by Steven Ward

The Student Who Became the Teacher

A few months ago I sat down to my first-ever pair programming session. I had been stuck on Free Code Camp’s counting cards JavaScript challenge for several days, and now I was about to have a seasoned programmer take a look.

It was the middle of the night, and my three-year-old daughter was asleep in the same room, but I dared not move to the other room and risk waking up my six-month-old daughter and wife. I was nervous about this fact, but excited to have the chance to have an expert look at my code for the first time.

How I met my “Teacher.”

When I first met Yoochan, he was my student.

Yoochan knew even then what he wanted to do with his life. My first memory of him was of him scribbling in a notebook between classes, drawing what seemed to be a wireframe concept of a website. I asked what he was working on, and he sheepishly said it was a Wordpress theme, not expecting me to know what he was talking about. But I did.

Yoochan was serious about his studies, and poured himself into his General Education courses, while continuing to teach himself to code on the side. Other students in his cohort spent more time partying than studying, but Yoochan was busy selling custom Wordpress themes and devouring new programming languages. He wanted to create the next Facebook, and knew full well the amount of hard work and study that his dreams would require.

After his transfer to the US and my move to another job in another town, we kept in touch occasionally via Facebook. His posts about the tech world approached obsession, but the occasional complaints about finals and selfies on Spring Break were in the mix as well. We chatted a couple of times about life, and his successful transfer to a better school a year later, which also happened to get him closer to Silicon Valley, where his heart was leading him.

Teaching as Collaboration

Our goal was simple enough:

A description of the Counting Cards challenge from Free Code Camp.

Yoochan patiently explained how to setup ScreenHero, as I typed my responses to him instead of speaking, for fear of waking up my daughter. I showed him the objective of the lesson and the code I had already written.

We moved over to CodePen to test out a few variations. All along the way he was teaching me about the higher-level concepts at work in JavaScript, as well as a few CodePen shortcuts to make getting around easier.

We walked through my code line by line together. Rather than pointing out every error, he would just tell me what the purpose of a given command was, and ask if I thought there might be a better way. His natural skill as a teacher impressed me. But then something interesting happened.

After we had examined every line of code, cleaned it up and gotten it into shape, we clicked “run.”

It didn’t work.

We went back through it, found a couple more things to tweak, and ran it again.

It still didn’t work.

Then, it hit me: he didn’t know the answer.

The Plot Twist

OK, so, there’s one big thing that I failed to mention: while I was chatting from a house full of new life, this twenty-something was in a hospital room unable to sleep due to the cocktail of drugs swirling through his system. He was dying from cancer. But he didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about Silicon Valley acquisitions, exciting new startups, and, of course, code.

Sometime during his first semester at his new school, he had started experiencing stomach problems. It got bad enough that he went to student health services. They sent him home with some antacids. The problems got worse. He went back again, and still failed to get answers. Finally, he came back to Korea, where his stomach cancer was diagnosed almost immediately.

He dropped out of school and stayed in Korea to receive treatment, although you wouldn’t know it by his social media posts. I chatted with him a few times about some cool new app he’d found or one of his ideas. The conversation rarely, if ever, turned to cancer or his condition. At one point he was all better, had internships lined up in Seoul, and was ready to take the world by storm.

And then he wasn’t. Almost as soon as he’d started the internship, he had to quit and check back into the hospital.

Looking at his Facebook feed, it was always hard to tell how he was really doing, because so much of it was his blog posts about learning new programming languages, or some new idea he had for an app, or a website, or an E-commerce site.

I managed to visit him in the hospital last winter, where he filled me in on much of the backstory behind the very occasional vaguebooking that he did. It was a heartbreaking story, but Yoochan had nothing but optimism in his voice. He talked about what a blessing this whole experience was and how it would fuel his career.

Now he had a burning passion inside of him to help cancer patients, especially young ones like himself. He wasn’t quite sure what form that would take yet, but he was sure it would happen. Naturally, it would be an app. Or maybe a forum site. Or just a blog to start out.

I met his mom, and, as a parent myself, was in awe of her. She stood by his side, listening to him tell his story in a foreign tongue, which he had now nearly mastered — yet another reason to be proud of her over-achieving son.

They finally came to the right hospital, he said. They finally found the right treatment. He smiled at his mom and patted her hand as she choked back tears.

The Lesson

I know exactly what it feels like to stand in front of people as the supposed “expert” on a topic only to be thrown a curveball question I didn’t expect and don’t know how to answer. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad teacher. Sometimes the question was just phrased in an awkward way that led me to misunderstand it. Or maybe I was just off my game, and the answer slipped my mind.

I recognized this instantly when it happened to Yoochan. I remember thinking, “Okay, this is awkward, how can I gracefully let him know it’s totally cool, and that I’ve learned a lot from him anyway?”

It turned out that I didn’t have to because Yoochan already knew something that had taken me several years of teaching to figure out: teaching is not just moving digital facts from one brain to another.

Real teaching is the analog act of taking someone by the hand and exploring a topic together. What makes a good teacher isn’t an encyclopedic knowledge of a topic. It’s the wisdom to use just enough of your knowledge to make the journey together interesting.

In the end, there is not that much difference between the student and the teacher. Both will gain something valuable from their time together.

Yoochan did not get embarrassed. He fessed up. I bounced some ideas off of him. We tried a couple of them, and they didn’t work either. Yoochan suggested stepping away for a bit and coming back to look at it the next day. That’s exactly what I did, and I managed to figure it out almost right away. I wasn’t proud of my solution, but it worked.

Confession: I still don’t know what he meant by “refactoring the code.”

My Teacher, my Hero

I received confirmation a few hours ago that Yoochan died. It was not unexpected. His Facebook posts in recent weeks had gotten fewer and farther between. He announced that he was ceasing all of his development activities. Then, a few days later, an apology to his friends because his condition was a lot more serious than he had been saying.

He went to a new hospital “deep in the mountains,” where he would not have regular internet access. I wondered if it was hospice. His last couple of updates abandoned his normal practice of giving English translations in addition to the Korean. His last one was short and to the point. “This week. See you up there.”

Some might see it as cruel to use the term “lifelong learner” to describe Yoochan, but I see him as the term’s apex. How many college students do you know that, after receiving a diagnosis such as his, would have continued right on studying psychology, algebra, or chemistry?

I’m not suggesting that dedicating every spare moment of your life to learning is an end unto itself. I’m saying that finding subjects you love and can jump into head first will give you more quality time on this planet, irrespective of how much total time you have left. Yes, studies are coming out suggesting that continuing to learn new things is the key to delaying dementia and Alzheimer’s, but dementia 50 years from now was not of concern to Yoochan.

Personally, I think that in the last six months or so he knew full well what his future held, and his talk of being cured was his way of taking care of the rest of us. In the meantime, he could get a bit of enjoyment out of those painful, sleepless nights by reading up on the latest Elon Musk project or coding an iPhone app that popped into his head. Although he seemed conflicted about how to use his social media presence in this phase of his life (for example, he occasionally deactivated his Facebook profile without notice), his GitHub account was, and remains, in a sense, immortal.

Being able to do this thing that he loved in moments of loneliness and pain made life worth living.

The Last Word

I’m sorry, Yoochan, for making this final part all about me, but I’m the guy writing this memorial, and I have something to get off my chest.

I’m sorry for not checking in with you more frequently.

I’m sorry that this world of adulthood — which you spent far too little time in — did not have a cure for you.

I’m sorry I couldn’t get one of your tech heroes to visit you in the hospital. If only you had loved baseball as much as you loved code...

I’m sorry I did not bring my daughter to meet you at the hospital. I wanted her to meet you and remember you, then ask me about you and your story later in life, when she might be able to understand fully. I worried that it might be somehow bothersome, or depressing for you. I’m pretty sure I was wrong about that.

I’m sorry about a lot of things, but I will never forget you.

I know that you held deep religious beliefs about what happens after death. I do not share the strength of your convictions, but the one thing I do know for certain is that your life has informed the way I teach my students, and how I will raise my daughters.

Therefore, I can close this memorial not with sad regrets but a happy promise: I will do my best to instill these lessons from your life in all the young lives that I come into contact with by living according to your example. Then they will — by exemplifying those values themselves — pass them on to their own co-workers, students, and children.

Future generations may not know your name or your story, but they will benefit from your time on this planet. In that tiny, but tangible way, you will live on.

I think you would like that.