On Friday, the 24th of April, 2015, something major happened.
I taught my final class in Korea.
The journey I embarked upon on July 21st, 2007 had come to an emotional conclusion. I had been preparing for the day for over a year now. Back in December I had officially sent in my application to three universities in Ontario. As I had stated, I wanted to pursue a baccalaureate of education (a two-year university programme, that takes place after a three, or four, year standard undergrad degree). The universities had different application processes, and for three months I awaited their response.
I was unconditionally accepted at two of the three, and for the third one, I was placed on a waiting list. The third one was the University of Ottawa, which is located in the region where much of my family and relations reside. Back in 2008, when I was just wrapping up my first year in Daegu, my family had moved from the Halifax region of Nova Scotia, to the outskirts of Ottawa. I was hoping to make it into the University of Ottawa, and only apply to the other two universities as provisional options. That strategy very nearly didn’t work out for me, and for several weeks I was fully intending on studying in the Kitchener Waterloo area of Ontario.
Eventually, though, a position opened up in Ottawa, and I quickly nabbed it. And with that, my destiny seemed all that much clearer.
This happened at the start of the second month of the new school year in Korea. I had settled into the familiar routine of teaching at my school. 2015 would have been my fifth year at the school in Gangneung, and my eighth in Korea. It had successfully gotten off to a great start, and the new students were pumped to have me. Many of them were the younger siblings of students whom had graduated, and had spent years waiting to take my classes.
In the back of my mind, I was all too aware that I was building up to a mighty crescendo. The students were really enjoying their classes with me, and they quickly adapted to the back-and-forth jokes and comments that pepper my lessons. I knew that when the first year students got wind of my intention to leave so fresh into the semester, they would be massively disappointed.
Many of the second, and third, year students were aware of my intention to go back to Canada. They begged and pleaded for me to remain, as did some of their parents. I tried to block it out, and make it clear I was sticking to a gameplan.
That was all well and good until Friday rolled around. Earlier in the week, it didn’t seem as if I was going anywhere; it was just another work week. I had my schedule, and taught the appropriate lessons. I checked over the forthcoming tests. The classes I taught threw little mini-celebrations in my honour. They had posters with personal letters and well-wishes. We took group photos. There was even a series of letters given to me from last year’s third year students, prior to their graduation (and it was kept secret from me, until I received it).
Even after all that, I didn’t actually feel as if I were closing a chapter of my life.
But then came Friday. This year, I generally taught 26-27 classes a week. Most days I would have 5-7 classes (and yes, I get overtime pay). On Fridays, I usually have two classes, or sometimes three. It allows me to create the next week’s lesson plans prior to the weekend. Last Friday, I had two back-to-back classes, one with second grade students, and one with third grade students. Throughout the week, my third year students had been egging me on to cry, but I hadn’t been particularly emotional. Friday morning was markedly different. My stomach was in knots, and my legs and arms were weak. It felt as if I was standing in front of an audience of strangers, and giving a presentation. I wanted to melt into the floor, and escape everyone’s notice.
The students themselves were distraught. I had been that one teacher who didn’t transfer to other schools, and taught them every year, in every grade. I was the teacher who had the camps during their vacation periods. I was the teacher holding after school classes that went off the beaten path, and allowed them to skip going to a hagwon. I was the teacher who had helped teach at weekend classes for the city. I was the teacher who followed them on school trips with the video camera, and always showed an interest during festivals. Sometimes we even went to the movies and skating together. Since 2011, I had become a somewhat reliable institution. I was always there, and always visible. They could come to my desk, or talk to me as I walked around the hallways during lunch.
As my first class on Friday came to a close, I lost my composure, just a little, but it was enough. Tears fell, and the students were trying to choke back theirs. Mine weren’t tears of sadness, but rather my reaction to the love and support they had given me. It had suddenly reached a point I could no longer block out and ignore.
The class I had next was going to be my last one ever, and the students in it knew that. They had planned an entire sequence of events once a certain minute was struck on the clock. One of the students pretended to act out, and run out of the room, forcing my co-teacher to run after him. Before re-entering the room, they turned off the lights, and came in with a cake the students had prepared for me. Other students threw back the curtains on the windows, revealing photographs of myself they had printed from Instagram and stuck onto the blinds. Then each student held up a flashcard that formed a coherent story, telling me how sad they were that I wouldn’t finish the year with them. When that was finished, they had me watch a video they had made. Each student had used their cellphone, or webcam, to record a personal message to me, and then it was edited together into a single video.
There was no way I was going to keep my eyes dry through all that. It would have been a losing battle. No one had ever done anything like that for me before. Some of the students were openly sobbing, and it took a great deal of control to stem my own floodgates. We ended the class with hugs, speeches, and pictures with my GoPro. I plodded back to the teachers’ office feeling emotionally drained.
Before the students were sent home, I was ushered into the broadcasting booth. There was one final ceremony for me. I was broadcast to all the TVs in the school, as the vice-principal told the students officially what was happening. She thanked me, and hugged me. I was given a few moments to address everyone, and I did that while the school sounded unnaturally quiet. When I was finished, I was given a gift by another teacher, while a student read aloud a letter of gratitude. Everyone shared a melancholy sense of bittersweet sadness to the entire affair.
After the final bell rang, I snapped more pictures with as many students as possible. Some of my former students had even showed up to send me off. Many of the students could have went home, but they refused to until they had taken selfies with me. Some wanted to tell me in person how much they respected me. Some even did a very formal, and traditional, bow of respect. I was given presents, and letters, many of them very emotionally prepared.
Throughout the ensuing hours, I literally received hundreds of messages from current and past students. They flooded me with their dismay that I was leaving, along with their well-wishes for my future. My social media channels were so active, that they actually glitched, and were sending me clone notifications an hour after the original had already been sent. My phone never seemed to stop vibrating.
After the emotional rollercoaster that was Friday, I crashed on Saturday. It had been many, many, years since I was as depressed as I was on Saturday morning (even though my beloved Ottawa Senators were owning the Montreal Canadiens). I had felt something similar when I left Daegu at the end of 2010, but at least then I knew I was going to return to Korea. There was a greater deal of finality to the events unfolding in Gangneung. Expats can have a difficult time adjusting to life back in their native lands, and I was hoping this wasn’t a herald of the coming months. I later went out to dinner with some of my Saturday classes co-workers from last year, and that helped improve my mood.
Now I am in the midst of packing up my belongings, and letting students take the stuff I can’t bring with me. I had another dinner with some former coworkers on Sunday, and will eat a meal on Monday, as a freshly unemployed Canadian-living-in-Korea with some teachers from my school. I will need to head into Seoul to have my Canadian driver’s licence returned to me. And after sending the last of my boxes to the post office, I will take the long flight(s) back to Canada.