After hastily downing some curry and rice during an abbreviated lunch period, we all sat down for three more hours of festivities.
First came some entertaining teacher vs. student competitions. Some competed for the most consecutive double rope jumps. Others had to identify mystery objects through touch alone (like slimy squid or squishy tofu).
I myself volunteered for a water drinking contest. This is a bit of a forte of mine, having acquired a reputation for drinking 8 liters of water during school hours alone.
However, a change of programming put me outside of my element. Water drinking was out. Instead, I had to choose a random glass of dark liquid to drink. One was pure Coca-Cola. The others were a bastardized hybrid of cola and soy sauce.
Three sips later, my lips puckered in defeat.
“How does it taste?” asked one mic-wielding student.
“Ja-yo!” (salty) I replied.
Many laughed. Students always get a kick when I practice Korean.
The rest of the night consisted of students singing songs and performing dances. Many performances surprised me. Some of the quieter students belted out songs with beautiful gusto. I may need to re-think some of my lessons for potential sing-song elements.
I only see these students once a week for 50 minutes to study and practice one skill – speaking English. It can be easy to forget that these students have diverse interests and other subject strengths outside of my class. Watching students skillfully singing, playing piano, strumming a guitar, or banging drums gave me a newfound appreciation of their well-rounded talents.
The next morning, I read a reminder on my phone.
GO TO THE BANK.
I needed cash to participate in the student-run booths on Friday morning. I fondly remember this part of the festival last year as a prime opportunity to interact with students, create fun brick-a-brack for my office and classroom (such as a dreamcatcher) and simply bask in the glow of students’ smiles and excitement.
Although many students showed obvious signs of fatigue, spirits remained high. I bought some glow-in-the-dark glasses, gave my heart a workout in a haunted house, made a model of a Mexican pyramid, sang some karaoke, made perfume, simulated drunkenness (with brutal distortion glasses), snacked on some chicken nuggets, and even got my first tattoo.
Following lunch, the second-grade musicals began. Every class created their own production by mashing up or forming a unique take on a movie or fairy tale. Some played upon Cinderella, others took inspiration from The Bucket List. One class remade the Wizard of Oz. I was impressed by the clarity of their presentation. While I didn’t understand most of their dialogue, the costumes and props made the stories very easy to comprehend.
However, the day-and-a-half event began to take a toll. I wondered what I would make for dinner and what time the festival would end. Regardless, I was ready to leave with an upbeat and warm temperament.
That is…until the final event crushed my happy house of cards.
Two weeks before the festival, I had asked an office mate of mine if teachers were performing a dance this year. I thoroughly enjoyed last year’s experience and looked forward to the hours of exercise and camaraderie earned through tireless rehearsal.
He said he did not know. I mistook this to mean that teachers were not dancing this year.
So as a cadre of teachers shuffled onto the stage in cartoon animal suits, pins punctured my buoyant mood balloon. I leaned against the wall in deflated disappointment. There was a teacher dance after all.
I was crushed, feeling a strange mixture inside me – the heat of embarrassment and the frigidity of depression tossed my mind off-balance.
Anxious to feel useful, I stuck around after the end of the festival to clean up trash and sheepishly congratulated the teachers on a fine performance. Many students thanked me for the help, but I still felt hurt.
This hurt was not directed toward the teachers. I did not feel wronged. In fact, I sincerely believe that my exclusion was not intentional or personal. I was simply out of the communication loop. As a foreigner, it is very common to miss a lot of water cooler news.
Rather, I believe the hurt stemmed from the release of built-up bittersweet emotions. Missing out on the teachers’ dance was simply a flashpoint.
December of 2017 was an exciting time for me. I was only three months into my Korean life. Sights and sounds still carried crisp freshness. I met my misfit friends nearly every waking weekend. I was experiencing financial and personal independence that I had not known before. All of this excitement made it difficult to miss home.
Fast forward one year. Korea is no longer new and exciting, but normal and predictable. My friend group gets together once every couple of months if we are lucky. While I still enjoy independence, it is no longer a fresh feeling.
I Facetime my parents to the sight of a well-decorated house, presents waiting beneath a Christmas tree, and merrymaking friends and family adorned in the ugliest sweaters I’ve ever seen. While decorated trees and festive music are common here, Korean Christmas does not carry the same cache as it does in the west. As a result, homesickness was a larger pill to swallow compared to last year.
Moreover, sadness set in over my attachment to the Namak High School Class of 2020. It feels like yesterday that they were first-graders and my teachings legs were still growing in. Now this wonderful group of young men and women who patiently put up with my early struggles will soon matriculate into the third grade. The Suneung test will soon consume their studies. And I will never teach a class with them again.
The 2018 Namak High School Festival provided me with a roller coaster of emotions. At some moments I felt on top of the world taking in students’ cheers and high-fives. At other times, disappointment and homesickness consumed my thoughts.
However, at 27 years old, I can be grateful. In my early 20s, I could never conceive of the ability to evaluate my own feelings with such honesty and compassion. Today, the willingness to fearlessly contend with my emotions gives me overwhelming optimism for the future.
As the curtain draws shut on 2018, I can only hope 2019 gives me the lessons, experiences, and courage need to continue growing and living a satisfying and fulfilling life.