I’ve just been to a funeral.
Three years ago I went to the office of a prospective student. She ran her own company and wanted to study English because she was expanding her business abroad. At the meeting I met the operations manager and another member of her staff who came to interpret for her. Business cards were exchanged. Her requirements discussed. She was petite, fashionable, professional.
She wanted her staff to study too, so several groups classes were planned for twice a week. But she wanted to study every day. I was busy at the time and so we agreed on 3 times a week. I wondered how long this enthusiasm would last. It’s hard to stay motivated especially when you’re busy and running your own business and the economy is taking a turn for the worse. I didn’t realise that I had met the most determined student I will probably ever have.
I thought she was just being shy when she brought an interpreter to the meeting. This often happens. Phone calls and first meetings are conducted in Korean but when classes actually start, English is fine. But I soon realised that she wasn’t being shy, she really couldn’t understand what I said or say anything in English. But she was a quick learner.
She did whatever I asked. Happy with whatever textbook I chose. As she improved she liked to read short stories. She was creative and liked visuals. Give her a picture from a magazine and she could come up with a whole life story. Why this man looked depressed. Where this woman was going and why. Even without professional pictures we could easily practise new grammar and vocabulary. We did whole classes based around my matchstick drawings. My matchstick women wore triangles for dresses and only had two stands of hair – a wavy line on each side of the circle for a head.
She could draw much better than me. She could draw figures as well as a fashion designer. But she liked me to draw and giggled at my attempts. She’d practise making question structures about the matchstick characters and then answer the questions herself. She gave my matchstick characters names and made them come to life. I’m sure I saw a matchstick arm wave at us from the page one day.
At the end of the class she always wanted to keep the papers with the notes of vocabulary and grammar we had covered that day to review later. She scooped up the A4 sheet with my tiny matchstick lady too.
Her progress and her enthusiasm inspired me to think more creatively about my teaching. I wanted to improve my drawing as well but that takes time and it dawned on me that I could use my terrible drawing to an advantage! One time I drew my interpretation of scenes from various films. We could practise all sorts of language. Matchstick arms outstretched at the bow of a boat. A sail somewhere in the background. ‘This film must be Titanic’. But that doesn’t look like Leonardo DiCaprio!
I thought one day I would put all the worksheets together into a book and she could see how far she had come. I thought we had lots of time as she had no plans to quit studying. She was determined to finish everything that she started. She worked diligently through her grammar book. Did her homework. Wrote a diary.
Once she asked me how long it would take to speak English perfectly. She said she would probably have to study until she was an old lady. We laughed at the time. I said her English had already improved so much. She went on business trips and came back happy that she had been able to communicate in shops and restaurants. She wasn’t shy. That wasn’t her personality. She was bubbly. Outgoing. Knew lots of people. So she had been frustrated that she couldn’t communicate when she went overseas. She felt better now. ‘A little’.
She’d knock her fist on her head and blame herself when she forgot something that we had already studied. Or when she realised she was making the same mistake that she had made before.
Sometimes she came in with two paper cups from her favourite coffee shop. She brought me milk tea. She knew I liked tea. At new year she gave me bottles of her favourite wine. We went out for lunch. I brought her cakes back when I went to Japan. She liked Japanese cake.
She was the same age as me. Not married. Had lunch out every Sunday after church with her family. She had over 30 pairs of shoes but never wore most of them. She wanted to give some of her shoes away but her feet were so small it was hard to find anyone who they would fit. She came in to class one day ticked off that her cat Mandu, Dumpling, had peed in her handbag. Of course he had to pick her newest and most expensive handbag. The bag had had to go but she couldn’t be mad at Mandu. She loved her cat.
The signs appeared gradually. Some days were better than others. She began to walk a little slower. She complained that she couldn’t put on weight. Her skin didn’t look so good. She wasn’t as bubbly as she had been. She started to do a lot of work from home eventually only coming in for meetings.
One day she had to stop in the middle of class. She was feeling too unwell to continue. She said she would see me next week. Her mum had come to help her home. She asked her mum to carry her textbook for her as she was going to take it home to look over before next class. ‘See you on Tuesday’, I said as she got into the lift. But I thought she might need to take a break from classes for a while. She looked so fragile.
We exchanged a few text messages over the following months and I sent her a book. I was sure that she would be back to her old self soon. But I never saw her again. Then I got the news that she had passed away. She hadn’t wanted people to know that she was sick. She had carried on as normal for as long as possible. I still haven’t finished our book of worksheets. And I realise that we won’t be able to study together until we are old ladies. And that makes me sad.