Saturday, January 22, 2011

No Phone For You

The Fist of English.
We're currently between semesters at my school. The Korean school year is kind of odd. There's almost 4 months of classes in the fall and winter, and then between New Year and March 1 the students are at school but there aren't really classes, per se. They're just there. This happens again in the summer. I suppose studying is a full-time job.

Right now I'm teaching some of the incoming high school freshmen. They're all brand new to the school, having not gone to our middle school. This is immediately apparent as their behavior is—how shall I put it?—a little lacking. They're hilarious and keep me laughing from bell to bell but they don't always exhibit model behavior. This is especially apparent when it comes to cell phones. I had never seen a phone in one of our middle school classes until these new students arrived. They just can't keep them in their pockets.

It's all the usual distractions: text messages, Internet, games. Plus they have Japanese comics downloaded onto their phones. The other day I saw a kid looking at his lap so I sauntered over and caught him with his phone. "Don't play games in class," I told him, sternly. "No game! No game!" he protested. "Reading comics."

All of the teachers carry around "teaching sticks," big honking sticks that they swat the kids with when they get out of line. The swatting ranges from playful to possibly illegal. Corporal punishment is on its way out in the school system but for teachers who grew up with it, and students who know only one kind of discipline, it's slow to die. I disagree with hitting kids, and it's just not my style to carry around a bat, so instead I bought a big novelty fist that squeaks when you bop something with it. It's harmless and funny but it presents a visual that says, "I'm a person of authority." It's also embarrassing to a student who gets a squeaky bop in class. Lately there's been a lot of phone-related bopping.

I don't know if these new students are being so cavalier because it's technically between semesters, or if their previous schools were really permissive, but this is just annoying. I have warned them about phones in class. I have bopped heads. I have even confiscated phones. But they're addicted, it seems.

"I'm nice," I told them. "But be careful when you get upstairs and take real high school classes. Those teachers aren't nice." And it's true. They will not suffer phones in class. These kids are in for a rude awakening in a few weeks.

Friday, January 21, 2011

And The DJ

I recently posted a YouTube clip of "Panic," a song by the 80s British band The Smiths, to my Facebook page along with the confession that when I was young I thought the lyrics went, "And the DJ, and the DJ." A silly thing to think, for the song is famous—even infamous—for advocating listeners to "hang the DJ." My confession was met with incredulity, a little scorn, and astonishment, this last one from my high school girlfriend, with whom I shared a particular passion for this band.

"But I was only 14," I responded defensively. And the song might be famous now for that lyric—indeed, entire articles have been written about it—but when I was listening to The Smiths or any other music in my teens, it was in a void, with no markers to guide me or signposts to show me the way. I had only my exploding interest in unusual music and my own fervent imagination to guide me. In the UK, The Smiths were massively popular, their every release a cause for celebration. But in Foster City, a small suburb outside San Francisco, they were known only by a few, and loved by even fewer.

Nowadays, young people have the Internet to turn to for information. Indeed, anything you could ever want to know about anyone, at any time, is there. But in my youth, we had to rely on books and magazines purchased in the faraway Big City, or on word of mouth from similarly minded friends. So it's no surprise that I should mistake that lyric, or any other, because lyrics to our favorite songs were not easily obtained. In those days, there was less certainty but certainly more mystery.

Spurned on by its mystery, music was my everything. I remember being so besotted with a certain song, I constructed an entire lesson plan in my head for my English teacher to use, one involving us choosing the lyrics from a piece of music to offer as a modern equivalent of poetry, just so I could tell someone, anyone, how much it touched me. And I would listen to music on my cassette Walkman on the bus every day, my favorite songs soundtracking my young and confusing life.

But I never even dared try to listen to music in class.

In my day all we had in our pockets was our house key (if we hadn't forgotten it somewhere) and maybe a crumpled-up note from our best friend. Today's Korean young are overwhelmed with privilege. They have cell phones and MP3 players, electronic dictionaries and mini-TVs, often all one and the same. And they all seem to think they should be allowed to access any of them at any time in class, the teacher be damned. For all of the much-lauded Korean respect for teachers and the system of discipline in place, these students get away with some things that would have gotten us sent to the principal's office back in the day: things like drawing on desks, constantly getting up and walking around, and listening to music in class.

They think they're being sneaky. They look around to make sure no one is watching and then they slide their ear buds in. Maybe they'll pull up a hood or rearrange their hair to cover their ears. And then they spend a considerable amount of time staring at their laps and moving their fingers. Or maybe they'll make a small consent to authority and only block up one ear. But no matter how you look at, they've tuned the teacher out.

As a first-time teacher, I really have no idea what's going on. I'm just trying to keep it all together while creating lesson plans from scratch, trying to manage the time so we get through everything in the lesson, and trying to keep the class from devolving into an indoor riot. So when I see students do things like plug into their MP3 players, it drives me crazy. I'm doing my best to reach them. They don't have to like it but they do have to listen. Am I really so boring that the first chance they get they want to tune me out?

Throughout all of this, I have been thinking of my students as these incredibly young people. They are kids, of course, and range in Korean age (that being one or two more years than everywhere else) from 13 to 20. My first-year middle school kids are as child-like as you can get. They love professional wrestling and candy, and collapse on the floor in laughter when someone farts. My senior high school students are men in almost every sense of the word bar the legal. Very few are shorter than I am. But they're still kids compared to me.

But what about me when I was in middle school or high school? Was I ever like this? Did I run to the school store between classes for candy, or horse around with friends in class, or willfully ignore the teacher to look at something a friend had brought to school? Did I have bad days and resent the teachers, even the ones I liked? Did I sometimes wish I could be anywhere but that class, my hormones driving my emotions into the red? Did I even cut class one time, just once, because a cute, older girl asked me to cut with her?

Of course I did, and I was a good student. I was a good kid.

But I have also always been me. It's hard to separate the now me from the then me, the 38-year-old me from the 14-year-old me who spent hours listening to music from England and reading weird books bought in Haight Street bookstores. My personality is largely unchanged, now as then. I am still overly sensitive, prone to solitude and intensely fond of music. But I am also patient, weathered and mellow, things that I have arrived at only after taking the trip that has been my life.

I try my best to be a good teacher. While other native teachers just play games, or try to get by on the most minimal of lesson planning, I like to think I go the extra mile. I left a previous job as a magazine editor to go back to school so that I could teach English in Asia. As fun as writing was, it just wasn't rewarding enough. I wanted a job where I was giving back to the world in some way, contributing to the better good. I imagined myself answering students' questions, being there for them when they had hard questions, and enjoying the camaraderie between student and teacher. All of my romantic fantasies featured angelic, smiling students, with not one challenging delinquent among them.

However. Life is not a dream, despite what some poets might have you believe. Reality is a messy thing. And the reality of teaching is even messier.

There's a tendency when teaching to focus on the bad students. A class is made up of many different kinds of people. There's the good students, who sit in the front and always pay attention. After class they offer to carry my laptop or buy me juice, and tell me how much they like my class. There are the class clowns, who like to participate whether or not they have any idea what the answer is, just as long as they can say it loudly. There are the precocious students who know English but don't want to do it my way, who challenge what I say at every step. Mostly they drive me crazy but I also secretly love them because they're exercising critical thinking skills, however crudely. And there are the students who just don't care, for whatever reason. Maybe they're math whizzes but they stink at English, so they sleep or read or talk. It is a room of individuals, each thinking differently, with different goals and ambitions.

Because we expend so much energy on dealing with the problem kids, it's easy to generalize the whole class based on them: to see the class as a unit. For example, my 1-4 class is terrible. Their English ability is low so they don't care, and often resort to mimicking me. A downside of this is that I find myself not trying as hard with this class. They don't care so why should I? I dumb-down their lessons and often entertain the idea of abandoning lessons altogether in favor of games with minimal English. But a class is not a discreet unit. And when I fall into thinking of it as such I have effectively abandoned the good students in that problem class.

I have also abandoned the bad students. Like those students who just want to listen to music, these "bad students" that drive me so crazy are people, just like me. But they are not patient and weathered and mellow. They are emotional and annoyed and occasionally angry. I saw one boy give a co-teacher an intense look of hatred and then storm out of class. I couldn't believe it. But they are also sometimes funny and mischievous and, I believe, really want to be respected.

There's one student in my 1-4 class who has been trouble since the beginning. This is, however, partly my fault. He is the "king" of class, I have been told by the other students, and will always raise his hand even when he doesn't know the answer. On one of the first days, I rebuked his enthusiasm with a dismissive, "Not you." What I should have said, of course, was, "Let's give someone else a chance." But I didn't. And what resulted was a power struggle that waged for months.

I still don't understand his motivations. For the most part we are friends now. I encourage his enthusiasm and depend on him to keep the class in line, for the other students seem to respect his authority. But he also pushes mine on occasion.

"Hello, Adam," he said to me in the hall one day.

"Adam Teacher," I corrected, hoping to be thought of in the same way as the Korean teachers, whose names are always appended with sangseongnim (which can mean either "sir" or "teacher," it seems).

"Adam Student," he retorted, a mischievous smile on his face.

Of course he was joking but he was closer to the mark than he may have realized. Although I was hired to be a teacher to these boys, in many ways I am their student. And not just because I am a first-time teacher going through what is effectively on-the-job training. It's more than that. They're teaching me about life. And, strangely enough, about death.

I'm almost 40. I have never been married. I don't have any children. Until recently, I never even thought about my own mortality. The fact that the human race might continue after my death had never really occurred to me. Call it profound selfishness or just an unwillingness to look beyond my own ego. I suppose most people realize this when they have progeny; staring into the face of their own flesh and blood, they know that this miniature version of themselves, different yet somehow the same, will carry on living after they're gone.

Not me. I have no spawn, no Mini Me. Until coming to Korea, I had very little contact with young people at all. But these kids, these students I see everyday, will still be chugging along, living and laughing and loving long after I'm gone. I'm not so vain to think that their weekly interaction with me with blow their minds enough to make an impression that will last a lifetime, but if even just a few remember one thing I say to them, that will be enough.

When I was 14, there was a substitute teacher who would occasionally teach at our school. His name was Don Gross, and he was the coolest adult I had ever met. He wore Doc Martens boots and Levis jeans, and thrift store sweaters. He had unkempt hair and published books of poetry through City Lights, the same company that published Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

He didn't even talk like an adult, at least not like any adult I had ever met. I remember the first time he taught at our school, he was filling in for an absent English teacher. He had to give us a lesson on superfluous commas and so started with a justification for why we should care about such a thing. No teacher had ever bothered to justify English for us before, ever. And yet here he was, trying to convince us why this dry grammar lesson mattered.

"Let's say you've got a good job for an advertising agency," he started, leaning against the big desk at the front of the room. "Things are going really well. You get to fly all around the world first class and write advertising copy. What you write is really well received and you're like a star. You get to hang out with celebrities and famous sports players. It's the good life. But then one day you turn in some copy with a superfluous comma. Your boss fires you, and poof! Gone are the jets and the celebrities and sports stars. Your wife leaves you and you become an alcoholic and end up living on the streets. All because of that one superfluous comma."

He was making it up as he went along, of course. I'm sure he walked into our class that morning not having any idea what he was going to say. It may even have been his first time substitute teaching ever. But the point is that it was not only what he said, but the way in which he said it, that touched me. What he said moved me enough that I remember it to this day. Twenty-five years later I can still recall that off-the-cuff lecture on superfluous commas. And not only that, but I often think of it while I'm writing. I'm actually thinking of it right now, wondering if the commas I'm placing in this piece are really all necessary.

Of course, I'm hoping that I can make an impression on these students somehow. That something I say, some little bon mot about English will stick in the back of their mind and make itself useful sometime in the future, like during an interview for college, or during a job interview. Or even if it's just a smile that they remember, that will be fine.

The 14-year-old me who loved music passionately and didn't always pay attention in class is still here. He stands beside me everyday while I teach. He reminds me not to see the students sitting before me as a unified class, but as individuals. And he reminds me to cut the bad kids some slack, because they're just teenagers trying to make their own way in the world, and they really don't mean it, even if what they say does sometimes hurt. And he tells me to try to see things from their point of view. The dedication and determination of these kids astounds me. They study from morning until night, everyday. No wonder they're tired. No wonder they don't always pay attention, or get mouthy. I would too. I do, actually, and take it out on them sometimes. Only I get paid for it; they get punished for it.

And the 14-year-old me reminds me that it's not me that my students are tuning out when they try to listen to music in class, but music that they're tuning in. I saw a student that I had previously caught listening to music in the hall after class and asked to hear what he was listening to. "Korean hip-hop," he said, by way of excusing the music as not being of my taste. "That's OK, I said. "I'd like to hear it." The music was light and melodic, a world's difference from what I usually think of as hip-hop. "I love hip-hop," he said proudly as I handed the headphones back to him. "It's good," I replied, happy to have made a small connection with him. "It's really good."

This was my entry to a provincial essay contest. I don't think I won.

Korea On Its Own Terms

You'd think I'd be familiar with culture shock by now, having lived overseas before. And I am. I'm familiar enough with that unwelcome house guest to know when it's moved in, but not familiar enough to know how to entice it to leave. But leave it will, and did, so now I can look at the mess it left behind and see what it all means.

I'm declaring myself free of Korean culture shock. For now. If I remember correctly from my year in Japan, culture shock has a nasty habit of dropping by unannounced just when you think you've gotten rid of it for good. Well, next time I'll be prepared.

So what have I learned? I have learned that I have to take Korea on its own terms. Generally when people experience culture shock they're fighting against the fact that their new host country is not like home. But for me, I was upset that Korea was not like Japan. I had adapted to Japan. I knew what to say when, what the cultural peculiarities were, and what the worse days to travel were. Now I was in a new country that looked a lot like Japan (and by rights should have been Japan, if JET had not forsaken me) but everything I knew was wrong. Speaking Japanese here was not only incorrect, it was likely to get me lynched.

Korea and Japan are similar, to an extent. Both have borrowed a lot from their neighbor, China, including bits of culture and elements of the language. Both are also hierarchical societies that stress seniority and deference to authority rather than individual will, and both have strong undercurrents of Confucianism running through them. The Japanese language is even considered to be an offshoot of Korean. But you would never confuse the two countries, just as you would never confuse France and Spain, or Germany and America, even though they share many similarities, both culturally and linguistically.

So I have come to learn. But not only have I learned it, I have accepted it, and doing this, embraced it. I don't want Korea to be Japan any more. I want Korea to be Korea, in all its messy, noisy glory. I am enjoying Korea for what it is. I am enjoying learning the language as well, which is close enough to Japanese that it's not a bear to learn but different enough that it's an ongoing, enjoyable challenge.

I look forward to what Korea has to show me next.