8:15 am Fall has finally shown up in Chungju. Unfortunately, my fall jacket has not. I jump up and down on an open stretch of sidewalk, trying to keep warm while I wait for my ride. The parade of mittened school children give me funny looks as they pass. So do their parents. You’d think they’d be used to a dancing Westerner on their street corner by now.
My co-teacher for the day pulls up in his battered white car. “Erin,” he says as I get in, “I have something to tell you. There are some changes to the schedule today for the students’ teeth.”
And so my day begins, cold and confusing.
It’s customary to stop in the teacher’s room at the beginning of the school day to bow to the vice principal. Sometimes, there’s a plate of snacks on the low coffee table at the center of the room, usually chestnuts or melon slices. Today its boiled sweet potatoes, and the other teachers urge me to stay and eat.
I sit awkwardly on the sofa with a half peeled potato in one hand and a too-hot cup of tea in the other. The teachers sit around me gnawing on their potatoes and chatting in Korean. Every now and then I hear my name, generally accompanied by giggles.
One woman—the most confident with her English—leans over and tells me, “Erin, the teachers are worried about you losing weight.” Whether I’m losing too much or not dropping it fast enough I don’t know, because the vice principal cuts in authoritatively.
“Erin,” the female teacher says, “We will change schedules today. Instead of second period, you will teach sixth grade for first period.”
“Ah,” I say, glancing at the clock. First period starts at 9:00. It’s 9:04. Time to get grooving.
I arrive out of breath at the sixth grade classroom, balancing my tea on a stack of papers and cds.
The classroom is empty.
This is that special, quiet, reflective time of the morning where I dash pellmell through the empty halls in search of my students.
I find them in the library.
The head teacher arrives to tell me class is cancelled because the students have an examination. I should just wait in the library.
I am asked to leave the library, since it turns out that’s where the examination will take place. I should wait in the teacher’s room.
Still waiting. I’ve got lesson planning done through next week Tuesday. This suits me fine, though the silence in here is unnerving. I hadn’t even realized that I talk to myself until the vice principal started looking at me over her glasses.
Apparently, I’m teaching now.
My daily exchange with the lunch ladies is the most Korean I will speak all day.
“An-nyeong.” (Hello) “Kam-sa-ham-ni-da” (Thank you) “Anio, anio, no, I don’t need any more dried anchovies. No, really. Ah ok, well, thank you. Kam-sa-ham-ni-da.”
I take a place at the teacher’s table and spin the lunch tray so that the rice and soup bowl face me. This is the correct way to eat in Korea, with the main dishes closest. From the far side of the tray, the anchovies are staring at me.
“Erin, you should eat these. They are good for your bones,” my co-teacher scolds me lightly when they’re still there at the end of the meal (well, all but one—my rule is to try everything on the tray). She scoops them up with chopsticks as easily as if using a spoon and crunches them down.
After some conversation, I discover that the kids’ examination this morning hasn’t been a test. It was a cavity check. Apparently, a dentist has come to school to check the students’ teeth and lecture them on oral health. This explains why, for perhaps the first time in recorded history, my fourth graders actually declined candy. Usually, they hold me down and frisk me for it.
The third graders are frisky today, and I’m getting hoarse. They’ve basically mastered the vocabulary for this lesson; they just can’t do it sitting down. I’ve abandoned our clock-reading activity for a round of What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? I’m the Fox for the first round, so the kids can see how it works. I call out the times and they step closer and closer and…
They scream and run away, sliding sockfoot across the tile floor as I chase after to tag a new Fox. It’s at this highly professional moment that the door opens and my co-teacher looks in.
“Uh, everyone sit down,” I tell the kids, who of course don’t understand a word I say and continue to ricochet around the room while I jog over to the door.
“Erin,” my co-teacher politely refrains from commenting on the fact that my classroom looks like a panic scene from a Godzilla movie. “You will need to do an English class for the staff this afternoon.”
“Um, ok, sure. What time?”
They say that the most valuable trait for a Guest English Teacher in Korea is flexibility. I’m at the point where I can drop into the splits on command. In dress pants.
“No problem,” I tell him and return to the fray.
“Erin. Time to go home.”
“Ok.” I crawl under the desk to retrieve an errant birdie. Badmitton is extremely popular in Korea these days, and it’s well-suited to the office. My officemate clears away our cookie wrappers while I put away the paddle rackets. We shut down our computers and grab our coats.
At the main entrance, we stop at a case of wooden cubbies to switch our school ‘slippers’ for street shoes. Outside, my co-teacher is already in the car, waiting on me. I bow farewell to the other teachers and climb in the passenger side.
“How was your day?” he asks solicitously as he wrenches the car into drive and zooms out onto the narrow country roads that will lead us back to Chungju.
“Oh, you know,” I say, gripping the armrest as he spins around a corner. “Pretty normal, all things considered.”