By Kitty Dalton
My delightful English as a second language student announced that he would be returning to his country soon. Could the tutoring sessions continue online from Korea? B.J. had been a weekly student of mine, a “trailing spouse” for his wife who was on a one-year sabbatical performing research at a local university. I hesitated. I had been tutoring via Skype for several years and didn’t enjoy it all that much. Korean students usually wanted to talk in the morning, night time for me. I had been known to turn the camera off – better that they not see me in my pajamas or lying on the floor. What’s more, B.J. wanted the sessions for his two sons, ages 10 and 15. I knew that Korean parents often sent their children to hagwons for additional instruction in English and other subjects after the end of the regular school day. At least this family was trying to spare their boys that crushing schedule. But I also knew that with Korea’s high-stakes university entrance exams, this arrangement could last for a very long time. I semi-reluctantly agreed. The boys’ English was fairly good and I had two sons of similar age myself. How hard could it be? I set up a Paypal account and the first lesson was scheduled for Saturday morning, March 21, 2006. That Skype call continues to this day and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The prepared topics the parents wanted us to cover were eventually scrapped, as the boys and I became more comfortable with each other. I provided feedback using Skype’s text box (plus an occasional smiley-face emoji for a job well done.) They had after-school tutors for other subjects and another online ESL instructor, a Filipino named Apollo of whom I was a little jealous. Those Saturday mornings became a ritual as the years passed, a blur of life’s joys and sorrows, culminating in successive college graduations. The equally delightful mother would fill in when one or both boys, now young men, were not available. B.J. and I rarely spoke anymore.
What a rare privilege it is to get to know a family from a different culture so well. And our connection only deepened. Almost 10 years to the day of that first Skype call, my firstborn began a year-long adventure teaching English in Korea, met at the airport by the Korean family’s counterpart. The online tutoring sessions continued gratis – the parents performing as backup, if needed, was compensation enough for me. Half a year later, our two families united on Korean soil for the first and perhaps last time, our visit timed for yet another sabbatical. Our son has since returned to the U.S. and the Skype call continues. We talk just once a month now, for only 30 minutes or so.
They’re my only client and that’s alright with me. As language teachers, our lives are enriched by our students in more ways than they will ever know. I almost said no to that first Skype call, but may it be so for another dozen years.