A Third Grader

*Note: Here “third grade” refers to the third or final year in a Korean high school.


Tuesday. October 28. 1:17pm. I sit in an empty classroom with faded words on the black whiteboard that I cannot find the markers for. English Cafe. The English teachers across the hall have encouraged me to wait 5 or 10 minutes at the most, and then join them for coffee in the office. Some days, I oblige. Happily. Who am I to turn down freshly ground coffee?

But today I am making up for yesterday. So I sit in the empty classroom.

I don’t mind really. I usually read. “Korea: The Impossible Country,” a book the English teacher across the hall has lent to me. I like the quiet. I like to read in it.

But today a new student stops by. She has my immediate fascination, as she is a third grader, a class of students who seem, at times, like mythical creatures, hidden away in anxious preparation for the suneung. It is the part of Korean education that I have heard the most about, but the part from which I am perhaps the most detached. I don’t teach these third graders, these students who have red stripes on their uniforms instead of blue or yellow, are slightly bigger than the other students and seem to have an air of maturity about them.

But one stops by the empty classroom. She is pretty; I notice her eyes and long lashes. She is not shy although when I mention her English she shakes her head and holds her thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. A little. She is a sudden bubbling of energy, graceful, a butterfly that has landed in my English cafe.

She tells me that she is studying nail art, motioning at the large, floppy workbook in her lap, and that it is difficult. She flips it open and there are anatomical diagrams of the hand. I see what she means. She wants to do nail art, and skincare, she tells me through a series of short statements, smoothly tumbling into silences as she pauses to review the English in her mind before handing it to me. Cosmetics too, she says with a smile, but not hair, even as I started to gesture toward my own, brushing the beginnings of a question.

The nailcare test is soon, she tells me, 11/16, D-20 days – she jots these down to show me. But the third grade test is even sooner, the suneung. I nod with familiarity. 11/13, she jots, D-17. Circles around the 17. The dreaded suneung, then, only a few days later, the nail care test. She communicates this to me with the same pause and go, cheerful, halting but somehow smooth way of speaking English.

Some insignificant conversation passes by until she excuses herself to study. I am left in my empty classroom, alone but smiling at our chance encounter.


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