“Esther, I’m sorry. I know it’s 5 a.m. But…”
I twisted myself out of bed and smiled sleepily at the two girls who sat blinking hopefully up at me, papers clutched in their hands. Oh, right. All the English essays were due today. “Sure,” I said, reaching for a pen. “I’d be happy to.”
Shuttles of moonlight sliced through our shadows as I weaved through complex and simple sentences, scribbled in margins, crucified incorrect grammar, and handed back a paper crisscrossed with red comments. “Thank you!” she squealed. “You’re the best. I’ll buy you something yummy today.”
“That’s really okay,” I replied, because I knew it wouldn’t happen, and it really was okay even if it didn’t. “And you’re a really good writer! Just let your thoughts flow naturally.” I glanced at the clock. 6 a.m. I’d better get ready for school. “See you!”
As soon as I entered the classroom, I was bombarded with an artillery of one-page sheets with variegated tone, diction, and syntax. Every essay, even the most clumsily written or stiffly formal, revealed a surprising little shard of the friends I loved – the people I thought I knew so well. The pretty, flirty prom queen’s essay about her lack of confidence, her longing for a prince charming to make her perfect. The quiet, dark-eyed boy’s clouded refusal to see beauty in the world. The cynical, dirty-mouthed boy’s timidity. The laughing class president’s fear of mediocrity. I treasured every fragile fragment I came across, and was enriched by their words. Entranced by their secret worlds.
“I know you’re busy, Esther, but…”
“If you have time…”
“Can I make an English appointment with you at dinnertime?”
“I want one at midnight.”
“Then I’ll ask for your help in the morning.”
“May I call you when I’m studying?”
“Aren’t you exhausted?” Eunkyung, one of my best friends, asked me. “Ignore those bitches! Tell me who bothers you the most. I’ll beat her up for you.”
“No, that’s all right.” I waved my hand, laughing. And it really was. I sincerely felt happy helping them, especially the few friends who really, really needed my help – I could see it in the way desperation tugged at their lips and the corners of their eyes, and the way their faces lit up when I said they could borrow my English notes. And truly, I felt an intense pleasure in the thought that these students, the cleverest and most diligent I had ever met, geniuses from every province in Korea, would think my poor skill in English worthy enough to help them. How deeply honored I felt whenever they came to me as an authority on what would come out on the English finals, and trusted my word more than the teacher’s! “Thank you, Esther,” my friends said, but in my heart I thanked them, for thinking so highly of me as to come to me for help. When I said, “It really makes me happy, helping you,” I meant it – to the bottom of my heart.
Sometimes, though, I feel the dregs of primitive self-preservation stain my blood with cold disappointment. When I’ve taught a classmate English for hours on end, only to have her call me a homeschooled misfit. When I’ve taught people English on their request, only to have them shrug behind my back and say, “Not as good as she’s reputed to be.” When I’ve had my close friend lie, “I’ve missed you,” then spread out her English textbook and demand a comprehensive review of everything we’ve learned this year the night before the test. When I begged my friends to let me study for my biology test tomorrow, locking and bolting my door, only to have them barge in again, grab hold of me five minutes before the test, and say sorry blithely over their A in English while I stare, shocked, at my unexpected B in my Biology. When tears of timid joy have stained my cheeks at my friend’s renewed kindness the day before the English test, only to have him ditch me again as soon as the midterms are over. My parents tell me, then, that helping others is pathetic. “Are they going to put you into university?” they demand. “Are they college admissions officers? You have to learn to say ‘no’!” And at those times I agree.
But oh! Then there are those beautiful, shining moments when the little I have offered for my friends aren’t nearly enough to repay everyone for my love for them! The night when I came back into my dorm room to see a box full of cupcakes blooming like flowers of gratitude on my desk. The day Byung-soo gave me the math notebook he had compiled painstakingly for one whole year, saying, “This is my gift to help you with your calculus.” The time Minsung shouted, “First place in the World Scholar’s Cup writing, Esther! This proves you’re the world’s best writer!” The time Nahyun said, “I’ve never thrown away any of your English notes, Esther, for these whole two years. I have them all, from the very first semester, stacked up in my house.” The time Subin handed me a sparkling gold image of a fairy on Christmas, saying shyly, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. This reminded me of you.” The time a senior began teaching me calculus for my help with his college application essays. The time my friends threw a surprise birthday party for me, and nearly everyone in our year came to hug me and thank me enthusiastically, until my presents overflowed from my arms in cascades of bright colors, overflowed in plentiful streams like my joyful tears did inside me. Being loved by those I loved so dearly—every moment I felt such joy, I knew that this – making others happy – was the thing I loved most in the world.
Of all the heroines in novels, the eponymous heroine of Frances Burney’s Cecilia is my favorite: not for her beauty, or her wit, or her wealth, or her story, but for her strong desire to do right, and her tireless efforts to serve those around her through her riches. Serving others – it is a universal theme discussed in almost every genre of literature, from The Old Curiosity Shop to Anna Karenina, but so seldom seen in everyday life! However, it is one I truly hope to accomplish in mine. Whether it be through proliferating English notes, making practice questions, and editing essays in high school, or (hopefully) bringing tears to the eyes and smiles to the mouths of the broken through my writings in the future, to serve others with everything I have that is worthy of giving – that, I think, is the greatest happiness humans can possess.