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Trees and flowers



Like most junior high and high school students in Humboldt County, the teenagers I work with as a tutor are scrambling to finish their homework during this, their final week of school -- there are essays on American authors due, presentations about U.S. History to be made, tests to be taken.

Unlike most junior high and high school students in Humboldt County, however, the teenagers I work with live together in what used to be a convent, the former home of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and are getting ready to move back home to South Korea for the summer. The hallways smell of cleaning products, and piles of clothes, electric guitars and stereo equipment wait to be packed for the flight back.

Most of the students, who study at St. Bernard's Catholic School through an arrangement with the Korean education company Iroonet, are looking forward to seeing their families, although many of them will spend the summer in a hagwan, a private school geared toward preparing them for SAT and AP tests (with public and private spending combined, South Korea spends more money on education than any country in the world).

Despite the high expectations of their parents (one described parental standards as "harsh"), the students make plenty of time for basketball and video games.

"Their parents always request [that I] make them to study harder," said Jaeho Cho, who runs the program for Iroonet, "But, you know, they are just kids, right? So it's kind of difficult."

During these final days of school, there's a lot of hanging around, waiting to leave, as the minutes drag by. The end of a school year is nothing if not a time for reflecting on the past, so I asked some of the students about their time here so far.

The concerns in the convent are not atypical: finding out who likes who at school, needing a new pair of headphones for the latest mp3 player, having too much homework. The added challenge of experiencing secondary education in an unfamiliar language and culture is the source of hundreds of tiny misunderstandings.

"We are not fluent in English, like to make jokes and stuff," said Patrick Kim, a junior. "Since you're not fluent in English, you can be shy."

"It's kind of dumb," said freshman Catherine Yoo, "but one morning my friend said, 'It smells like updog in here,' and I was like, 'what's updog?' and they started laughing."

Some of the students had trouble coming up with anything to say about life in Eureka, although one word kept cropping up: boring.

"When you said you were writing an article, I thought we'd have a lot of things to tell you," said 8th grader Won Choi. "But now I can't think of anything."

"In the big cities you have more things to do," said Yoo. "But it's peaceful around here in Eureka." And she likes the beach, she added.

"You can just walk around," said Lynn Kim, a graduating senior. "I like to walk. But they need more shopping."

"We came from kind of big cities in Korea, where there's a lot of entertainment and stuff," said Patrick Kim. "But here, there's nothing but trees and flowers."

Cho, the Iroonet program manager, agreed. When he moved to Eureka one and a half years ago, his first impression of the town was not unlike that of others who experience it for the first time: "I thought it was very silent. And there are no, you know, high buildings. And the weather, it's not like California."

But Cho -- like his students, whose schedules include studying, tutoring, sports and practice SAT tests -- is so busy that he rarely has time to go out. "I don't have any time off: 24 hours, seven days. I am their father and mother."

He paused, then added, "Actually, I love the students, so it doesn't feel like work."

-- Joel Hartse

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