Gluesticks and Grace

Dear Internet Citizen,

You don’t know me, but you probably assume that I possess three doctoral degrees, mile-long legs, and a perfect sunflower-farming husband and organic-cotton-wearing, multi-lingual toddler.

Sorry to disabuse you of such a pleasant image, but in reality, I am simply another twenty-three year old ex-pat living in South Korea, eating jajungmyeung and teaching small children to read, write, and dance to early 90’s rap tunes. This hardly sounds glamorous, and I haven’t even told you about the sneezes in my face.

Technically, I’m not trained to be a kindergarten teacher. I did help teach English 101 for two years in grad school, and I’ve encountered many a child in my twenty-three years of life, but I first stepped into my kindergarten classroom armed only with my creativity, my language, and a shamelessness capable of fascinating small children for approximately five hours a day.

However, I wasn’t prepared for the strange, cult-leader-admiration that is the territory of teaching small children. I am thoroughly, profoundly, goo-ily loved by my tiny students. Every morning before school begins, they start filing up to my desk to make obeisance. The Liz Teacher (myself) smiles goonily down as they extend offerings: crayon drawings, poorly-spelled messages, linty bits of candy, strange-looking stickers, or pieces of grass they found outside. Sometimes, the girls bring me Disney Princess paraphernalia, or ask to share their purple Barbie lipsticks, which they then apply to my face with grave, thoughtful expressions.

If you could see these children shuffling towards me in perfect faith to give their gifts, I think it might break your heart. At five years old, my students are already shuddering under a cultural burden to perform; when Rebecca or Julia or Andrew hands me a home-made card, trusting perfectly that I will love it so much I might suffer a fainting fit, that is when I feel the heavy burden of faith.

There are two facts you should know:

  1. At least 50% (and probably more) of Korean women have received plastic surgery. Many of those who can’t afford it, fake it. Eyelid tape–look it up. Ten-year-olds wear it to school.
  2. South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in the world. High schoolers, young adults, celebrities, businessmen . . .

South Korea is an amazing country that has pulled itself from the rubble of war to become an economic powerhouse. Unfortunately, the sacrifice required for such a transformation seems, at least partly, to have been the South Korean people. The ethos is that everyone can (and should) work harder, better, and faster. Even five-year-old students are expected to out-read, out-write, and out-sit-nicely their peers. Essentially, my students are learning how to measure their worth by their output.

But, back to the burden of faith. As I dispense glue sticks and hugs, I’m looking into perfect children’s eyes that, statistically speaking, will be carved into a new form by a plastic surgeon in only eight or nine years. I wonder, with a sense of heaviness, how I can make grace drip from my fingers and into their five-year-old hearts. I want to fill their spirits to overflow with it. When I help Brian hold his pencil, I am hoping that the truth of his own soul will sink somewhere deep in his very marrow; or, when Anne, who’s wearing a plastic tiara because it’s her birthday, tells me how she slept with Mommy last night and cleaned up her father’s puke in the morning, I want to hug her so hard that my arms will leave a permanent, invisible shield: a shield to make her remember that her body is not a landscape to refashion, but the most perfectly sacred, perfectly designed house of the spirit. I want her to feel, even if she can’t objectively know, how God formed her tiny Korean nose with her soul in mind, and how Christ himself wore a sacred body so we, also, could be holy in our skin.

But in the end, by trying to love so hard that grace will ooze, invisible and permanent from my fingers, I find that God reveals my own doubts and corrects my faith. In class, I always wonder, “Can I really give enough?” Even if I pour a little grace into these children’s lives every day, how can I pour enough to keep them full for years to come?

Then I remember that I, too, incarnate something sacred. I remember that God stretches the heavens, the flour, the oil . . . my imperfect gropings towards grace.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Arise, go to Zaraphath . . . behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” 

So he arose and went to Zarephath, and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks; and he called to her and said, “Please get me a little water in a jar that I may drink.” 

As she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a piece of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.” 

Then Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.’” 

So she went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty. . . 

Christ breathes eternity. He does not make a thing to watch it perish.

He will not let our offerings be exhausted.

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One thought on “Gluesticks and Grace

  1. Liz – I loved reading your article – you are such an amazing writer to capture your experiences and allow those of us in the States to see a glimpse of God’s world you are impacting one child at a time! Praying for you – Pam Spigarelli Johansen

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