I used to think that heading to the first day of school was a nerve-wracking experience. I am reminded of a memory in which I am hurrying down the street of a suburban neighbourhood in Nova Scotia, frantically walking to keep up with my mother as we head to the school. We are late, as is customary in our family. My red book-bag bounces, shoulder straps digging into my skin as we run up the long street that leads to the school. It can’t believe that it has been almost 22 years since that day.
And now here I am, in a small classroom in Seoul, the capital city of an empire that has spanned millennia. As I look around the room it is slowly hitting me again and again that this is my classroom. Not as a student, but as a teacher.
Anyone who has been here can tell you that teaching your first class is a strange and surreal experience. My first class was yesterday. On the walk to the school I was strangely calm, despite a mild case of nervous cramps. It seemed that perhaps my body was more nervous than my mind, or perhaps it’s just not accustomed to waking so early in the morning. Classes do not start until ten in the morning, but I am up at six, sucking back instant coffee and pouring repeatedly over my teacher’s handbook.
At a pre-class meeting with the director and the owner of the school, there is a knock at the door. Apparently, a car has hit someone outside on the street in front of the school. There are a few moments of panic, and the owner of the school leaves to see what happened as we all fear the worst: was it a student?
The good news? No, it wasn’t.
The bad news? It turns out that there were actually two people hit by a car who were riding a motorcycle down the street. Those two people also happen to be the only two experienced teachers at the school. We are told that they are fine, aside from requiring a few stitches, but that they would have to go to the police station to give a statement about the accident. The first day, and we three new teachers are on our own.
Surprisingly, we survive. The children file into the room and greet me with enthusiastic smiles and emphatic giggles. They remember me from a week ago when I observed their class being taught by my predecessor. The day rushes past, and the next thing I know I’m walking down the street, exhausted but surprised with how easily I am able to get down on the level of seven-year-olds. Anyone who knows me, I suppose, would probably explain this is perhaps because I still have the attention span of a seven-year-old. I don’t doubt that it’s true. But at least now, in this strange country far from home, I have found a place where that’s okay.