Are you ready for a novel?

I'm having a really lovely week with students so far. Not that any is particularly unlovely, on the whole. But this week we're working on agree/disagree, which means I get to hear their opinions in a way that I normally don't get a chance to, when we're working on more mundane language. I also get to tell them a bit about my own opinions, and the culture where I'm from. Both sides have been more than a little surprised by what we've learned about each other so far.

Firstly, there's the issue of "Men are stronger than women: agree or disagree." Which has only resulted in more lunch time arm wrestling, ending in mostly student victories, since the boys did serious damage to my shoulder last week, and my pride isn't worth the price of a trip to the hospital. I guess they're right -- men, even baby ones, are stronger. Or more willing to injure themselves for the sake of bragging rights. Although usually I fall into that category myself....

The one thing that has really, really surprised me has been the response to "Women should work." Every single last one of these boys believe that women should have the right work -- some do not think they should have to, but they all think that they should have the option. I explained to them that I was very surprised to hear that, because in my hometown, there are still a number of boys their age who believe women should not work. They, in turn, were shocked to hear this. They're aware that a certain stereotype exists about Western men being kinder, gentler and overall supposedly less sexist than Korean men. I explained that not all of the U.S. was like that, but certainly large parts of it still are.

You could see something change in their faces as we discussed this, and in more than one class, there has been, "But, Teacher you... you working. You very far from family. Not married." What could I do, but smile? It was another moment, despite all of the cultural and language difficulties, where we became more human to each other. As all students the world over have a habit of doing with all teachers the world over, they often fail to realize what my real life looks like, or that I even have one. It's a remarkable experience in human interaction to have these moments that shatter that misunderstanding, especially in this particularly unique situation, where I am not only a teacher to them, but also a foreigner, and my life looks much different because I am here teaching them, than an ordinary teacher in a hometown somewhere. Or all their other teachers.

They are constantly aware that I am a foreigner, but they rarely seem to realize what that means. I've been asked before if Mike is the little brother they've heard me mention in class, when they see me out with him. It doesn't even occur to some of them that I don't live with my family, let alone thousands and thousands of miles away from them.

In the confusion and chaos of the transfer to the English Zone from their classrooms, I've had to explain this week that it's immensely important that they keep the Korean conversations to a reasonably low din. I don't understand a lot of Korean, I explained, and so when you are all speaking Korean and it gets really loud, it's hard for me to concentrate on who I'm talking to, what they are saying, or thinking about an answer to questions, where my lesson is going next. It's different from normal classroom hubbub because things always get more confusing when there is more than one language involved. And, I continued, it's only gotten worse since I can understand some of what they are saying, but not all. We're all trying to think, listen and speak in two languages at once, and it gets too complicated for all of us. They forget most of the time that a lot of what they say in Korean is completely lost on me. So, although I'm glad that they are interested in the subjects, and want to discuss them, they really have to try their best to do it in English. It's too hard for all of us trying to switch back and forth.

The co-teachers who have been present for this lecture have taken it up and started explaining it themselves in Korean when things get too loud, to the classes who haven't had it from me yet. The boys seem to understand completely what we're saying, and the atmosphere immediately changes. It's constantly being driven home to me, again and again, the closer I get to the boys, how much of what seems like behavior problems can be accredited to the language barrier. And when we take a little time to deal with this issue, the students are remarkably eager to do what they can to correct any problems. They are astoundingly intelligent and mature for their age in that way, I think.

There was a similar light bulb moment when I explained to one after school class that I want to play games and do fun things, other than worksheets, but that when they get too excited, my English starts to sound like just noise to them. "When you are excited, and I speak English, it sounds like 'blah blah blah blah', right?" Yes! You could see their eyes lighting up with realization. So, I said, you have to be really careful and listen for my English. You won't hear it and understand it right away -- you have to listen really well. Okay? Okay. And they did. And all of the issues with them not "obeying" were immediately solved. They weren't disobeying -- they simply didn't really hear me.

As for the nightmare class, and the three really terrible little trouble makers, a serious breakthrough has been made. They are now three of my best students, and, although they've set a remarkably prevailing precedent that I'm still trying to completely reverse, they've been among the students released first from my classes in recent weeks. They show up on time, every time and eagerly finish their assignments, asking questions and participating whole-heartedly. It's almost entirely due to the fact that I gave their names to their Korean English teacher, and then happened to walk into the office while they were being lectured by her for their misbehavior.

Things can get very awkward very quickly once you take any measure to discipline a student. Seeing them standing there, all in a row, being shrieked at by the stick-wielding Korean teacher, I couldn't help but feel a little guilty. So I committed the ultimate treason, and for someone who was, ultimately, doing me a favor -- I caught the eyes of the students and smirked behind her back. It was something akin to the equivalent of sticking my tongue out, in nature. The boys looked up briefly and saw this. They immediately understood -- haha, I got you in trouble. Since then, their attitude has been completely different in class. It was as if, without being the actual authority figure, I had found a way to outsmart them. In this little battle of the wits, I had come out on top, without actually having to be the one to dish out the punishment. They understood this, and in some bizarre way, it has established an irrevocable measure of respect.

I understand that, especially in Korea, you are not supposed to be friends with your students. And you can have some serious problems when you try. But God help me, I don't have it in me to be a strict disciplinarian. I can't invent rules to make them follow for no reason other than having them understand that I make rules and they follow them. I can't scream and yell and hit. I can't bear it when I'm lecturing a student, and his eyes shift down into a shamed posture. It makes me feel, quite literally, like the shittiest person alive. So, despite the obvious problems with language, and the culture that has set the precedent of bending to another's will because it is the position that you hold to be the one who bends, regardless of all external rationalization, I find myself unable to release my intuitive approach of simply trying to reason with the little bastards. Become human to them and show them that they are human to me. And hope for the best.

So instead of slapping the back of sleeping heads, I gently rub the back of sleeping necks. I tell them I know they study hard, and it's so hard not to sleep. I know they are tired and they don't get enough sleep. I'm tired, too. But we should try. I know it's Friday and sunny and beautiful outside and you want to go out and play. I want to go out and play, too. Let's just hang in there one more hour -- let's work hard and get this done, and then we can go play knowing that we've worked the hardest we can during the day. I know speaking is embarrassing and learning another language is hard -- here, listen to me say this in Korean. Isn't that funny? I'm so embarrassed. But do you think I'm a stupid person? No? I don't think you're stupid either. You shouldn't be embarrassed. Every day I have to speak Korean and be embarrassed. Do you know how funny I sound? I won't laugh at you, I promise. I'm proud of you for trying.

Hm. What a fucking teacher I've become. I'm sorry. I'll try to do something asinine at the weekend to report here, for gossip's sake. Until then, just bear with me.

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