There were 10 curious eyes peering at me as I entered the classroom. Like a cat and mouse game, I knew the children wanted to test the waters with a new teacher. I hear rattle of Gonggi pebbles dropping on a desk. There was a snigger, the rustle of sweet wrappers and trails of whispering conversation. I picked up a stick of chalk and spelled my name with a mask of confidence, while my stomach somersaulted beneath me.
I arrived at a South Korean summer camp to teach English. Shelves of vibrant green rice paddies and rolling hills surround the school with the backdrop of a gem blue sky. The ground smoulders in the humidity of a hot summer. The heat was disorientating and I felt the concentration of the children wearing away, faster than melting ice. I felt my defensive persona strip away and realised I had to make this fun. Once the kids lose interest, I knew I would lose them for the lesson.
I ruffled through my bag and grasped a palm-sized soft football. Tossing the ball above, I heard a sharp intake of breath, suddenly all eyes were at the front of the classroom. A boy with jet black hair and a cheeky smile leans across his desk and calls out eagerly “Teacher, me!”
“What’s your name?” I asked brightly as the ball flew through the air. “My name is Jacob” he replied with a grin, throwing the ball to the next pupil. The ball circumvents around the classroom and we learn of each other’s quirks, moving from names, to favourite colours to favourite foods. “What is Bungeoppang?” I asked curiously, a favourite food named enthusiastically by the kids. There was a chorus of giggling as the pupils burst into varying explanations in Korean, relishing the opportunity to teach the teacher.
The next day, one of my students, Nigel approached me with a shy smile. He presented a crumpled paper bag. Inside is a fish shaped pastry, golden brown and decorated with inscribed scales and a beady eye. “Bungeoppang”, Nigel announced timidly. I’m completely taken aback by his gift and his kind gesture as I give him a hug.
Over the four weeks, I got to know each of the ten children in my class. I loved their personalities, keen enthusiasm and curiosity. The chance to make connections gave way to commonality and team spirit, re-affirming the fact that classrooms may be different, but education truly binds us together. Initially I didn’t know what to expect as a teacher in a foreign country, but when the time came to say our goodbyes I knew I had found a cherished local connection.