You Never Forget Your First Farewell

As the world descends into physical distancing, handwashing, panic, and pandemic, mid-February feels like several lifetimes ago.

And yet the end of my first six-month teacher-training program etched memories on my mind that will last a lifetime.

I still remember the aching awkwardness as I started work at the Institute.  The previous class of 16 Korean English teachers was cruising toward the program’s close  My first taste of working with teachers came from shadowing a topic-based conversation session with another instructor.  As trainees drew “what if” cards and laughed and anguished over tough choices, I could do nothing but sit in passive, vigilant silence – perked up with the on-edge feeling of a trespasser.

But then my predecessor was free of her contract, and I was on my own.

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That was then.  This is now.

That night, the tenured instructors left for dinner and a “Farewell Night” while I sat at my computer, head swirling from a humdinger of imposter syndrome.

Fast-forward six months.  My green feelings yellowed like leaves on a water-impoverished rubber tree.  Imposterism slowly muted into the background, replaced by a healthy sense of striving.

The overflow of emotions I witnessed at the closing ceremonies of the previous program six months ago once seemed excessive.  I had little idea of the connection that would develop between a team of instructors and a cadre of trainees in the course of just half a year.  I soon realized that the title “6-Month Intensive Workshop” implies more than just intensive English practice and methodology instruction.

We’ve shared volumes of laughter as trainees unleash their inner children in improv warm-up activities.  I’ve been frustrated to no end as trainees take discussions down rabbit holes so far from the class topic so to seem intentional.  I’ve struggled to mediate and ameliorate trainees’ workload concerns as we worked on speaking and listening activity demonstrations.  And we’ve shared deep moments of understanding as I push myself to match their effort level in class – often staying as late as 8:30 at night finishing lesson plans, reading articles, or providing feedback in the form of voice notes.

In short, working with high-level adults has challenged, yet rewarded me to a point that rises above description.

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About as challenging as making everyone open their eyes for a damn photo.

So after fuming in awkwardness six months prior, my first “Farewell Night” arrived.

At Farewell Night, the night activity roles flip.  While us instructors are usually responsible for planning and organizing social and culturally-themed evening events, the trainees take charge of the final night of the program.

I felt great pride and refreshment sitting back and watching trainees turn our own classroom management and instructional techniques against us.

“I say ‘go’, you say ‘get it’!'”

“Go!”

“Get it!”

“Go!”

“Get it!”

A flurry of quiz games, hurricane musical chairs, and traditional Korean games preceded a chicken and pizza social.  We even got complimentary birthday hats to commemorate the occasion.  Pictures and hugs proliferated.

And the night was only half-finished.

After signing the overtime book to claim supplementary pay for partying, half of the trainees joined us instructors for a beer-fueled afterparty.

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Enough pictures!  Let’s go!

As many of you can attest, nothing allows personalities to leak beyond dammed-up facades than a few drinks.

One trainee shared the heartwarming tale of how she met her husband through their university’s Buddism Club.  He showed her the underlying principles and practices of Buddhism complete with meditation and tea-drinking ceremonies before leaving for mandatory military service.

Yet they remained in touch through regular letters (the only reliable form of communication at the time) and married shortly after his two-year commitment expired.  To this day, they ritualistically share tea together each morning they are together.

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She was one of my favorites.  Aw hell, they were all my favorites in their own way!

While some trainees are prone to sharing heartwarming nostalgia under the influence, others tend toward talking shit.

“Ian!  You are such a nerd!”

“Why are you so pure?  You should be more naughty with the trainees.”

If only she knew…

Sometimes I find great humor in trainees’ unintentional innuendo through the misuse of prepositions or vocabulary words.  For example, one trainee spoke about Italian guys treating her and her sister “with lovely care”, to which another woman responded.

“I’m pretty sure they just did nice things to you because you are pretty.”

I could spin an educational monologue out of the subtle difference between doing things “to someone” and doing things “for someone”, but I was like five beers deep at that point.

The following morning, as I nursed my way out of a hangover with coffee and water, the closing ceremonies arrived.  One trainee forewarned me that many tears were shed in a prior meeting.

Whatever.  It doesn’t matter to me.

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Emotions, tears, and smiles ruled the day.

Oh, how wrong was I?  As photo slideshows resurfaced accumulated memories from classtime, American culture night, bowling, workshops on Jeju Island, and Homeroom Communities, unintelligible emotions constricted my chest and wetted my eyes.

I then received a teddy bear and a personalized certificate of commendation.  My certificate carried the title of 지박령 – a Korean word that roughly translates to “the ghost that haunts the building at late hours” – a tender nod to my low-grade functional workaholism.

When the ceremony concluded, the faucets opened.  I made my own gift for each trainee – laminated limericks and pictures we had taken together.  One trainee read his poem and teared up immediately.  We hugged.

“I’m sorry for being so emotional.  Thank you for everything.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for.”

I hugged each trainee in turn, and we all took a group photo – many of us with reddened and leaking eyes.  But not me.

Maybe it was pride.  Maybe it was toxic masculinity.  Maybe it was an overcommitment to professionalism.  Regardless, I choked back my words and blocked my tears.  The constriction in my chest gave me all I could handle.

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Personalized teddy bears – one of the best gifts I’ve received in recent memory.

After lunch, the trainees returned to their schools and the Institute descended into a deafening silence.  I took the time to vacuum and Swiffer my classroom, until Without Me by Halsey came on my playlist – a song that played in the background of Farewell Night.

And I finally cracked, planting myself on my couch, clutching my new teddy bear, and letting the tears streak down my cheeks.  The overwhelming emotions finally began to take a definite (if not multifaceted) shape.

I felt sad to say goodbye to 14 teachers that I spent so much time laughing, arguing with, and learning from.

I felt exhausted from the long hours I put in to put forth a quality class.

But most of all, I felt a profound sense of accomplishment.  I can unflinchingly say that I put everything I had into this program.  I “left everything on the field.”  And the whole time, I wondered if it was worth it.

The tearful goodbyes I witnessed all morning was all the validation I needed.  My effort made an impact.  I did something of value to others – the gold standard of human achievement.

A new program has already begun – a program fraught with new challenges brought on by unprecedented circumstances.  And now I find a new kind of joy in the novelty of starting again – more on that later.

But finishing my first program has given me the first cover-to-cover taste of an intensive teacher-training workshop.  And I am addicted.

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Until we meet again, I hope you are all healthy and strong through this era of uncertainty :).

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