South Korea

The bus ride is short, only 25 minutes or so. Then again, no journey is ever that short when you’re in charge of a number of children under the age of eight. This is where I find myself today, with my class of eleven 6 year olds on the way to a farm in a rural part of South Korea not far outside of Namyangju, the city I’ve made my home for the past seven weeks. We’re off to plant potatoes, and while the day no doubt holds a higher stress level than a usual day in the classroom, I can’t say I’m not incredibly excited at the prospect of a day outside during school hours, soaking up the glorious sunshine and playing with my incredibly rambunctious students. The sun has finally decided to warm us on this beautiful spring day-the first truly warm day I’ve experienced so far since my arrival in this country-and for once I am actually in need of some sunglasses. The kids are greatly amused by my large, boho-chic pair, and we spend the majority of the time on the road passing them around. My smiling little ones try on my shades, pose for my camera, and pass them along, all while drinking juice boxes and pointing at the innumerable attention-grabbing objects we pass on the highway.  My voice tires from reminding them to sit down, so I let myself relax. While I could be annoyed at the lack of adherence to my rules (Sit down please! Don’t yell! Face the front of the bus!) the day is too beautiful, and the children too happy. I smile and gaze out the window, sipping on my own bottled coffee, a present from one of my student’s parents who undoubtedly knew what my day was going to be like.

Soon the bus makes a turn, and I assume that we are nearing the farm. The road curves and nestles itself between the feet of two mid-sized mountains. The bus jostles down a tiny road barely wide enough to allow it clearance, and the faces of my six year olds press against every available window. A hush covers the bus. The right side of the road is flush with a three-foot high stone terrace. Beyond the terrace lies several small houses and a few neatly-tended garden plots. A mountain rises several hundred feet into the air. The left side of the road runs parallel with row upon row of plowed dirt, and the children are enthralled at the idea that they will soon be touching this crumbling brown earth. After a half-mile on this road, the bus we are on parks snugly next to the other Reading Town Academy buses. We have arrived.

My class noisily files out of Bus 1 and joins the other 70 students of Little Reading Town Academy under a tarp set up to protect us from the sun. I am not interested in this protection, but my Korean co-teachers most certainly are. We sit in rows on logs. The clamor of 80 children between the ages of three and seven is pleasant against the backdrop of mountains and soil. As the teacher of one of the older classes at our private kindergarten, I attempt to arouse in my class a sense of duty to act as good role models for our “little brothers and sisters”. As usual, this does not necessarily incite any acts of responsibility, but no one runs into the nearby woods, so I feel lucky.

Steve and Tony are not enjoying their front row log seats. As I have a few words with Gloria Teacher I see my two young and rebellious leading men running around in circles, and definitely not sitting in their seats. When asked why they won’t sit, I am shouted at: “Teacher! Bee!!” I swat the offender outside of our shaded area. Still the boys are not having any of it, and remain terrified. It is at this moment that I am alerted to line up my Lion class and follow Eagle class. A haphazard line is formed and we follow.

Lines formed by children neither travel fast nor form anything resembling much of a line, but we eventually travel the fifty yards or so to our school’s designated part of land. Betty, my tiniest and arguably most lovable 6 year old, holds my hand as we amble down the dirt row and discuss the vegetables that we will soon be planting. “Potatoes are yummy, Teacher”. “I entirely agree, Betty”.

When all of Lion class has lined up along our row, each child is handed a quarter of potato, ready for planting. They examine these with the utmost of seriousness as the farmer digs small holes in front of each of them. At his urging, the children place their potato chunks delicately into the spot of earth, and pat the dirt back upon them. Their little hands are filthy. They point out bugs to one another and to me. Tony is still petrified, but Cleo wants to hold a ladybug. The diminutive spotted insect slowly winds its way across her hand. Lucy squats beside her, eyes frozen to the bug. I have never seen them this still.

Two pieces of corn are now placed into each child’s waiting palm. We meander a few yards further down to another row of sifted soil, past the lines of other students planting their individual potatoes. Holes are dug with little hands, and the pink kernels are delicately placed into these beds of dirt. Finally finished, we now make the journey back to our original placement under the tarp, stopping to wash twenty-two grimy little hands in the multiple streams of water flowing from a hose near the tent. The muddy streams forming by the runoff are too much for the children to resist, and I spend the next several minutes corraling them from the hand-washing station to the waiting picnic area that I have hurriedly created. A solid forty-five minutes of vegetable planting has left all of us with an appetite, and it is now snack time. My kids munch on standard snack fare-potato chips, cut up apple slices, and various chocolately bites. I pass on small cups of water to combat the thirst created from the mid-morning sun exposure.

Snack time gives way to free time, and amidst the somewhat controlled chaos of our large group of children, I manage to clean up the debris left by Lion class. I accompany several little ones to the outdoor toilet. What greets me behind the open door of the porta-potty is not the expected dirty seat, but a rectangle roughly fourteen inches by eleven inches cut directly into the ground. After my initial millisecond of shock passes, I follow the lead of Acacia and head right in. Squatting so close to this gaping pit is by no means comfortable, but the job is accomplished, and I am in fact impressed by the efficiency of this outlet. Hole in the ground bathrooms? Sure, why not.

Finally I am directed by the lead teacher to load the kids back on the bus. I do so gladly. The trip back to Reading Town passes quickly. Apparently the students are not as tired out by our morning as I am. They giggle and poke at one another. I smile and lean back in my seat as their foreign chatter creates a comfortable din. Watching the endless, identical rows of apartment buildings that we pass on our way back into the city is mesmerizing. The rest of the day will be full as usual: lunchtime, and afternoon egg coloring to celebrate the upcoming Easter weekend. But right now, I am enjoying being lulled into submission by the gently rocking bus, the prattle of my adorable Korean students, and the early afternoon sunshine as it shines through the window.

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