This is the way it goes between first and second period: a twenty minute break in the children’s book library, an oasis of warmth on the fifth floor of Changjin Elementary in Sasang, Busan, South Korea. The rest of the school’s windows gape wide open to the cool air whirling down to us from the north, but the windows in the library stay shut while the heater stays on, and for the first few minutes there I try to settle in with a book and recalibrate my brain. I’m no longer playing with kids, I’m alone, I’m reading, I’m focusing, absorbing, analyzing, trying to print my soul with the thoughts in this text, not sure if any company will join me.
“…Good, but if there is anything in such a state as both to be and not to be, that would lie between that which simply is and that which is not at all; is that correct?…”
The wooden sliding door roars open and a handful of third grade girls comes in. I finish marking the text while they wait a moment; one says something about Christmas, grabs a Christmas book (“If You Take A Mouse To The Movies”), and we read it together at one of the round tables, sitting on chairs which are themselves strange combinations of stools and cushions colored lime green. Their understanding of English is extremely rudimentary but I tell myself that we’re there just to practice reading, so I make them read to me, but one by one they grow bored, tuck themselves under the table, and then melt away out the door.
I’ve managed to dragoon one of them, a girl in blue with a husky voice whom I’ve never seen before. I encourage her, correct her as she reads, and do my best to define the words by pointing to the pictures and miming the ideas. The bell rings (actually an electric string of musical notes on the intercom), she skips out the door and down the dark hallway while I rush in to class and, once again, for the thousandth time, ask thirty kids how they’re doing with the enthusiasm of a talk show host or a school mascot running along packed bleachers.
Monday and Tuesday classes are full of the good kids, fifth graders, so I put a lot of energy into them and they go quickly. Before I know it I’m sitting in the library again for five minutes (“My good man, of all these beautiful things is there a single one which will not sometimes appear ugly?”) when the girl returns alone to continue: a sign somehow that I’ve made an impact. We continue with our mouse book. She leans in very close to the words—so close I can feel her breath on my fingers—and reads more quickly as we move along. But we still don’t have enough time. The bell rings and out we go: while dancing down the dark hallway my payment is a grin.