The Story of Tomato
The confusing fruit/vegetable.
Pronounced quite differently by my British mother and American father.
Frequently served in salads, and, in Korea, alongside grapes and apples in fruit cups.
Also the nick-name of my favorite kindergartener (and Korean bff).
Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites… and I know that. I love all of my kindergarten students, and find each of them to be adorable, and amazing, and annoying in their own special way… but there was always something particularly unique about Sabina, (otherwise known as Tomato). She’s the cutest, spunkiest kid I have ever met, we have the same birthday, and, for these reasons and more, she became my unexpected favorite, and a big part of the reason I extended my contract.
So you’re probably wandering why the hell I call her Tomato. Long story short, first thing every day, my kindergarten class and I go through our morning routine. They meditate, and then we do the days of the week, the weather, and their feelings. As you can imagine, with a class of 12, this process takes a while. After learning about storms, it took even longer, because, being the jokesters that they are, they made a habit of shouting out, “IT’S A BLIZZARD” and “TORNADO!” when asked what the weather was like outside. Sabina, practicing her rhyming words, would always shout “Tomato!” instead.
…But it didn’t stop there. When asked, “How do you feel today?” most kids would list a smorgasbord of feelings like happy, angry, sad, and exhausted…or, more frequently, all of the above – (Side note: basically they have no clue how they feel… ever; and to have a kid say, “I feel very angry” with a huge smile on their face is one of the most twisted and terrifying things I’ve ever seen). Sabina, on the other hand, kept it pretty simple. I still don’t quite know why, but, everyday she’d say, “I FEEL TOMATO,” and, thus, the nickname Tomato was born.
In September, I was told it was her last day ON her last day, and all of the waterproof mascara in the world couldn’t have prepared me for it. At Korean hagwons, teachers don’t typically communicate with parents directly, unless we’re sending home report card comments, but, that day, I wrote a letter to her parents telling them how proud I am, and that I would really like to stay in touch – (aka nanny or babysit for free).
The response I received was much better than a babysitting request. On that Friday, the day after she left, Sabina’s mom messaged me saying, “Miss Kirstie, you have changed our minds. I’m truly moved. At home, parents take care of kids. In school, kids totally rely on their teachers. Having a good teacher is lucky for Sabina and I. On Tuesday, say, “Hello Tomato,” to Sabina as always.” So she came back, and I was absolutely ecstatic… but, unfortunately, that was not the end of the Tomato Rollercoaster.
At the end of October, Tomato left our school for good, and, though I was absolutely crushed, I totally understood her parents’ reasoning. When kindergarten classes were over for the day, she always stayed for afterschool. It wasn’t until 4:25 that she’d get on the bus to head home with the first and second graders, and the rest of the afterschool kindy kids. Then, due to construction along the route, she had an extremely long bus ride home… way too long for a girl so young. By the time she got home, she was exhausted, stressed, and unhappy… and hearing THAT broke my heart much more than learning she’d be moving to a different school
I kept in touch with her parents (and, again, emphasized my free babysitting offer). Just before Christmas I sent them a picture drawn by a girl in Beethoven class. It was a class portrait… and Sabina was in it. It made me smile, and broke my heart. Those kids either still don’t realize she’s gone, OR realize that she’ll always be a part of our class no matter what. Sabina’s mom was also touched, and responded with several recent holiday photos of Tomato. We arranged to meet after I got back from Australia, and planned a dinner for early January.
I hadn’t seen Tomato since she left Beethoven class in October, and was genuinely nervous about the dinner. I was right to worry because, at first, as expected, she acted totally shy and was not at all herself. On top of that, I thought I was just going to have dinner with Tomato and her mom, but, as it turned out, I was meeting the whole family: Tomato, mom, dad, and her older sister!
If I told you it wasn’t veryyyy awkward at first, I’d be a huge liar. I’ve only met her parents a handful of times… and it’s always been on the same days I’ve met every other student’s parent – (Thank goodness Tomato was easy to pick out of the crowd). Her parents ordered us beers, which threw me off. I thought to myself, “Is this a test? Do they want to see if I’ll drink in front of their daughters?” Then I remembered I’m in Korea, stopped overthinking, and took a big, delicious sip. Drinking is a huge part of the culture in Korea, and if you refuse a drink offered to you by a superior, it’s seen as extremely rude.
Tomato’s dad did most of the talking in the beginning. His English is much better than her Mom’s, and, I discovered that, though I thought I had been messaging her mom all along, most of the time, it was actually her dad. Tomato quickly warmed up to me as the dinner went on. At one point, she was poking a tomato around on her plate, and so I said, “Hey… tomato… look! You’re about to eat a tomato,” and she laughed hysterically. From then on it was game over, and she was 100% the silly, funny student I love and miss.
It was SO nice to hang out with her in a setting where I didn’t have to tell her to be quiet, or to sit nicely, or to focus. We just laughed, ate, played, and had fun. She taught me games she’d learned from friends at her new school, and got super territorial when her mom or sister tried to jump in.
When we were finished with dinner, her mom suggested we go get coffee and ice-cream. I’m not sure what it is with Koreans and getting coffee past 9 p.m., but I wasn’t quite ready for the evening to end, so I agreed. As we left the restaurant, Tomato clutched my hand and wouldn’t let go. She practically dragged me down the street toward the coffee shop, and continuously looked back over her shoulder at me, as if she was checking to make sure I was still there.
At the coffee shop she opened up my late Christmas present, and I think it’s safe to say she liked it. I brought her a koala T-shirt back from Australia, and other little odds and ends like hair clips, pencils, and stickers. She pulled the T-shirt on over her dress, snapped the Minions hair clip on one of her pigtails, and admired her sparkly new stickers. (If I’d known her sister was coming too, I’d have brought extra, but, being the sweet angel she is, Tomato opened up a pack of stickers and immediately shared a sheet with her older sister).
All in all, the evening was perfect. My stomach and heart have never been more full. I was so happy to see Tomato, and even happier her parents wanted to set up another day to meet before I leave – (We’re going to see Moana this weekend, and, I’ll tell ya what, I am pumped!) They said that if I come back to Korea, they want me to be her tutor, and a part of me almost considered ditching my plans to return home altogether. When I got home that evening, her mom sent me a text saying how sad Tomato was to see me leave after dessert. We arranged the movie date, and then her last text said, “I was so happy to meet today! Sleep tight!” I feel so welcome by that woman, it’s almost like having another mom in Korea.
Not long after my reunion with Tomato, I came across this quote by Miriam Adeney.
This could not possibly describe my current feelings more accurately. Though I’m looking forward to my trip, and I’m excited to return home to my family, I absolutely dread leaving my students. Korea has brought me a lot of experiences that I am thankful for. Of all of them, nothing comes close to the blessing of knowing and loving Tomato and the rest of Beethoven class.