Trust in the Flame

18 Aug

It’s a sleepy Sunday morning.  I already went to the pool, conveniently located on the English Village campus, to get a little exercise.  As I jumped into the refreshing water, I was greeted by the cutest little Korean girls eager to test their English skills.  They looked at me with their full attention like I was a combination between a diamond and a creature from another planet.  “Hello” they exploded exuberantly while they kicked and splashed in the water.  Within seconds they offered me their names — their English names that is.  It is not that unusual in Korea to have a traditional Korean name and an English name like Mike or Sarah.  We happily conversed for a few minutes until, alas, it was time for me to begin my morning swim.

While last week was a traditional summer break for much of South Korea, English Village was in full swing with a multitude of English programs for students.  Yes in South Korea, even during the summer holiday, it is a time for learning and a time to study English.

Two weeks ago I finished up my final week of teaching a special program for elementary and middle school Korean, Japanese and Russian students.  Teaching at English Village is not a typical classroom experience.  As we have many students at one time here for the short-term, we lead a variety of classes comprised of many new faces.  In these circumstances,  I have tried to dance the dance of creating some discipline while still having fun and learning, all within a very limited time frame.  Sometimes, admittedly, the strategy is “let’s get through this class” as the room is filled with boisterous yet tired, hungry, homesick young students who have been in classes all day in a language mostly foreign to them.  Not always easy – for the teacher or the students!

I had to laugh last week when I was in the final class of a week-long program with a group of elementary aged students literally bursting with energy.  We were completing one final activity before the class and the week-long program was complete – filling out a simple survey.  As the students often don’t have their own pencils, we do our best to keep a healthy supply in the classrooms to hand out when needed.  When the students realized they needed a pencil for this last activity, they started calling out desperately to me for pencils like animals in the wild, like starved souls in the desert reaching for salvation.  “Pencil teacher, pencil!”  they cried with urgency on their faces and in their eyes.  With my modest supply of pencils, I did my best to ease the masses and hand out pencils as they swarmed around me like locusts, hands reaching in the air.

Shortly after that, while I was answering a question for one student, I felt another young student tug on my arm.  I couldn’t tend to her just yet, but put my hand on her arm to acknowledge her and let her know she had my attention.  While I was still talking with the first student, the other student went behind me, reached her arms way up high (as she was quite little compared to me) and gave me a gentle massage precisely on the spot on my shoulders where I had locked in my stress like a stone.  She did it for just a minute and after that I heaved a big sigh of relief and for that afternoon I felt… better.

Admittedly, I am feeling stressed lately. I am doing my best to relax and take it easy when I can.  But the truth is,  I need a vacation. Yesterday at my chiropractor appointment when he finally got to my neck he made his typical comments of “oh my God.  So tight.” I felt the urgency in his words mirror my experience.  “Help!” I said, “I need your help” as I feel myself holding on tightly and can’t always find a way to let go and relax. He did his best to work a few kinks out in the last few minutes of my appointment and then I was off.

While this work and the recent persistent schedule has been challenging for me, there are benefits in the challenges as well.  Working with kids challenges me to be the best person I can be.  Sometimes the kids I work with bring out the good in me.  And sometimes they push me to my limits – forcing me to practice negotiating that space with loving kindness, not always easy for me.  This past Thursday I made my first attempt to teach a yoga class to kids.  It was the 28 kids in our Global Leadership Program, the current two-week program that I am now teaching. While perhaps a more mature topic, the participants are certainly all kid with ages ranging from about 9 years old to perhaps 13. Attempting to teach them yoga was no easy feat for me.  We did our best, me and my co-teacher for the hour, to transform the classroom into a yoga studio while the kids ran around feverishly on their break, then introduce them to some yoga postures, only to return the classroom to its original states, all within a 50 minute time frame.  This was their last hour of a long day and their spirits were perhaps ready to go wild.  I did my best to rope in their wild energy, played some soothing yoga music overhead, relied on the poses that had appealing “kid friendly” names such as cat stretch, cobra, downward facing dog.  In the end, some played along.  But some continued in the spirit of their wild nature.  They are not to be blamed for their child-like exuberance, but it was challenging for me.  And while some students earnestly attempted the poses I led, it was a far cry from the beautiful, peaceful gift of yoga I know and depend on.  Perhaps I need to see a new face of yoga when teaching kids.

Yesterday at my SGI Buddhist meeting in Seoul I read the introduction to the meeting.  As I started to read the words I had to fight back tears as I was reading.  It began ” ‘The flame in a child will be like a great sun in the future’ so declared the great French writer Victor Hugo. Our responsibility is to trust in the flame of home that burns in the hearts of the young, to foster it and enable it to shine its brightest.” And continued later “A child who is giving you problems now is helping you become a Buddha.”  Another member in the meeting, also an ESL teacher in Korea, called out for me to repeat the last sentence… a big lesson indeed.

Our SGI meeting this week, our district typically comprised of English-speaking foreigners from the US, Canada, Japan, and Korean-Americans, welcomed a few new guests this week – three members from the young men’s division of Korea’s SGI Group.  It was really a treat to have them there.  Their spirits were so earnestly participating in the English discussion and their enthusiasm for connecting with us in English was touching.  The foreign/English-speaking chapter of SGI in Korea is currently making an effort to more seamlessly connect with the Korean members of SGI (KSGI)… despite the sometimes challenges of a language barrier.

Earlier this week I attended my first KSGI meeting in the Paju area where I live.  There is a hearty and healthy Korean SGI chapter right in my town with a substantial community center and regular meetings.  The local members were so lovely to me and assisted me in attending my first meeting.  They came to pick me up at English Village and invited a local member who spoke excellent English to assist me in understanding the meeting.  They asked me questions at the meeting through the aid of translation and also had me read a small segment of the weeks lesson in English for the group.

SGI Center near my home in Paju, South Korea.

SGI Center near my home in Paju, South Korea.

As SGI District meetings are traditionally held in members homes, it was a great experience to be in a Korean home and feel a part of their more intimate space.  Additionally, at the SGI meeting in Seoul on Saturday, I felt really satisfied to be connected to and be a part of the world.

And then, when it was all done, I was also grateful to depart on my own and return to a little peace and tranquility in my little home in Paju. Grateful to have some time connecting with others – but also needing time on my own… to just tend to the little things in my life.  Visiting Seoul helps me appreciate the gift of Paju with its wide open spaces, fresh air, rolling hills and green trees and land.

As I prepare for a new work week, I will be keeping in mind what my intuition whispered to me a few days ago in the midst of my own overwhelm and fatigue. “Persevere,” it declared.  Indeed.  I will also keep in my heart the message from the meeting this week of trusting the flame in the children. And so I prepare for another week at English Village, myself and other teachers tired and worn out from the work and the heat of the sun.   But ultimately, a loving time of transformation.

Image at top, a sunflower beaten by the heat and the sun with shadows of English Village Students playing in the background.

One Response to “Trust in the Flame”


  1. Joyous | Gypsy Woman - 08/25/2013

    […] I was teaching lessons like leadership, yoga and meditation.  But after last weeks yoga class (see last weeks blog for more about this!), I decided meditation may not be the right thing for this group at the end of […]

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