School Festival 2018 (Part One)

At the end of December, Namak High School puts on its annual school festival.  The festival furnished fond memories last year event and I looked forward to this year’s iteration.

This year’s lead-up had a differing flavor compared to last year.  Back in December of 2017, Korea was still very new to me. The “new country smell” had yet to dissipate and the school festival was one of many cultural differences I prepared to embrace.  

During my days at Bella Vista High School, no event compared to a Korean school festival.  School dances come the closest, but even those were completely different. On the other hand, Korean high schools do not have school dances as far as I know.

Moreover, one year ago I bonded with many teachers thanks to hours of after-hours practicing a surprise dance performance.  There was no such teachers’ dance to look forward to this year.

But I could still anticipate countless photo opportunities.

So with less to prepare and more familiarity, my excitement for the school festival felt more tepid.  Those lower expectations carried me into the auditorium ten minutes late. A traditional Korean ensemble banged drums, clanged cymbals, and chanted in an enchanting meter.

“Sure, this is cool.  But it’s nothing new to me,” I thought.

But next came the first-grade class choral performances.  I settled into a seat flanking the left side of the crowd as I watched the first class approach the stage donning reindeer headbands.  One student conducted, another played piano, 27 other students sang and danced, and my jaded heart immediately melted.

I’ve seen these students once a week for a whole year.  I’ve seen them in happy moods, sad moods, so excited that they can’t keep quiet for 15 seconds, and so sleepy that I couldn’t pay them to speak up in class.  Thanks to a generous homeroom teacher and a powerful flashcard app, I learned most of their names. And when I watched each of them performing, one thought crossed my mind.

“Some of these students may piss me off from time to time, but damn it I love all of them.”

On one hand, this felt like a crazy statement. I only interact with these students once per week for 50 minutes.  How could these feelings be so strong? Why do I feel so attached? I decided much of this positive emotional groundswell came from the realization of a dream I had when I was a substitute teacher.

As a substitute, I learned invaluable lessons as an educator.  Be firm. Set strong boundaries. Praise first. Correct gently.  Don’t let them see you sweat.

Additional substitute teacher tip – light up a cigarette at the beginning of class so the students know you ain’t kidding.

But what I never experienced was the joy of relationship-building with students – the kind of connection that can only come with repeated exposure.  As a substitute, that exposure rarely exceeded one day. I was merely a passing stranger, part of a revolving door of substitute strangers.

In Korea, the situation is different.  While my role in my students’ education is minor, my presence on their class schedule integrates me into their school lives.

As I clapped, sung along, and high-fived students as they exited the stage, my heart overflowed with joy.

Next came a student radio show performance.  A facade prop included fake speakers and an “on-air” sign fashioned from Baskin Robbins to-go cases.  I wrote a teacher shoutout for the student “radio hosts” the day before and anxiously awaited my turn.

“Ian son-sang-nim…”

My ears perked up.

One host read my English message while the other translated.

“What is today?  It is Thursday. What is the date?  Today is December 20th, 2018. How is the weather?  It is cold. How do I feel? I feel happy because I can teach Namak High School students every day.  Merry Christmas.”

Students turned to me and cheered.  I smiled and made a heart with my hands.

It warmed my heart hearing other teachers’ motivational and heartfelt messages.  I didn’t understand a word of it (okay, maybe like two words), but I felt them nonetheless.

It was tough to take pictures due to the lighting.  Also because my iPhone 5 is about 85 in phone years.

Between each act or event, emcees drew slips of paper and gave gifts to random teachers and students.  I normally tune this part out and just clap for the winner. That is until…

“Ian son-sang-nim.”

What?  I won?

Students turned and gestured me toward the front of the stage.

I won!

I half-jogged, half power-walked up to the stage unsure of what was happening.

“Mwo-hae-yo?” (What is this?)

“Peace sign,” one student said.  We posed for a picture. He then handed me a wrapped gift along with my written note.

“Can you read it?”

He handed me the microphone.  I just guessed at what I was supposed to do and proceeded to recite my daily class questions.

“What is today?”

“Today is Thursday,” replied a sparse and spread group of students.

“What is the date?”

No response.

“Today is December 20th, 2019,” I self-replied.

“How is the weather?”  My voice grew into its britches.

“It’s sunny cold dusty,” many students shouted back.  They are often much better knowing the weather than the date.

“How do you feel?”  My voice rocked at full tilt.

“Happy good funny exciting,” a chorus of students responded.


And with that, I bowed, returned the mic, and returned to my seat as cheers flooded the auditorium.  It’s a rare and special moment when we can feel so loved by so many people in one small moment. As I sat down, I had to cover my eyes as I suppressed tears.

I ended up re-gifting it to a student at the end of the day.  She told me it was a kind of air freshener?

Slowly I calmed down and settled into my chair to take in students’ dance performances. Watching their hard-practiced steps while bobbing my head to the hit songs of 2018 was absorbing.  I discovered that every class period I canceled due to students “practicing for the festival” went to good use.

After the last dance, we broke for dinner.  The festival was three hours young and my spirits glided at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet.  Even though I yearned for the hours spent preparing a dance performance, I already felt thoroughly fulfilled.  And we had only just begun.

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