Friday, July 11, 2014

An Anniversary

The music teacher sits down next to me as I scan the newspaper for words I can identify. She smiles, and I put the newspaper down. Here we go again -- how uncomfortable will she make me this time?
The music teacher likes to practice her English with me, and I usually welcome being her language partner. The problem is that the subjects of our conversations always, somehow, veer into awkward territory. She asks me every time why I don't have a girlfriend, for one. She likes to tell me about her various experiences with choirs and music conferences around the world -- and then wants to see videos of my own high school choir performances. She is comfortable telling me about times when she has been depressed, but I squirm in my seat because this is not the kind of small talk I'm used to. Once, over lunch, she told me that I was 예뻐요. I turned to my co-teacher.

"Doesn't that mean 'pretty'?"
"Well, yes," my co-teacher replied. "Is the word 'pretty' not used for males?"
"Generally, no," I said.
"In this case, actually, it can mean something more like 'cute'. The way a grandmother would call her grandson 'cute'."
I stared.
"In the United States, do men not like being called 'cute'?" she asked.
"Well, not if they're twenty-three years old," I answered curtly.
My co-teacher translated this back for the music teacher, and they laughed. I ignored them.
Today, the music teacher wants to talk about Haeinsa; all the faculty know that I visited it the other day. I tell her that it was very pretty and very peaceful. "You know, I used to work at a high school near Haeinsa," she begins. This legitimately piques my interest. She tells me two stories about the small high school where she taught piano, music, and folk dance in the late eighties.
This high school had around one hundred and fifty students, and several of them were orphans who were being raised by the monks of Haeinsa or students who otherwise did not live with their parents.

The student she remembers most was one of the class captains. He was a smart and hard-working student. A bookish kid who was always reading. He was being cared for by the monks of the temple, and although his background was a difficult one, it looked to all as if he had a bright future ahead of him.

One day, the student went missing. They found him many days later at the end of a rope in the woods.
"He was a student who had many thoughts," says the music teacher. "He thought too much. He was depressed."

I want to ask her why she is telling me this, but she continues with her second story.
Her favorite student was the son of divorced parents. His mother had lived in the United States, and his father came from a rich family. For many reasons, the wife and the mother-in-law did not get along, but the one who was left worst off by the split was the child. He was sent to live with his aunt near Haeinsa, and he was not given a cent from his rich father. Everyone assumed that he had enough savings in a bank account somewhere to be able to buy all the required textbooks, but he didn't and he couldn't, and he was punished for not meeting their expectations.

One day, the son learned that his mother had returned to Korea and was coming to take him away. They were going to go to the United States for good. He left willingly.
"I still keep in touch with my old student," the music teacher tells me. "He lives in Seattle. He is now a taekwondo master and just received a degree in theology. So he is a pastor and a master. And he still knows the folk dances that I taught him when he was in high school."

I subtly glance at the clock. It is almost 1:30pm, when the bell signalling the end of the lunch period normally rings. "I have a friend who is moving to Seattle. Maybe when he gets there, he can meet your old student," I say brightly.

"And when are you leaving?" she asks.

"At the end of July. First, I will travel to Seoul. Then, I will fly out of Korea in early August."

"I used to live in Seoul..." she muses. A third story begins.
She used to live in Seoul, until she graduated from high school. Then, her family moved to Daegu, because her father was a colonel in the army. But then her father developed cancer. He drank too much. He was in great pain toward the end of his life. "I want to die, I want to die," he would shout in his bed. It was a sorrowful time.

The music teacher was in the middle of class one day when the principal interrupted and told her that her family was on the line. It was her mother, delivering the news: aboji had passed. At that moment, she had a vision of her father, no longer in pain but smiling and waving down toward her. "Goodbye, my daughter," he said.
"At the very end, he became a Christian," the music teacher confides in me. "So he went to heaven. And then they gave full military honors at his funeral -- I've told you about my father's funeral before, haven't I? He was cremated. At that time, the yellow flowers were in full bloom, and they were beautiful, but I didn't care. I was too sad. My mother was too sad. But now, it's okay."

The clock reads 1:35pm, but the bell hasn't rung, and then I remember that the final exam schedule is different from usual. I don't know how much longer I will be here.

"Death," says the music teacher, her eyes bright, "is a great sadness." She looks into my eyes and pauses.

"Do you remember what happened at our school one year ago?"
One year ago, one of our students committed suicide by leaving the study hall at night and jumping out of the fourth-story window next to the environmental science classroom.
I look at the music teacher with the most emotionless stare I can manage, because what I really want so say is, "How dare you talk to me about this?"

I want to say, "Of course I remember. I was haunted by it for months."
I want to say, "The minute you started sharing about your student at your old school near Haeinsa I prayed to God that it wouldn't lead to this."
I want to say, "Can you feel how uncomfortable I am right now? Because I feel very uncomfortable right now."
I want to say, "I have no desire to continue this conversation."

Instead, I say, "Yes, I remember." I push my discomfort down into nothingness, and I nod solemnly.

Taking this cue, the music teacher continues. "The environmental science teacher was in pain for a very long time," she says. Physical pain resulting from emotional trauma. How could she teach in a space darkened by such tragedy?

"But recently, she has changed the hallway. Have you seen it?" I shake my head, still in disbelief at where our conversation has ended up, but my curiosity is piqued once more.

"What do you mean, changed?"

"Let's go. I'll show you."

As we walk up the stairs, I tell the music teacher that I rarely venture up to the fourth floor from the realm of the English department on the third. She mentions something about there being more natural light on the top floor, as the ceiling is made of glass. We pass the music classroom, then turn left into the science wing.

Everything is green. The hallway and the classrooms have been painted a pastel shade of new pine shoots. Along the walls, workers are installing hexagonal shelves, like carbon rings or honeycombs, upon which small potted plants sit. And at the end of the hall, there is life. Pink flowers in planters are arranged in a neat row on the windowsill. Two plants with long hanging tendrils are suspended from the ceiling in front of the windows, although they don't completely obscure the long metal bars that were recently installed across them. Beneath the window are more honeycomb shelves, filled with books, students' artwork, and models of birds in flight.

The stairwell to the left of this space has been converted into a gallery for the students' environmental science projects: posters, paintings, books, and even a board game that one team of first-year students created. Half of the windows are now covered by display cases, but the stairwell is still full of light and color. One year ago, it was desolate.

"This was part of the environmental science teacher's healing process," the music teacher says to me as I silently take it all in. "She wanted to change it from a sad place to a place where students will want to come."

I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything at all.

I don't know what to feel.

"She told us at the last teachers' meeting that she wanted to send a message to our student. Although he's gone, maybe he can still hear it." The music teacher nods at the model birds. "And she wanted to say, 'You're flying now, aren't you? You're okay now, aren't you?'" A message of hope and light.

건호야, 지금 괜찮지?
I never knew about this place. I never knew exactly which windowsill it was where he placed his slippers and his wallet before opening the window and flying away. And I have never had a reason to go to the fourth floor to find out. But now I know, because the environmental teacher decided to reclaim and to transform, and because the music teacher wanted to show me. It was never her intent to make me uncomfortable, but I am grateful that she did.

Now I know, and I will visit again before I fly out.

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