English, and whenever we played soccer (which is not my strong suit) they were always very gentle and took it easy on me…but never held back with each other, which was really fun to see. We also played ultimate frisbee, t-ball, kickball, badminton and floorball.
Sel-ca (selfie) with 2-3 girls: Yu-bin, Hae-na and Yu-gyeong. Yu-bin is an excellent badminton player who has won several regional competitions. Hae-na wants to be a motivational speaker when she grows up. Her nickname is “Penguin.” Yu-gyeong made an excellent “how-to” video about getting a make-over this year!
Da-ye, a somewhat shy but very sweet and hardworking student. She’s also a great artist. As a goodbye present, she drew a portrait of my and my co-teacher, Kim Gyeong-A. It was great!
Hye-jin wants to be a singer/model when she grows up…or a PE teacher. She has a great sense of humor and always had a positive attitude.
Han-na, a talented dancer, she choreographed several performances with her friends for various school celebrations.
Sol, she has excellent speaking skills and is very sweet. She was one of the first students I met when I arrived. As I was leaving that first day, she stopped me in the hallway and straight-up asked in her soft, gentle voice, “Do you remember my name?” Of course I had met many students that day, so I had to admit that I didn’t. She kindly told me again and I never forgot it since.
Eun-bin, possibly my most-improved student from the year. At first she was very shy and afraid to speak, but together we developed her confidence and she quickly became one of my most talkative students. My desk was right next to the copy machine, and whenever she came to the office to make copies she always said hello and had a new question to ask me. By the end of the year we had fallen into a little ritual whenever we saw each other. I’d ask her, “How are you?” and with a sheepish smile she’d say, “I’m always fine.” I think we both found it funny because the whole “How are you? I’m fine thank you, and you?” spiel is so text-book and silly. Plus at the high school level, they’re expected to manage a slightly more advanced response. So whenever we’d see each other and say our respective lines, we often shared a knowing smile too.
1-3 students: (top row, left to right) Jun-wu, Jae-yeong, me, In-nae, Min-ji, Su-in, Gyul-li, Eun-yeong; (2nd from top row, left to right) Jin-hyeok, Jun-wu, Da-yeon, Lee-jeong, Eun-seong; (3rd from top row, left to right) Jun-seok, Min-su, Jin-wu, Chang-hwan; (bottom row, left to right) Chang-min, Ji-yeong, Min-hyeok. Not pictured: Ga-hyeon, Da-eun, Bo-bin, Jin-hun, Jun-yeong and Seong-Jin.
Jun-wu making bing-su
The finished product
Jeong Chang Min, a very outgoing and hardworking young guy. On our first day of meeting he told me to call him MJ, short for “Michael Jordan.” A big basketball fan, he’s also a really gifted English student.
Kim Bu-Geon, a 2nd year middle school student athlete with special needs. In the beginning of the year he would barely make eye contact with me, but by the end he would should “Hello!” and wave from across the crowded lunchroom. We played badminton together several times, and once or twice rode the bus home together.
Kim Gyeong-A, my primary co-teacher for the year and also the busiest, most hardworking person I’ve ever known. Not only does she know every colloquial English expression, she’s also a very kind, patient, passionate teacher. I’m pretty sure she was the first one in and the last one out at school every day, because in addition to her teaching responsibilities she was also the head of the school PR department, which included communicating with partnership schools in Singamore, the US and the UK.
Sin Myeong-Jun, probably the most memorable student from my year in Korea. A second year middle schooler, we unfortunately only had first semester together (since the class schedule didn’t have time for me 2nd semester). Besides being an active participant in class, Myeong-Jun always stopped to talk to me in the halls, looking at me with this glint of excitement/curiosity in his eye. Our best memory together though was racing down the slopes at the school ski trip in December. The winner had to buy the loser hot chocolate. We went for 5 rounds and he bested me on the last one, but we still split the cost of drinks and snacks afterward. Such a fun day and a really special kid.
Chu Hyeon-Suk, whose English name is Linda, is the head coach for the swimming program. She regularly attended my head coaches English class along with Jeon Jeong Seon, the gymnastics/archery head coach. Linda treated me to dinner several times during the year, and took me to two memorable sights in Ulsan that I’d said I wanted to see/do: the Lotte ferris wheel overlooking the heavy industries area, and Mun-su mountain. She also gave me rides home sometimes and always asked how I was doing.
Kim Jeong-Seo, high school math teacher and semi-regular attendant of the conversation club I held with school staff. Especially in the second semester, we developed the unintentional habit of wearing matching clothes. All the time. I swear we had at least 4 or 5 of the same or very similar shirts, and we always wore them on the same day without even trying. We’d board the elevator from the parking lot in the morning, take one look at each other up and down, and then laugh. So of course, when this picture was taken on my last day, WE MATCHED AGAIN! (GO BLUE!)
Ms. Kim, the office coordinator. Her limited English never got in the way of her being friendly and caring. She gave me rides home a few times and always helped me with computer/internet/printing problems.
Lee Min-Soon and Yun Seong-Jin (1-3 student). Lee Min-Soon picked me up on her way to school every day and often drove me home as well (since it’s a 45+ minute commute by bus and the bus only comes every 90 minutes). She was a HUGE help in getting everything done before I left Korea, so to repay her kindness I gave her a $50 gift certificate to the Busan Aquarium, a place she often likes to go to with her 4 year-old son.
Kim Myeong-Hi, very kind and friendly high school geography teacher with impressive English skills. Outside of teacher conversation club we’d get together after lunch and walk around the track, or if we both had a few free periods we’d sneak away with some other teachers to get coffee at a nearby shop. She also invited me to her house for dinner twice.