In the days leading to my departure, my cell phone buzzed with anxious texts from students asking if they could stop by my apartment and say goodbye. Often they came bearing gifts – a photo frame, a calligraphy set, a giant red good luck knot.
One afternoon last week, three girls from one of my senior one classes came to see me. I had a particularly soft spot for these three. Their class was one of the worst performing in their grade. Most of their classmates had absolutely no interest in learning English, and most could not speak even simple sentences. Yet these three girls were anomalies in their class. They loved English. They talked to me before and after class and came to all of the English club meetings.
Although their English wasn’t the greatest, I knew they tried very hard. And that’s what mattered most to me. Sometimes when teaching their class, I felt like my presence was futile. So many heads on desks. So many yawns. I told myself to focus on the students who cared about learning. As I taught, I looked from one of their eager faces to the next, avoiding the dull, bored expressions of the rest.
That afternoon, sitting on my living room couch, I unwrapped thegirls’ gifts -- a stuffed animal puppy, a journal and an Easter egg-looking ceramic with yellow chicks inside.
They each had also written a note. The first was folded in an intricate origami design and I carefully unfolded it. “Beloved teacher,” it opened. “Very happy to be your student. This is fate, is not it? I learned a lot of knowledge and your teaching us how to pronounce.”
The letter continued, “I envy you beautiful voice, enjoy you both speak English and Chinese … In short, the teacher I so worship you.”
I was so touched by the note that the grammatical mistakes barely registered. It was by the time I read “beautiful voice” that my breath caught. In an instance, I was crying the kind of crying you only do alone in a dark room. But here I was, in mid-afternoon, in front of my students.
“I’m cr-crying because I’m happy,” I said through my sobs.
In truth, my tears were partly out of guilt. I felt like I hadn’t done enough for my kids this year, especially in their class where I spent more time telling students to wake up and pay attention than teaching the lesson. But my tears were mostly out of gratitude for being reassured that even the little I felt I did was enough for them.
I stood up and wiped my face with my palms. I tried to say something lighthearted, like, “Your written English is so good you can make your teacher cry.” But it failed to ease the discomfort in the room.
“Let me take a picture of the three of you!” I said brightly to change the subject and, I hoped, the mood.
The four of us went outside to the road that ran by my apartment building. Against a gray stone wall, I snapped a couple of photos and then we said goodbye.