75. Flamencoly


In 1982 I taught 10th grade remedial summer school English (if that isn’t redundant) at the local high school. There were maybe 18 kids, two of whom were Korean. It took me a while to get the story on the Korean boy. First of all I could not understand his name, “Jae Taik”. He must have said it ten times before I understood him. I think I had him write it for me. The funny thing was he had just finished 8th grade. I asked him why he was taking remedial 10th grade English. His response, “I want to learn.” I suspected a scam. I gave the class a grammar pretest. He aced it.

The next day I huddled with Jae Taik. “Why are you really here? No one takes summer school English for fun and profit. What’s up?” He paused and said, “I am here to help my sister pass. She failed English this year. I am good at it.”  I reassured Jae Taik that his sister would not fail. Then I asked him what he would really like to do. He told me that he wanted to study astronomy. Since I taught Greek mythology to seventh graders, I suggested that he read the myths and discuss them with me. He eagerly agreed.

We got to be close. I recall that we went to a high school football game together, and went to Harper’s Ferry once. He met my family several times and I met his awkward arrangement of family. He and his sister Min Jeong lived with their Korean aunt and her local husband. Their mother lived in Los Angeles. It was Jae Taik and Min Jeong’s responsibility to care for their nephew when they were not in school. There was no love lost in that apartment.

Jae Taik tried out for the football team the next year, his sophomore year I believe. He kicked field goals longer and better than the local anointed kid, but the coach, who was not sure if South Korea was a communist country or not, told Jae Taik, “I gotta go with the senior, Kid.” He was the outsider looking in. His only friend was a Vietnamese boy who lived in town. In the end it didn’t matter too much. His family moved to Los Angeles at the end of the school year.

I heard from Jae Taik at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He got on well at L.A. High School, worked on the newspaper. Made friends. Applied to USC for film school. And he slipped into the foggy woods of daily life for me. He was there, but not visible.

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Dave Vega was my student teacher in 1993. He had married a local girl and moved from Southern California to Franklin County, PA. He experienced a lot of culture shock, being a tall (6’5″) Mexican gentleman with grace and compassion. He told me of his life growing up in L.A., how he quickly had to run home from school to avoid the violent gangs that ruled the streets. He had played basketball and guitar, not at the same time, of course. Somehow through sheer will and faith he made it through college with a degree in music. In the process he had developed carpal tunnel symptoms in his hands from too much guitar practice. Teaching English was his back up plan.

We got on well. And when he got a full time job an hour away, I was pleased for him. And like Jae Taik he faded into the foggy woods of daily life for me.

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One day I got a call from Jae Taik. He was moving to D. C. to do a master’s degree in international studies at George Washington University. Seems law school in San Francisco had turned him off. I drove down to the Metro station in Shady Grove to pick up my former student. It was wonderful to see him and listen to all  his experiences and wisdom. He had traveled extensively through Europe for a year, still the outsider but with an excuse. He was traveling through not settling. I had a flamenco disc playing on the cd player. He noticed and approved. Asked me if I knew the Gypsy Kings. Told me about his passion for flamenco guitar music.

For some reason I felt compelled to tell him about Dave, who had grown up in L.A. and played flamenco music. I told Jae Taik a bit about Dave. He responded, “Dave Vega?”

I said, “Yeah, but it can’t be the same guy you’re thinking of.”

“Six five with green eyes?”

“Yeah, but it’s impossible.”

“We were best friends at L.A. High School. I went to all his home games.”

I was blown away. I told Jae Taik about Dave’s experience with me teaching and where he lived now.

“Let’s get together!”

And we did. I called Dave and he came over the next night. It was a surreal experience for me. We walked together down my street, tall Mexican Dave on my left, shorter Korean Jae Taik on my right. I felt like I was walking in heaven. Definitely not in the foggy woods of daily life. Dave reminded me, “I told you my best friend was J.T.”

“I thought J.T. was a Black guy. You never said Jae Taik!”

“He was J.T. to me.”

And we grinned together like three gypsies who shared something special around a campfire. And that would be friendship.

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