1A: Little Freaking Zen Masters

My first class of the day is a group of three first graders. I’ve dubbed this class “1A” because I had to call it something. The system this academy uses to distinguish one class from the next is to simply call the class by the name of one of the students. This is fine and well for those classes wherein no student leaves the academy or transfers to another class; but students do migrate, and many students share the same name, so I needed a system to identify my classes. The 1 stands for first grade, the A for the fact that they are my first, first grade class.

I don’t normally like teaching kids this young, as they tend to have minimal English skills and a maximum quotient of innocent disrespect for their teachers. They’re first graders after all, full of energy and joy and a desire to play and generally goof off. But the kids that comprise this class are unique. All of them speak English quite well, and while they are all predisposed to defying my suggestions and orders, they nevertheless can –  with a strong dose of patience and perseverance on my behalf – be corralled into a semblance of order and focused education. They’re also sweet and amusing, so I like them, and feel fortunate that my days start out with them.

The three kids are Kai, Connor and Sally. They are all eight years old by Korean reckoning, which means come January 1st, 2010, they will all be nine, since all Koreans get one year older on the first of the year. In Western parlance, they are six going on seven.

Kai is the most unruly of the bunch, but he’s also an endearing fellow, in a taxing sort of way. Despite my repeated requests against such things, he keeps bringing food into the classroom, and tops and Pokeman cards and other childhood detritus. He’s not much for studying. He’d much rather spin a top on the Formica table or puts stars on the board next to his name so that they’ll cancel out the “X”es I always give him for “bad” behavior. (Three exes and you go out of the room, holding your hands above your head for three minutes) But he does it in a playful, “I can’t help myself” sort of way that is generally accompanied by a sheepish smile when he gets caught –  which is always. He’s a pain in the ass, truth be told, but when he zeros in on you – or his work, forsooth! – he’s a really beautiful kid. And that smile he’s got is just ridiculous.

Connor’s the smartest of the bunch, at least on paper, which is to say his homework is almost always spot on and his capacity for learning is quite high. He’s got an impressive vocabulary on account of his ability to remember words well – if not for the fact that he studies all the time, and even goes to a second English academy. On the other hand, he’s a total goof ball. He loves tongue twisters, tangents and jokes as much as he likes chocolate; and he can converse ad infinitum if I allow him to, which I don’t of course, being an egalitarian teacher and all. He is also prone to fits of dancing, and I gotta say he’s quite good at it. We sometimes sing songs in class and he often has a hard time keeping his eyes on the page for wont of swinging his hips about and doing a hula thing with his hands. He can also juke, bob and jut his head in all kinds of crazy ways, as if his neck were a slinky spring. He’s fun to watch and makes us all laugh, but I want him to focus on the text while we’re singing so he can practice his pronunciation. Of course, I really want to just let him spread his joy about the classroom too, so I do my best to strike a balance. I’m sure his parents want him to be a doctor or lawyer or some such thing, which is probably what he’ll be. It’s too bad though, as he would certainly make a top notch entertainer if he chose that route.

Of course most Korean kids don’t have such choices at their disposal. I’m not even sure they have the awareness of choice at their disposal. In the States we get to at least dream of being astronauts and rock stars, race car drivers and zoo keepers. In Korea you dream realistically and conventionally, of being a scientist or engineer, a teacher perchance. Many kids say they want to be dentists. Ask them why and they’ll tell you it’s because they’ll make “much money”. When I ask them if having their noses in someone’s mouth all day, causing them great pain, would be a fun way to make money, they look at me like I’m a Martian. Dentist equals wealth. Nuff said.

I don’t know what Sally wants to be because Sally doesn’t know yet what she wants to be. But then maybe that’s one of the reasons why I like her. Most kids already have a notion come first grade what professional direction they’re likely to take. Sally’s too confused by the world to commit just yet, even if the commitment doesn’t amount to much. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for her because she seems to be a kid for whom happiness proves a bit illusive. It’s sad because she’s a great kid – cuter than three buttons and smarter than a whip – and she’s got an edge to her that I figure is going to serve her well later in life, if it doesn’t already do so.

Being in a class with two strong-willed boys and no other girl to team up with puts her at a bit of a disadvantage. She demurs a lot to the boys, and on the surface you’d think she was the lesser student in comparison with the self-styled genius known as Connor. But I have had the good fortune of teaching her one on one a couple of times on account of the boys not being in class those days. It surprised me to find that her English, and her intelligence in general, was in fact a fair deal higher than both the boys. She doesn’t show it when they are around, which is a bit surprising given the competitive nature of Korean children. On the other hand, she is the only girl in a class of boys, and that’s unusual. I only have one other class with that demographic. The girl, Elie, is clearly smarter than the two boys, but she’s so quiet and so demure it’s almost as if she isn’t there. She speaks with the bravado of a mouse, so I need absolute silence in the class to hear her (not an easy thing to achieve). Even with relative silence I need to lean closer to her to hear her, which means the boys don’t hear her at all.

Sally, on the other hand, participates equally in class unless she’s in a bad mood. Kai can bring that mood on her in a hurry. He’s got a knack for getting under your skin, winning smile notwithstanding. He usually sits next to me, at a close proximity right angle. Sally sometimes likes to sit closer to me, and if she gets to class first the chair’s hers. But Kai has unceremoniously lifted her bag off the chair, placed it on her usual chair and kicked her out of “his” seat on a few occasions. It’s a punk-ass thing to do and I let him know as much, while relegating him to the other side of the room for punishment. But he can be defiant, and such defiance has rankled Sally on several occasions.

On one such occasion I was able to witness, in the span of a few minutes, her eyes shift from glorious sunrise to pool of tears to venomous death-stare. Kai’s a bit oblivious to this kind of rancor. Having a pretty deep edge of his own, he’s usually willing to fight to the end to achieve whatever means he is after. It’s as if that smile of his is a shield against life’s galling winds. It’s interesting to watch Sally deal with this stonewalling of his. I’m sure if I let them they could stare each other down until the cows came home. Too bad class is only thirty minutes long and I’ve got material to cover. It’d be interesting to see who’d  flinch first.

I’ve seen this stare-down phenomenon several times in various classes. It seems to be a cultural thing wherein a kid, instead of calling out her counterpart on the playground, simply stares him down in class. I have tried to break this spell several times only to realize that it’s something that needs to run its course. Sometimes a kid is just trying to remind his counterpart who is older, and therefore, who is right – regardless of facts, subtleties or circumstance. Other times it’s a younger kid saying, “I don’t care who’s older, you bitch, you don’t fuck with me like that.” It’s interesting watching the loser slowly turn to mush. There’s a look in the eyes that unmistakably conveys their acquiescence. Sometimes it’s a subtle downcast glint of apologetic guilt. Other times it’s a confused look that says, “What – what did I do?” Sometimes it’s a slow swelling of tears. Once I saw a second grade boy give an older girl the death stare while tears were dripping steadily from his lashes. Though the girl still felt she was in the right, her remorse was evident.

Unlike most kids at this school, Sally seems to have an unsatisfactory home life. Her parents both work and, if what she tells me is true, don’t seem to pay a lot of attention to her. You meet this kid and you’d think it would be hard not to want to be engaged with her. But I suppose there is no shortage of cool kids that don’t get the kind of attention from their folks that they’d like. Of course, it’s totally common that Korean children don’t get to see much of their dads, as they work a lot, and are generally not responsible for the raising of the kids. The mothers are in charge of all things domestic, including – if not especially – education. Sally’s father apparently doesn’t have a good job in a high paying field like most of the kids at this school, so her mother has to work as a piano teacher, and according to Sally, doesn’t much care for it. Could there be some resentment that the father doesn’t make enough to provide for the family? In any case, she’s got an underdog quality to her that I relate to. Can’t help but to want the best for her when I see her.

Connor’s dad is a boiler mechanic. And while this is not exactly the kind of job that the kids at this school would consider highly respectable, I love the way Connor announces his father’s occupation –  without shame or regard for status or money and all the rest of it. His mother’s a housewife and that’s always a comforting thought here in Korea. This is not a culture well suited for two working parents. With all the studying these kids do, and all the lack of play, having a stable and supportive environment at home is a very necessary thing. Kids here are like little education robots. Unlike in the States, where kids are shuttled from soccer practice to play dates to environmental awareness pow wows, kids here are shuttled, if they don’t walk, from one academy to another. Connor is no exception, but it seems that he is well cared for nonetheless, which makes him a joyful and exuberant kid who’s fun to be around.

Kai’s dad is apparently a heart surgeon. I am not sure of this as Kai tried to explain what he does by pounding his heart a few times. I know his dad’s a doctor (and his mother a housewife) but the heart surgeon thing is an inference, as Kai doesn’t know how to say “heart surgeon” in English, if Korean. Kai has a sister who’s a year or so older than he is and I teach her as well. She’s a soft spoken kid as sweet as a field of flowers in the spring (except she’s like that year round). So whatever’s going on at Kai’s home, it’s a good thing, cuz it shows up in the kids.

I have a Monday ritual in which I ask all my students how their weekend was. It’s just a way to get them to talk more, while I talk less, but it is also provides me with some insight into Korean culture. They don’t usually report a fascinating or fun filled weekend, though on occasion some kid will tell me about a trip to Everland, which is a huge amusement park in Seoul, or perhaps a ski trip. Sometimes it’s just a trip to Grandma’s house to make kim chi, or a day trip to Chung-ju, the nearby tourist trap. Maybe they went to a movie. Usually they at least get to watch a little TV or play some video games; on occasion they’ll actual play soccer and get a little exercise.

Sally, however, never seems to have anything to report at all. When I ask her what she did over the weekend, she just replies with a resigned and matter of fact tone, “Nothing.” I used to try to press her on the subject, figuring that she must have done something other than study, but she seems not to want to talk about it. It doesn’t help that Connor’s dad makes sure to do something cool with his only son just about every weekend. I suspect in hearing his tales, Sally gets a little jealous, though she’ll never let on. Not to the other students at least.

It kind of makes me want to kidnap her on a Sunday and take her to the playground. But, of course, I’m just a teacher and as such must treat all my students with equanimity. It’s not just that we are not supposed to have favorites (though of course we all do), we are also supposed to give our attention, compassion, good will and discipline to all the students equally, even the ones we can’t stand. It’s a good thing to keep in mind and a good practice for a teacher to have. Secretly my heart bends a bit deeper toward the students I like more, but just as a student will keep her necessary secrets to herself, so must I show that I care equally for all my students. The interesting thing about this practice is that, in effect, I do exactly that.

So, perhaps the coolest thing about being a teacher is that by practicing oneness, you live oneness. The kids are all equal and by extension, through my relationship with them, I am equal too. Over time the kids seem to get this and embody it. The relationship between the students and the teacher becomes a little less formal and a little more real. As a result they come to trust you, allowing themselves to be their affectionate, joyful, frustrated, sullen, vibrant selves. They come, they engage; they go, they disengage – like little freaking Zen masters, they’ve got a helluva lot more to teach adults than most adults care to countenance. So the more my relationships to these kids develop, the more I realize how much I like kids. There’s something immediate and real about them. You don’t have to spend any time trying to figure out what they are about, because what they are about, for better or for worse, is right there on their sleeves. Given the difficulty I’ve had trying to figure out Korean adults, it’s no wonder I enjoy – or at least appreciate – the time I get to spend with my students.


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