As a Fulbrighter to South Korea, my primary responsibility was teaching English to middle school boys. Most of the boys had never met a non-Korean person before and were curious to learn more about me. There was little time during the school day to have informal conversations, but some sent notes to me in the teachers’ office to ask about my hobbies and interests. I remember one in particular thought it was “so wonderful!” that I was assigned to his school. He was excited to learn English from someone who spoke the language fluently.
One event when I did enjoy some informal time with my students was the end-of-the-school-year picnic. The entire school population—students, teachers, and administrators—traveled to a mountain park where we spent the day playing games, eating homemade food, and enjoying unstructured time. The photo I’ve attached is one I took during this picnic. I love the expressions on the boys’ faces—especially the one so absorbed in his video game that he couldn’t be bothered to look at the camera! Many teenage traits truly are the same throughout the world.
A boy who’s not pictured is one I formed a unique bond with. He lived in an apartment downstairs from where I lived with my first homestay family, and we sometimes gave him a ride to school. He was in the same class as one of my homestay brothers in the school where I taught. This boy had developmental delays and was nonspeaking, yet he was integrated into mainstream classes. Whenever I walked into his classroom, he was unable to contain his emotions and let out enthusiastic grunts and moans. His classmates tried to shush him, but I asked them to let him be. I simply acknowledged him by walking up to him, putting my hand on his shoulder, and holding his hand. This recognition was enough to calm him, after which my teaching could proceed.
One day, when we were on the way to school, he became intrigued by my nose. I was sitting next to him on the back seat, and he started poking the tip of my nose and then giggling, so I returned the gesture. This little game continued for the entire ride to school that day. As we emerged from the car, he spontaneously took hold of my hand, and as we walked up the path to the front of the school building, we continued holding hands. As I often did when walking into school, we drew an audience, and on this day, there was much pointing and gasping at our clasped hands. I’m not sure if the other students were jealous that this boy got to hold the American teacher’s hand, or if they were surprised that I didn’t mind the attention of a person with developmental delays. In either case, it’s an event I will never forget, because in that moment, that boy’s and my common humanity and desire for connection overtook our differences to achieve mutual understanding.
Karen P. Peirce – Fulbright to South Korea 1993