The day starts like any other, but with that Friday feel – air buzzing, halls filled with talking and laughter, and students popping in and out of the offices to ask for phone chargers and talk to the teachers.
Black convenience store bag in hand, I tiptoe around to the other gyomushil and drop off a parting present for one of my three coteachers, as well as the music teacher and the science teacher in my own gyomushil. With only one day left of school, I had found out that 4 of 16 teachers – one being our principal – were going to be leaving the school due to their contracts ending or another job. To avoid the shock, my main coteacher had obscured these details until we were right on the day, but in all honesty, the sudden reveal was more shocking as I didn’t have much time to prepare to say farewell.
The actual graduation ceremony didn’t start until 10:30, so I remained at my desk a while, biding my time and saying hello to the familiar 3rd year faces that popped in and out of our office. Hearing all the commotion of families coming, students rehearsing, and general excitement, I still felt like I was missing out on things, so I ventured out a few times to just walk about and look around.
Finally the time came to start the ceremony, and I went down to the auditorium to observe the church service in thanks for graduation that preceded the ceremony itself. Seeing all the parents there with flowers and gifts in hand, as well as the backs of the heads of my 30+ 3rd years (high school seniors) was happy, but little did I know that the emotions were just being held back by a thin gate.
Once the ceremony began, the students each stood up one by one to turn around and greet their parents, who also stood up. I was simultaneously looking at my students (who I hadn’t seen in a month and who had changed their hair colors, lost weight, and were wearing makeup) and their parents, to see the family resemblances (which were strong – it was amazing to see how similar the kids looked to their parents). I was so proud – my first class of graduating students. It’s both appalling and amazing to say that as a 22-year-old teacher of high schoolers (whom I had only gotten to teach for about four months), but it’s a huge accomplishment.
I had been doing well on holding back the tears, and then came Garam’s speech. Garam is one of my sweetest 2nd years, and he is very clearly a leader and an intelligent, eloquent boy, and when he stepped up to make a speech, Eunjin began playing a sad piano refrain behind him. He was addressing his 3rd year elders and friends (his brother, Saeum, was also graduating) and suddenly, his voice cracked and his face screwed up as he began to cry – this was the moment I lost it. All the emotions I had been holding back came forth, as I understood the emotions he was feeling in his older friends and brother were about to graduate and the feelings you try to hold back to do a speech but they always find their way out. The room filled with “oh so cute!” and “don’t cry!”, and he regained himself to get through the rest quickly, and hand the mic over to Yeji, who I assume was the top of her class, reading a lovely speech and making her peers proud.
The choir ensemble then came out, and the projector screen slowly descended. I mumbled “Oh no!” out loud, knowing a picture compilation was coming and expecting uncontrollable tears seeing my 3rd years in pictures of their whole high school career. Despite the touching and beautifully harmonized choir song by the 1st and 2nd years, the pictures were humorous and saved me from entirely marring my face by rogue tears.
After the choir and more words from pastors and the principal, the 3rd years finally all took the stage together to sing together once more. Seeing them all in their tan winter uniforms warmed my heart – in those uniforms, they were still my students for just a few minutes longer, a few more minutes that I could cherish. They reprised a song they had sung at one of their last school church services, and I watched their faces, proud of them and all they had been through together. My heart truly ached and the tears really flowed when my eyes fell upon Sunmin, resident Mr. Playboy Jokes and notorious basketball player, sobbing in the back row. The boy I expected least to be the most touched, but he couldn’t even continue to sing as he cried, taking off his glasses to wipe his face.
Once the song ended, many of the students laughed through their tears, teasing their friends and wiping their faces, and the ceremony ended, parents, siblings, and teachers all flooding out of our small auditorium, the third years heading upstairs to their classrooms to get their diplomas and take pictures one last time before heading out.
Unsure of exactly what the order of things was and wanting to see my students before they took off, I just wandered around, talking to 1st and 2nd years, who had also gathered outside the 3rd year classrooms to wait for their favorite seniors to emerge and say goodbye. It felt kind of like a fanmeeting – we waited, peeping in their classrooms and scouting for their faces, phones in hand and tittering about who we were waiting for and wanted to see.
As I stood by the staircase to catch students before they left to congratulate them and to capture selfies, I was rushed by sudden waves of tears. Each time I thought I had let it all pass, another student would say they would miss me or that they would remember me, or I would see another student’s red and teary faces and immediately lose it again. They would console me and laugh – “don’t cry, teacher!” – and begin to cry with me or hug me. I know myself – I always get this way at ending ceremonies and I am a sympathetic crier to a T – but I had no clue how difficult this would be. Being a teacher for the first time in my life was a significant first, and the students leaving was also a significant first. I joked to Sunmin that he made me cry, and he gave me a hug. Minyoung saying she would miss me started both her and I crying. Jiyeon and her cute little cousin made me cry. Seeing Serim sobbing and her giving me this immaculately wrapped gift made me burst into fresh, inconsolable tears. Taking a selfie with Sujeong teacher, one of the math teachers, and her struggling to put together in English “today.. Is the last. I will leave.” was the final unstoppable crop of tears – I hadn’t known she was leaving, and to hear it on top of all the emotion just really broke me. I squeezed out a “감사합니다” while gripping her hand, and had to run up to my office to truly break down alone.
Of course, all of my interactions weren’t this sad. I complimented Taeyoon’s new red hair. Took “cool” posed selfies with Shinhee and Nadan. Told Yeji how beautiful she looked. Met Chaeyeon’s brother. Told Saeum how sharp he looked in his suit. Got confirmation from many students that they would come back to visit – Yeseul, Esther, Youngjoon, and more.
But the most touching moment (maybe besides my sobbing hug with Serim) was actually not with a 3rd year at all. As I ran back up to my office to cry alone, I ran into Yejun, a goofy 2nd year whom I had seen continuously crying throughout the day saying farewell to his friends and our beloved choir teacher, Jaehong Saem, finally clear faced and puffy-eyed. He and I talked, and I tried to hold in the tears for a bit, and he jokingly pointed out my crying, and I joked back that he had been crying a lot too. The tears sprung forth from me once again, unable to restrain myself from the emotions broiling in my heart, and he wiped the tears off my cheeks, saying, “샘, no don’t cry! You pretty smiling!”. His simple gesture really meant a lot – it wasn’t of condescension or embarrassment, but of caring, understanding, and an attempt to cheer me. I laughed and shook his hand, saying I would see him when the spring semester started.
After the hubbub and the halls had died down, I went to my gyomushil to take a breather, but it only made things worse to see Jaehong Saem and Hyunok Saem’s empty desks next to mine. Alone, I tried to mop up the tears with tissues, and finally stilled my feelings enough to pack up. In the wildness, almost all of the teachers had left to have lunch together, and sensing that I should go check the main gyomushil, I found two remaining teachers who apologized profusely and whisked me off to lunch with the other teachers at a town restaurant. Many vegetables and meats later, we left the hot pot restaurant to get coffee – just Hanbit Saem, Eunok Saem, Sujeong Saem, and I – and Seocheon being a small town, we ran into Youngjoon and Siwon and their families. Gossip, school changes, and coffee were exchanged, and finally I arrived at home, emotionally exhausted. A long nap was taken to rest, and yet, my heart still aches.
I know my students will go on to work hard at college and do amazing things. I know I can still contact them on Facebook and Instagram, but not seeing them everyday will be different. I know my fellow teachers will go on to other schools where they will continue to inspire coworkers and students, but not hearing their voices at lunch or in the halls or at the desks next to me will be rough. I know I will stop tearing up everytime I think about this day, but for now, I am letting myself shed bittersweet tears whenever they rise. Sincerely, to my students and coworkers – thank you. Thank you for making me a part of the small school family. Thank you for letting me be a part of your lives, only if for a brief time. You have impacted me and touched me more than you know. I will never forget you, and I am only saying goodbye until I see you again. ❤