[LEARNING CURVE]At just 8 years old, a walking, ta

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[LEARNING CURVE]At just 8 years old, a walking, ta

When I came here to teach English, I didn't believe that my education at Haverford College -- a challenging liberal arts college in Pennsylvania -- would be of much use.

After all, I was set to teach English to Koreans aged 5-12. Maybe I could use my degree from Haverford by telling Korean parents that I had gone to Haverford and letting them mistakenly think I had gone to Harvard.

This was all before I met an 8-year-old student whom I'll refer to as Billy. I had heard about Billy from another teacher who had taught him previously. The teacher told me that Billy was a nervous, eccentric student; he would twitch at random moments, stand up when he was excited about something he was going to say, and rub his tummy when he did not understand things. The teacher added that Billy hardly ever rubbed his tummy. He said that Billy's English was excellent, that his general knowledge was startling and that he would amaze me with his thirst for discussion about random topics.

I couldn't wait to meet the cerebral youngster. Billy didn't disappoint. Our first class together was supposed to focus on a story from our textbook, the inspiring tale of Amy Van Dyken, the American swimmer who had overcome myriad difficulties to win the gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Despite my efforts to keep our discussion on topic, Billy -- whose English needed little help -- changed our focus through sometimes abstruse segues.

From our discussion of swimming, Billy dove into a historical analysis of the importance of Archimedes' Principle. From our mention of Atlanta's instance of terrorism, Billy's train of thought sped to the Munich Olympics of 1972. And after we had somehow gotten on the subject of Dwight D. Eisenhower -- Billy said that he "liked Ike" -- Billy marched from the Cold War U-2 incident to present difficulties between North and South Korea. By the end of the day (a day on which Billy had stood up and sat down again at least 20 times), we had also discussed Scipio, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal over 2,000 years ago and the origins of the heliocentric theory of the universe. So much for Amy Van Dyken.

After that class, I asked myself what Billy's parents were putting in his kimchi. Three months later, I still want to know. Each day his wandering mind forces me to make use of the education I thought I wouldn't need. I'm discussing Shakespeare, the Renaissance, World War II. The contributions of Sequoia, the invention of the telegraph, the history of diphtheria in Alaska. The Confederate States of America, the Emperor Nerva, Louis Pasteur.

All in a day's work for one Korean wunderkind. All in a day's work of an English teacher who hopes he has learned enough to satiate this kid's desire for conversation about, well, pretty much everything.


by Justin Short

The writer is an English teacher in Seoul.

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