I used to think I could only be intimidated by someone my age or older, but two of my Korean students have taught me otherwise. Not because they are aggressive or bigger than me, because they aren't. They aren't Tae Kwon Do blackbelts. They aren't demigods or magicians. They're just kids, but they intimidate me.
The reason why: They rarely speak. And apparently that's enough to intimidate a chatty person like me.
This little girl is my newest student. She just moved here from Korea last month, and is living with her aunt in order to attend an American school. She is twelve years old, with long wavy hair and huge glasses. Absolutely adorable!
When I first showed up to tutor her, her aunt warned me that the girl rarely speaks to anyone, in Korean or English. And boy, was her aunt right. When I asked the girl a question, she just stared blankly at me, which made ME feel stupid! (It gave me that feeling adults get when they make silly faces at a baby to try to make the baby laugh, but the baby just stares at them coldly, not the least bit amused.) At first, I thought that maybe this little girl didn’t understand any English at all. (You can never tell how much exposure kids have had to it in their schools back in Korea... some kids arrive here almost fluent, some know very little.) I had to find a creative way to assess her English comprehension. I tried to get her to read to me, but she wouldn’t. I tried writing down questions on paper, such as, “What is your name?” but she just stared at them blankly. After half an hour of nervous, incompetent fumbling, I pulled an intricately illustrated storybook out of my bag. “Where is the bear?” I asked her, opening it to a picture and putting the book in front of her. Immediately, she pointed at the bear in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. Aha! “Where is the chicken?” She found the chicken even faster. In this way, I quickly figured out that this little girl has a very advanced understanding of English. She’s just terrified of speaking.
I tutor her twice per week now, and we’ve gotten to a point where she is willing to read simple English words to me in a tiny mouse voice. We’ll see how it goes!
This boy is now seventeen years old, but I’ve tutored him since he was fourteen. He is tall, thin, and extremely intelligent, especially in math and science. His smile is not easily earned. When I first began tutoring him, his father asked me to try to find a way to reach his son. They had just moved here from South Korea, and what could make the usual social turbulence of a teenager’s life more challenging than throwing a new school, culture, and language into the mix? I came up with all these bright ideas of how I was going to reach this kid. I imagined him unfolding like a reluctant rose before my eyes, telling me all his secret fears and dreams.
Three years later, I’ve probably heard him speak an average five words per one-hour tutoring session. (Two of those words are “yes” and “no”.) I know next to nothing about him. I’m not even sure if the kid likes me. For all I know, he might hate me. He might think everything I say is lame and boring. When I say something to him, I pause and wait for a response that I’m not sure why I still expect. It rarely comes, and so I try to add more words, awkwardly trying to fill in the conversation’s holes bilaterally. The more I talk, the more inarticulate I sound. I can just see my credibility as a tutor going down the drain.
I still remember the first time I ever heard this kid laugh. It actually startled me, it was so unexpected. I had been his tutor for about six months, and was still feeling incredibly unconfident in the role. We were reading a book on Chief Joseph. I turned the page, and this picture was the first picture we saw:
All of a sudden, my student started laughing so hard he couldn’t stop. At first, I jumped in my seat. Then I smiled, because I was so happy to hear him laugh. When he could breathe again, I asked him why he was laughing. “His hair,” was the only thing my student said before turning to stone again.
There have only been two times this kid has voluntarily formed a complete sentence to speak to me. Both times the sentence was, “You spelled that wrong.” The first time, it was Governor Christine Gregoire’s last name I had misspelled. The second time, it was the word “seize”, which I had spelled “sieze”. (You know, “i before e except after c”.)
I have spent the past several months helping this student prepare for the English portion of the SAT. Though he still doesn’t talk very much, he does smile and laugh more often than he used to around me. Whereas I once wondered if he was emotionally cold or arrogant over perceived mental superiority, I now think that he’s probably just painfully shy, and that he copes with it by creating a cold and solid shell to hide behind. I am more curious now than ever to see where he goes with his life. He’ll finish high school this year and head off to college. I feel so proud of him, having watched his skills improve these past three years. I hope he’ll keep in touch with me, but I don’t expect it. Thankfully, his parents are much more outgoing than he is, and will surely keep me informed!