My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold, all things are changed!
Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller’s Teacher)
Until I was in third grade, I was invisible. I was only one of two Korean-American kids in our school (my sister was the other one), so I should have “stuck out.” But I was quiet, shy and bookish. My parents dismissed me early on as an underachiever to my more outgoing, dynamic younger sister. As most introverts do, I quietly accepted this reality.
It changed one day.
During a parent/teacher conference, my mother asked haltingly in her strong accent, “Is she OK?” I braced myself for comments about the need for improvement…in focus or math…but Ms. Meretta looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oh yes, better than OK! Caroline is my hardest worker.”
I felt an electric charge throughout my body that caused my eyes to well.
My identity underwent a dramatic transformation: I wasn’t lazy or dumb (as I had overheard). I was a hard worker. I held promise.
I’m a teacher now, and looking back, I realize Ms. Meretta would not be considered a very good teacher today. She sat at her desk the entire day, giving papers to helpers to pass out for her. She was morbidly obese and rarely moved. She allowed me to get up and read books – a LOT. I rushed through math worksheets in order to read about Ramona or even Archie. She would most likely not embrace technology or move about the room to watch progress. Most likely, she would not attend ISTE and come back with cutting edge techniques to use in the classroom.
Still, she saw me. I consider her to be my most important teacher ever. She knew my personality, my friends, my parents, my interests. She invited my mother to come in and teach my peers about Korean customs, dress and food. My mother, a housewife, was positively giddy for weeks after her presentation. She had knowledge to impart! I realized that my culture was something to be proud of, not an aspect of myself to hide.
I’m not saying that using effective teaching strategies in the classroom lack importance, but in our fast-paced, technology-driven world, we need to stop multi-tasking. We need to slow down, ask real questions (How was your gymnastics meet?) and behold the people in front of us.
Recently, I discovered that Korean refugees from North Korea are actually discriminated against in South Korea!
I couldn’t believe it. Where is the humanity? The abuse and absolute horrific treatment of North Korean civilians by their government is well-known so why would South Koreans greet them with anything but open arms? It’s clear that education and empathy are absent.
Enter an amazing South Korean TV program called, “Now On My Way to Meet You.” It’s an example of using media as a powerful medium for positive social change. The program first aired December of 2011 and, despite the tagline which alludes to “North Korean Beauties,” it does anything but objectify these escapees. You can read more about it and watch a clip here: Cari’s Blog. Basically, these women play games, laugh and recount their stories of life in North Korea for an enormous South Korean audience. The result? An empathetic reaction where South Koreans are understanding and seeing these women as people. The culture is slowly evolving into a supportive, loving one towards their sisters and brothers.
I have numerous cousins, aunts and uncles who live in South Korea and I have visited the country three times. In 1999, I was there for two months on an NSF research grant and I fell in love with the land and people. As news of the ferry disaster unfolded, there was a collective sigh of exasperation, shock, and anger all around me. How could this happen? The students were told to stay put? Why?!
If my father had not decided to immigrate to the United States, I could have been born and raised in South Korea. In fact, if that had happened, I would likely have been married with children a bit earlier (and who knows?) I could have had a high school student on the ill-fated Sewol ferry and be mourning his/her death right now. These connections and possibilities only make me ponder our roles in life. I’m a teacher and I’m proud of it because I can actually impact 32 young people per year. But… can I do more? The producer of “On My Way to Meet You” has created such a critical solution to an enormous problem. What if we all stopped asking why and started asking how? HOW can I help this situation? I think it’s a powerful question.