The Tale of the Toothbrush
Jess was different. He wasn’t a favorite. In fact he was loathed by most of the tutors. So I prepared to walk into a nightmare when I was asked to be his grammar tutor for the remainder of his six weeks’ stay in the Philippines. Like most Korean kids, it was his first time in the Philippines, and English was an alien language. He was not like the other kids at all. He was a twelve-year-old rebel who didn’t do his homework and often got pulled out of class to get punished for some pranks he did the day before. Worse, he refused to take a bath, change his clothes or even brush his teeth. He stank to the heavens.
I breathed a sigh of impatience. He was ten minutes late for our class. When he did arrive, he brought a different book. That alone and no pencil. No notebook. No dictionary. For a low-beginner like him, a dictionary is a vital lifeline, how am I supposed to teach him without it? In my mind, I counted to ten and pretended not to care. At least, I was forewarned, and Jess did not let me down. My nightmare was confirmed.
In the days that followed, I slowly learned how to deal with Jess. I made up games in class to sustain his attention during the fifty-minute grammar lessons. We would make fun of his mispronounced words so that he wouldn’t feel so bad about not getting it right sometimes. Before class time, I would bribe him with his favorite treat. As a catch, he would have to go back to his room and brush his teeth. At times, I’d bring my toothbrush along and we’d have a contest as to who could brush faster.
I realized he was not really that different from all the other kids I taught. But while all the other kids liked showing off and preferred being tutor’s pets, Jess mostly kept to himself, partly because he was inherently shy and he still had trouble expressing his thoughts in English.
I don’t know why but Jess never troubled me with tantrums or absences, maybe because I wasn’t pushing him too hard. Somehow, maybe I understood. When you listen to our discussions in class, you wouldn’t hear a lot of talking from him, it was mostly brief phrases that were incomplete but made sense. He tried hard to express it in ways I could understand. He made the most endearingly awkward English sentences. It was enough for me that he tried.
My other students would bring me gifts. Cute little cut-outs with letters inside, a bracelet from Boracay, a pocket mirror from Korea, Pooh Bear stickers or my favorite coffee.
Jess wrote me a letter in a piece of paper he tore from his notebook, which he crumpled and hastily put inside my bag when I wasn’t looking. I discovered it several days after they went back to Korea. The handwriting was horrible and it contained four sentences telling me I was his favorite teacher, that he had fun in class, was going back to the Philippines someday and that he would miss me. It was written in his own, endearingly awkward English. I still have it to this day.
Jess taught me a lot about being a teacher. A profession I never dreamed of loving ‘til that day. I was fresh from nursing school and just needed a temporary job for the summer and being an English tutor was one of the convenient jobs at that time. It’s not about the meager pay and the hours spent late at night preparing for lessons. It’s not about handing out test papers and checking homework. It’s something much more. It’s love, and it doesn’t have to be expressed with grammatically precise sentences and conjunctions in all the proper places. After all, love is a language that’s understood whether you are Filipino or Korean.
Love is when they come to class on time, with their home work already done. Love is the look of appreciation in their eyes when they finally understand that one English word you’ve been explaining for the past thirty minutes. Love is when you realize they’ve improved from yes-no conversations to the eight parts of speech. Love is laughter. Love is a thank-you note with your name on it, albeit misspelled. Love is when they simply listen to what you say. Love is every endearingly awkward English sentence they make. Or in the case of Jess, love is when his classmates say he brushes his teeth for you, “only for you teacher, only for you”!