Saying goodbye is something that everyone has to do a lot of in life, but still somehow feels uniquely painful. I still haven’t gotten good at it, but I’ve gotten used to it. I said a lot of goodbyes when I left for college. Then when I started teaching English I became good friends with a lot of people who were only planning to be in the country for a semester or two at most and so I got used to saying goodbye to them as they all eventually left to go back to their countries. Then I graduated and left college which brought with it its own set of goodbyes. Six months back in my hometown with my family before more goodbyes and a move to Korea.
I have been in Korea for three years now. At my school, with my kids, and in my little apartment for three years. In a lot of ways that doesn’t sound long. I was in college for longer. But in these three years I have learned so much and changed in so many subtle ways that thinking about that version of myself who arrived in Incheon airport three years ago seems like a completely different person to me. Someone I barely recognize.
Before I came to Korea I worried about a lot of things. Would I really be able to learn the language, would I be able to navigate living and working in another culture, would my co-workers respect me, would the kids like me, would I even like this job? I haven’t thought about those worries in a long long time.
But last Monday, on my last ever day of English Camp with a group of students that I have taught and loved for three years, I suddenly remembered those worries again.
I came in early to get ready for the last day of camp but before I could even get up the stairs to the second floor where the English classroom is I heard, “데본쌤!” “Devon Teacher!” shouted and then the thunderous footsteps of two of my girls running towards me to say, “You can’t go inside yet!” “Why not?” “You know it’s (my co-teacher)’s birthday and we – uh – want to do something for him. Yea, so we need to talk to you about it. What do you think we should do? He’s inside the classroom so you can’t go in. Let’s go to your office and talk about it.”
So they pull me away to the office where we sit and talk for a long time, nothing about my co’s birthday though, and take silly photos of each other. Eventually one of them gets a phone call and they say we can finally go up.
We get to the classroom and the door goes flying open to reveal all the students standing around a cake and singing. They had decorated the classroom, bought a rice cake cake because they know that I don’t eat flour, and all of them, even my punk boys, had written letters to me.
Upon seeing all this I promptly tossed my lesson plan away and we all sat on the ground together and ate snacks and talked and took pictures and played a few very intense games of mafia. And then we cleaned everything up, did the end of camp surveys, and they left.
And then I sat back down at my desk and pretty much spent the rest of the afternoon reading their letters over and over again and texting each of them to tell them how much it had meant to me. I’ll spare you most of the details from the letters but to see, “Teacher it must have been scary and difficult for you to adapt and teach children in another country. Thank you for always showing us the bright side. I was always happy to see you at school and I will miss you very much.” written out so clearly, I mean, that’s just it, right? That is the proof that what I tried to do and how I tried to do was enough.
And so suddenly I was reminded of those worries. Would I be able to really learn the language? Enough that I have entire relationships with students who have never spoke a word of English to me but know that I love them just as much as the ones who do. Would the kids like me? Enough to write these things out for me to treasure forever. Would I even like this job? Enough that I will carry these memories and these precious kids around in my heart forever. And know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they will remember me as someone who loved them. That is all I ever wanted. It seems silly to have worried about those things at all.
I have about 50 days left in Korea. It is going to absolutely break my heart to leave. But everything breaks my heart. I’m one of those people that can only feel big feelings and so to the extent that I was loved and I have cherished every moment here it will be equally as painful to leave. But how incredibly lucky am I to have been loved like this in a country 7000 miles away from my home? I will never never take that for granted and I will never forget every single one of their faces and the love that they gave me.
I have one more week at school in February so I will get to see them again but proper classes are over. My big kids, who I have watched become young adults over the past three years, will graduate and then that will really be goodbye. I dread it in a way, but I know that it is natural. Goodbyes are terrible but they are good at reminding us just how much we have truly loved something. And I have loved this life a lot.
Thanks for reading. For anyone else leaving soon, 화이팅! We’re gonna be okay 🙂