Interrupted Meridians: Korea in Mourning

For three weeks now I’ve been getting acupuncture for a wrist injury. As is standard in Eastern medicine, the doctor checked my tongue to learn more about my overall health. He discovered that my qi (natural energy) is very low. In order to balance my qi, he suggested that I “take it easy and eat a low fat diet. No fatty meats and no sweet bread.” That meant giving up one of my favourite Friday night traditions: barbecuing samgyeopsal 삼겹살 with Byongchan while listening to our favourite Korean radio host Bae Chul Soo play classic rock and the top American Billboard hits — his show is a little piece of home.

This diagnosis got me wondering about communication. In order to regulate my qi, the doctor stuck two needles at different points in my foot. In order to rework the enflamed ligaments in my right wrist, he put two needles in my left foot, three needles in my right hand, and one needle in my right arm. These points were all communicating to each other via the meridians in my body. The wrist is healing quite well, but it will take time and effort for my qi to restore itself.

acupuncture under a heat lamp
acupuncture under a heat lamp

Why will it take so much time?

Because my habits get in the way of the meridians. I like pies and pastries. I like beer and chicken. I like samgyeopsal. In order to heal my body, my mind has to get out of the way. I need to give up my bad habits to make room for those points in my body to communicate with each other and do their job. In essence, I need to listen to the messages that my body is sending me.

You may wonder how all this relates to Korea in mourning. As you have surely heard, a ferry full of high school students and their teachers has sunk and there is very little doubt as to the fate of the souls that remain on board. And why do they remain on board? Because the meridians of communication were interrupted. Interrupted by ego, by pride, by fear, by confusion, by upbringing, by habit. From one point to the other, messages were not transmitted. Whether it was the lack of a message from the captain, or whether it was not being able to listen to their own hearts, now we all mourn these students and grieve for the loss their families are suffering. Poor communication came at a high cost.

And last night, I did not stop our Friday night ritual. Once again, I interrupted the healing communication in my body. Interrupted by ego, by desire, by upbringing, by habit.

But last night Bae Chul Soo didn’t share his usual repertoire. No top ten hits and no classics to groove to. He only played melancholy songs. Korea is in mourning.

The Grieving Teacher

Five days ago, my cousin Dan slipped in to a coma. Three days ago, on April 1, 2011, he passed away. All my family is in Canada. I’m in Korea.

“Did you get my text?” A Skype message from my sister.

I check the text, “Call me when you have time.”

I go to my email, “Jos, call us when you get the chance.” An email from my father.

I got these messages during my 10 minute break between classes.

What could I do? As a teacher I don’t have the privilege of hiding behind a desk, or fading away into a crowd of colleagues in order to deal with my emotions. No matter what my beliefs are about student-centered classrooms, I am fully aware of the central role I play as a teacher. I knew I would have to face my participants at some point. I couldn’t pretend.

After ten minutes I went back to class and told my participants about what I had just learned. I cried. Some of them teared up, possibly connecting to their own painful memories. I told them about the pain my cousin had to endure for the last seven years. For five years he was a prisoner in his own body (tetraplegia), and then in the last two years he became a prisoner in his own mind (Guillain Barre Syndrome).

(This is a photo montage I made of my cousin yesterday morning. I was inspired to do this when this was the first song that popped up on my iTunes shuffle. There are no coincidences.)

I decided that sharing my grief was the only way to go. I couldn’t imagine walking out of class. I knew that in that moment, if I chose to leave, I would have left them wondering and worrying. In the end, I probably would have come back in shambles anyway.

I faced the same bout of vulnerability when I learned of my SIT friend, Kimberly Awaos’s passing last summer (June 16, 2010). I tried to keep going with my grammar lesson, like I hadn’t received a Facebook message from her daughter telling us that the cancer had finally got to her, but in the end I unraveled in front of them all.

Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Silly Teachers
Kimberly's visit to Daegu - November 2007
Enjoying Korean Delicacies

When my sister, also a teacher, asked me about my opinion of her own teacher tears, I told her I thought it was important for her 14-year-old students to see her emotional honesty. It teaches them that it’s okay to share our emotions. It also teaches them that they can be vulnerable too. It may also help them grieve a little.

All I know is that I felt better after I told them. I was even able to continue my lesson with more clarity. But the best thing I noticed, is that we all got a little closer.

I am happy to own my teacher tears.

What’s your protocol? Do you allow yourself to be vulnerable during hard times, or do you hide behind an emotional teacher wall? Do you see value in sharing your truth with students, or do you think it’s better to keep it from them?