Sunday, February 17, 2013

An Interlude at Low Altitude

Don't worry, I'll get back to Korea soon. In the meantime, you can check out my coworker Lily's blog to catch up on some of what I've been doing for the past six weeks, including a ski trip, a visit from a Nobel laureate, and a couple of Korean-style first birthday parties.

In the months following the AT hike I ran the inaugural Rock N Roll St. Louis Marathon (which replaced the Lewis and Clark Marathon in St. Charles, MO that I'd run the previous year), moved into a house on the St. Louis city/county line very near Ted Drewes with David and another high school classmate of ours, spent many days substituting at the public high school and middle school in my hometown, attended an NLCS game at Busch Stadium, and flew to Phoenix with my parents to attend the wedding of one of my cousins.

It was while living in the house in St. Louis that I first heard from my roommate about the idea of moving to Korea to teach English. Apparently a friend of his from college was seriously considering it, and it was an idea we tossed around, but which I didn't take seriously at first. I'd never really been interested in living abroad. I hadn't even studied abroad, despite having spent six years studying Spanish. It was amusing to talk about up and moving halfway around the world for a year, but the idea was far-fetched, and frankly, unappealing to me. My feelings on that changed dramatically over the course of about three months.

Two nights before I flew to Boston to visit my brother my roommate's college friend arrived at our house in St. Louis to stay for a week or so while finalizing his plans to fly to Korea and start his job as an English teacher in a public school. I was really beginning to consider the possibility of going abroad to teach English by that time, and had actually set up an appointment with a career counselor at school during my visit with my brother. We talked some about his thoughts about going to Korea, and agreed that if I did end up over there we would have to meet up and hang out at some point. Finally, during my Seolnal trip to Seoul I finally caught up with him here in Korea, nearly a year to the day since our first meeting back in St. Louis.

As excited as I was to see my brother, my flight to Boston came with a lot of apprehension. In addition to being nervous about the hike that awaited me after the weekend, I realized I had done a poor job of keeping in contact with friends and mentors I'd had while in school. I hoped my scheduled meetings with a few of them would go well and that I wouldn't be wandering around campus like the outsider I was beginning to see myself as. After arriving in Boston I took that familiar T ride and started walking toward my brother's apartment, lugging along my suitcase. As I walked past the entrance of the dorm I'd lived in for my last three years there I ran into my old academic adviser leaving the dining hall. He was surprised to see me, and I was very pleased to have happened upon him. We agreed to meet up for lunch sometime in the coming days. Things were off to a good start.

The rest of the evening I hung around the apartment, taking a much-needed nap before spending a few hours studying for the GRE I was planning to take in April and researching opportunities to teach abroad to discuss with the career adviser. I wanted to be well-prepared and have any questions ready, and I found myself wishing I'd done more of this sort of thing while I was actually a student there.

After sleeping in the next morning I made my way up to the old department office. I'd looked up the office hours of my writing instructor from senior year and emailed her, and she invited me to stop by. She was a terrific instructor who helped me greatly with my writing, but I was nervous about meeting her. I hadn't really been in contact with her since I'd graduated, and I felt some guilt about declining an offer to attend the graduate school for whose application she had so kindly written me a recommendation. It was a decision I had agonized over, and one that I was still wavering between confidence that I'd done the right thing and regret at the thought that I'd made a huge mistake. During that period I was leaning pretty heavily on the regret side of that divide, and I hoped that wouldn't show through too much during our conversation.

This is not to say my life in the eighteen months since I'd graduated had been unfulfilling. I could fill post upon post with ramblings about how much I learned while substitute teaching, how rewarding it was to help coach athletes from my old high school on the track team with my former coach, how much I enjoyed getting to have lunch at work every day with my mom while I spent two months substituting in a classroom just upstairs from hers, how I could feel that things were coming full circle when I taught some of my relatives, including my little cousin whose mother was my second-grade teacher, how challenging and euphorically exhausting it was to spend the better part of many summer days in 2011 putting a new roof on my grandparents' house (not to mention a similarly fulfilling, if less time-consuming, stint repainting the deck of my other grandparents' house), the many evenings I spent visiting with my parents and whatever brothers were around at any given period, enjoying Imo's once in a while or delicious home-cooked meals more often, the runs around the neighborhood and on the old track, the books and stories I took the time to read, the visits with my grandparents while helping them out with errands, the outings with old friends. I loved all that stuff. The regret I felt was more a curiosity about what else I could have experienced. Not that I would trade it, but when given a choice like that I was necessarily giving something up, and however much joy the one choice brought me, the possible joys of the other remain absent. This is always the case, and I don't usually dwell on it, but at that time this unhealthy side of my imagination was quite active.

I waited outside the office while a current student met with her. I went and had a sip at the water fountain across from the room where I'd had a section for a Shakespeare course and attended a few lessons on Anglo-Saxon before dropping it to have a regular course load that semester. It certainly felt like more than two years had passed since those days when I visited this building dozens of times a week. When the student emerged from the office I stood up and walked to the door. My instructor greeted me warmly and invited me to sit on the couch. Her dog was there, as she had been at the final meeting of our class two years before. I told her what I'd been up to, she told me a bit about life around school. I told her what I'd been reading and she offered some recommendations. I told her I was considering teaching abroad and she was encouraging. After about fifteen minutes we said goodbye, as she had another student waiting to meet with her. I was thrilled with how smoothly and pleasantly the conversation had unfolded, though I should not have been surprised. She had always been genuine and helpful in all of my interactions with her. Still, I felt energized at this positive start to my visit. The only negative thought I had was a wish that I'd taken advantage of office hours more often when I was actually a student.

As I left the building I again encountered my old academic adviser, and we reconfirmed our plans to meet for lunch after the weekend to catch up and discuss my thoughts about options I was considering for my future. He, too, was just as warm and encouraging as he had been during every interaction I'd had with him as a student.

The positivity continued the next day during my meeting with the career counselor, who was very helpful in directing me to resources with a wealth of information about opportunities to teach abroad, including a pamphlet on the EPIK program in Korea. After the meeting I sat on the church steps and read from a book I'd been assigned for a history course in college and hadn't finished.

A few of my fellow former tour guides who still lived in the area had agreed to meet me for lunch, and we met at a Mexican place across from the campus that was a favorite of mine while I was in school. Lunch was a blast, as I'd always enjoyed hanging out with those guys. They made a job that was quite a challenge for me at many times a memorable and enjoyable experience, and it was great to catch up with them.

Lunch the next day at a burger place I'd frequented with my freshman year roommate also went very well. My fears about not having any connection anymore to the people I'd known at school were proving to be unfounded. Maybe I wasn't so isolated as I thought. Maybe I was capable of making and executing plans outside of the regimented "get through school and get to college and do your homework and graduate" framework I'd mastered and then suddenly been without, leaving me adrift. Maybe this Korea voyage I kept mentioning to all these people I met was actually sort of a good idea for me, and not just something I was saying to make it seem like I was still following through on some master plan. Maybe it actually did fit into my master plan.

While reading on the church steps that afternoon I'd called the number for the Korean Embassy in Boston as listed on the EPIK brochure, hoping to maybe set up an appointment to discuss the program or pick up more information. They answered in Korean, and when I tried to ask about EPIK they said something about lunch, I believe, and made it clear they were unavailable at that moment. Not the best start, but I was intrigued by this program, and I thought I'd look into it more later on after my brother and I got back from our hike. Korea was fun to think about, but it was still an abstract, foggy possibility hanging in some hard-to-imagine future. Mt. Washington was quickly becoming an unignorable, tangible obstacle right in front of my face. While my hike on the AT had given me some confidence that I was probably physically capable of getting to the top of the mountain, it had also humbled me enough to realize that doing so could very well be a thoroughly exhausting and somewhat dangerous undertaking.

The night before we were to leave my brother and I ordered some delicious takeout from an Italian place near his building, and enjoyed it while watching "Midnight in Paris". I thought it was a fitting way for two English majors to spend the final evening on campus before embarking upon the trek that awaited us.

1 comment:

  1. Trevor this was so enjoyable to read! I am so impressed that you remember everything down to the littlest detail!