“Teacher, what is “die?”
I stop my science lecture on living vs. non-living things, and turn to the innocent wide eyes of the five-year-old who has not yet learned this powerful little English word.
“거푸집,” answers her friend, Amy, who is busily coloring the legs of the spider on her worksheet into six of the seven rainbow colors because she doesn’t like the color green.
I quickly glance back to Crystal and see her face go solemn. “I don’t like die. I will not die.”
I can see the fear in her face.
“Crystal, everyone will die. All living things will die. Spiders, dogs…and people. All people will die. Even me. Even you.”
“My grandpa died.” Chris joins the conversation. “He died because he was old, but now he is in…” His brow furrows as he looks for a word that does not yet exist in his vocabulary. He turns to Ian. “천국 in English, what is it?”
“Heaven,” Ian whispers back.
“Heaven. My grandpa is in heaven now.”
Crystal’s eyes have been following her classmates, but now they turn to me. “Do people really go to heaven after they die?”
She will believe anything I tell her. Completely. Because she knows I will never lie to her.
“Yes. People really go to heaven. And when you die, you can go there, too, and be with all your family and friends again.”
Crystal smiles. “Teacher? I am happy.”
I still see their faces. All of them. They run through my dreams. They stare out of the eyes of the little neighbor boy I babysit, though his round eyes are the color of seafoam, and theirs are almond, and glowing like black coals full of hidden fire. And sometimes, sitting in church and hearing a word like “heaven,” a whole conversation comes back to me, a tingling memory that hurts from my chest down to my stomach in the way that only missing and longing can hurt.
For a whole year, I think was collecting those kids. Collecting their smiles and their tears. Collecting their hugs. Collecting their pain and making it mine.
“Teacher, I cried on the bus today.”
“Oh, no! Why?”
“Because I was sad because last night Daddy came home and he was angry and outside and Mom outside too and yelling, and Mom go to her room and I hear her cry many tears. And her face red where he hit. But they didn’t know I hear, and I only cried on the bus.”
And even now, 7,000 miles away, I still want to make their lives perfect, so that Amy never has to tell that story again.
But I can’t, and so I try to remember their laughter instead, because I’ve collected that and made it mine, too. I still grin when I think about the Christmas concert on my last day in Korea. The kids had all just gotten to take turns sitting on Santa’s lap, where he gave each of them a stocking with a present inside. Crystal, lacking any degree of patience or self-control, had already torn open the wrapping and forgotten about the gift. But then I heard a little giggle, which started growing louder. I turned to look, and saw that she had taken off her shoe and put her foot into the stocking like a sock.
“Look, Teacher! STOCKING!” And she chortled and laughed, and danced on her one-stockinged foot, until I pulled out my camera. “Teacher, nooooo!” she yelled, yanking the stocking off, and hiding it behind her back, still laughing, the dimples in her cheeks deep, her eyelashes vibrating with delight.
Or Chris, perhaps more carefree and wide-eyed of any of them, hiding under the table in the corner, waiting for me to enter the room.
“Where’s Chris?” I say.
A very solemn-faced boy answers me. “Teacher, he didn’t come today. He is very sick.”
“Yes, Teacher, so sick. He has to go to the hospital.”
I hear the laughter coming from under the table. Slowly, I peer below, where I see Chris curled up on the floor, covering his traitorous mouth with both hands, muted giggles still spilling from his lips.
He jumps up laughing, and launches himself into my arms.
There were a lot of things I expected when I decided to move to Korea for a year. There were a lot of things I planned on. I planned on the adventure, on falling in love with the wildness of the country. I planned on my job being just a job, a means to the end of exploring Asia.
I remember the day when I found a school administrator scolding one of my kids who was hiccupping uncontrollably, completely unable to respond. The manager got more and more frustrated and kept yelling at her to stop. I went in and took Stella away from the manager, picked her up, held her, and waited for the hiccups to break into the sobs I knew would come, which eased into silent tears, which dried against my neck. It was that day that I realized that those kids would never leave me. The realization shook me. When I saw the manager scolding Stella, I thought, Judy, that discipline would work with Crystal, but not with her. It was then that I realized how well I knew my kids—that I knew why each one cried, and how to make them stop. That I knew which jokes would be funny to Amy, but would be lost on Andrew. I never planned on that. I never planned on these kids being the best part of my year. It was then that I realized that I had indeed fallen in love with Korea. But not in the way I expected.
But I was not always so good a teacher, and those kids were not always heaven. On many days, those seventeen kids were my hell. They raked me over Diablo’s coals. They made me cry in anger and frustration. And they made me yell—something I swore I would never do to a child.
Sometime during the first few months, before my younger class knew enough English to communicate with me, we were doing a craft project, and I passed out papers and scissors to all the kids. Ten minutes later, I was frantically rushing around, trying to help them cut out circles—a very tricky shape when you’re three years old.
But one little girl, Helena, didn’t need any help cutting.
By the time I noticed her turned sideways in her chair, scissors in hand, it was too late. She and the girl next to her were playing “beauty salon,” and the floor was littered with long strands of Sarah’s hair.
No, she didn’t need help at all. She was a pro.
Another time, we were doing phonics. Or we were supposed to. But Jake didn’t like phonics. And he didn’t like sitting. And he didn’t really like school all that much. What he did like was running.
He also liked climbing. With friends. Before I knew what was happening, ten kids were running amuck in the small classroom, Jake separating the three segments of the table, pushing them over from beneath, as a train of kids strung along the length of a jump rope dodged table pieces and imitated, as loudly as they could, every animal sound they knew.
I couldn’t even hear my own yelling above the noise.
But the deepest hell, the one that lived and grew inside of me, was one that didn’t pass at the end of a long, hard day. It was the hell that lived in my heart when they were cruel to each other. It was the hell I waded through when they lied, when I had to teach them how to be good people because their parents were working 60 hours a week and didn’t have the time. It was the hell I lived in when they drove me to be someone I didn’t want to be, when I found myself angry, impatient, frustrated, harried, and unsympathetic. When I found myself causing tears, and realized the fault was my own.
Children are these little pieces of heaven that sometimes put us through hell. But isn’t that what heaven does? Isn’t that what God does? He puts us through a hell so wide and deep that we think we’re going to drown in it, and then he comes and wraps his arms around us and smiles into our eyes and ears with such love and confidence that suddenly all is heaven again, and we recognize it, and it is worth it. Children are like little mini gods, I think. Certainly they do His work best of anyone in this busy, rushing world full of red headlines and broken static.
One minute I am so furious, and the next, little fingers brush my face, count my freckles, curl around my neck with such complete trust and adoration, that I do not know how I can possibly ever let go. And when I have to, some of the light inside of me dims, and I know that I will always miss my little holy hellions.
I stand before the crowd of moms and dads, a microphone shoved into my hands. I had not expected this. Did not know that I was expected to make a speech to the parents of my kids during their Christmas concert on my last day in Korea. Only half of them will understand what I say. And none of them can possibly know the feeling behind the words—the nuances that are never caught in a second language. So I just say the simplest truth I know.
“Thank you for your kids. I love each of them, and they have made Korea amazing for me. I know they are your kids. They’re not mine. But they feel like they’re mine. I was realizing yesterday, this year that is so permanent for me, is fleeting for them. In five, ten, fifteen years, your kids…my kids… will no longer remember me. But I—I will always remember them. And I will always love them. So, thank you.”
Here I stop, because I’m starting to cry, and the dim lights aren’t dim enough. I hand the mic to one of the Korean teachers and walk off the stage.
An hour later, I find a note on my desk, written in the hand of one of my five-year-olds.
I will remember you forever and ever.