Semester 2, Part 2

As so often happens, the holiday has come and gone in such rapid fashion that it makes one question whether it actually occurred at all. How can everything just be so normal after we were gone for so long?

The weather, as if possessing some perverse desire to punish us further on this return to the daily grind, has relapsed into sticky summer temperatures. By the grace of some unknown education overlords, we are still allowed to use intermittent A/C in the classrooms… but let it be known that I waited for my co-teacher to turn it on herself to make sure we wouldn’t get in trouble.

It seems I really like to talk about the weather on this blog. Scintillating, I know.


It’s an anxious habit of mine to not even try to get to sleep early the night before a stressful day (such as a return to school). I already know I won’t be able to sleep much, so why force myself? Why toss and turn for hours? Why stress even more about the fact that I’m not getting enough sleep?

So instead I like to re-watch old GMM videos or something equally relaxing until I fall asleep in the wee hours, then wake up feeling like I’ve had a refreshing nap and power through the day with coffee and determination.

After that first day, it’s so much easier to fall back into a normal schedule. The first day is like releasing a held breath as everything clicks right back where it was before and you remember that this is, like, a Thing You Do to Earn a Living, and you’re not actually bad at it.


We have resumed business as usual in the classroom, if an earlyish Halloween lesson counts as business as usual. (As I’ve said before, trying to buckle down the day/week after a break is very no jam.) (No jam = Konglish for boring, “no” being English and “jam” shortened from the Korean word for fun.)

The 1st years are new to my surprise ending (pretending that only the winning team will get candy, then giving everyone candy as long as they come up to me and say “trick or treat”), while the 2nd years might have suspected it was coming because of last year but were equally delighted at the outcome. 1st years learn the word “spooky,” 2nd years the word “terrifying.”

The 3rd years will have to wait a few weeks for their fun, though. Their final exams are 4 weeks away (yes, they just finished midterms before the break), so it’s all studying and speaking tests between now and then.

This is the point of the semester around which the 3rd graders become Zombies of Misery because the majority of their final grade is already accounted for via the midterm (the final exam being more a formality than an actual assessment). Thus, they no longer really care what happens in class or on tests.

I’m cautiously hopeful that this change won’t be as dramatic and soul-sucking as it was with last year’s 3rd graders, though, because I’ve been with this particular batch of kids for their entire middle school careers. I’ve been teaching them since they were wee little 12-year-olds, and I feel they’re much more open with me. Getting them to open up a bit and bonding while they’re still unjaded pre-teens seems to make a real difference.

I hope.


P.S. October, please get cold again.

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Let the holiday begin

We’ve made it, in one piece, to our glorious 10-day holiday.

Yesterday the principal strolled by at the end of the day and I showed him how to lock the English classroom doors. He gave me a thumbs up. As I bowed and turned to leave, he said “Bye!”, catching me off-guard. When I stammered “bye,” he asked if I can speak Korean, and chuckled benevolently(?) at my “조금만요 (just a little bit).” I consider this progress.

This morning one of the P.E. teachers greeted me at the school gate, as he always does, “Maddy! Have a beautiful* day!” I answered, as I always do, “Thank you, you too!”, but today he added “추석 잘 보내세요 (have a nice Chuseok [Thanksgiving])!”

*He likes to switch up the adjectives, so sometimes it’s wonderfulgreatfantastic, etc. Then he turns to any students who happen to be walking in and says in Korean “Hey, I’m pretty good at English, huh?”

The 2nd and 3rd graders finished their midterm exams this morning. I had one class with the 1st graders (who don’t have exams in the 2nd semester), and we played a trivia game. Even my occasionally-crotchety elderly co-teacher cracked a few jokes with the kids. Definitely a pleasant anticipatory mood in the air.

The weather is so cool today that I’d almost feel chilly if I weren’t from a state where we know how to handle bitter winters. My students and coworkers are already bundling up in sweatshirts and jackets and I haven’t even pulled out a long-sleeved top yet. “Teacher, not cold?” No, but I’m living for every crisp gust of goosebump-inducing air.

In two days we begin what is in my mind undoubtedly the most beautiful and magical month of the year.

Today, for this one moment if nothing more, all is well.

“I’m so glad I live in a world

where there are Octobers.”

– Anne of Green Gables

 

Ramblings

I am currently on Stage 4 of an unfortunate seasonal cold – the stages being thus defined by yours truly (you can trust me, I hold an M.D. from the University of Google):

Stage 1. The sore throat

This is the worst. I cannot abide a sore throat of any caliber. Like an itch that can never be scratched – lozenges, honey and warm water, painkillers, nothing can make it go away for long. You just have to deal with it, with every breath and every swallow (which you cannot avoid if you want to stay alive).

Stage 2. The nasal congestion

It is a universal law of viruses that in this stage you will only be able to breathe out of one nostril at a time. And that you’ll get a runny nose at the worst possible moment, like when you’re in the middle of a presentation and you forgot to stuff Kleenex in some discreet pocket.

BONUS! Sweating & aching

If your cold is of a particularly nasty strain, you might develop a light fever and begin sweating profusely even though you’re not doing anything strenuous. Like just sitting down at your desk minding your own business, vaguely aching and wanting to curl up in a limp ball.

Stage 3. The sinuses

Here we introduce pounding headaches and the feeling that your eyeballs will burst out of their sockets at any moment from all the pressure.

Stage 4. The chest congestion and coughing

This lovely stage may last for weeks after the other symptoms have faded out. Isn’t that nice? Your cold wants to leave you a little memento to remember it by. As I’m currently in this stage, I now have a 50-50 chance of choking on phlegm instead of speaking every time I start teaching class. It’s great fun.

This is surely the most dramatic description of a cold you have ever read, brought to you by a person who likes to dramatize all things. Especially illnesses. You’re welcome.


In other news, I was trying to tell my student to add a verb to his sentence: “You need a verb. 동사 (dong-sa).” He looked at me incredulously. “똥싸?” Then I remembered that with just slightly more emphasis on the start of each syllable (which is VERY EASY for a foreign tongue to accidentally do, might I add), the word verb magically transforms into the word shit.

I told my student he needed shit in his sentence.

*pats self on back*

His classmate did understand that I, the English teacher, was in fact asking for a verb and not human waste (flawed pronunciation notwithstanding), and the miscommunication was rapidly cleared up.


I try not to be frustrated with catatonic students, or even students who seem to have an attitude, when they tell me things like “I have academy [private lessons] until 10 p.m. today.” I suppose I wouldn’t be in the cheerfullest mood either, if I was literally in school for 14 hours.


Yesterday I asked the students what was for lunch and one of them said “Pizza hotdog!” I thought he was joking. Nope: one of the lunch items was a hotdog (not a full-size American beef frank, but thinner and shorter) on thick-pizza-crust-type bread with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, and some sweet corn and raw garlic thrown in for good measure because this is Korea. Paired, of course, with tuna bibimbap (what pro chef wouldn’t pair these culinary delights together?).

Okay but real talk: I ate it all. Not too shabby.


One of my co-teachers was in a car accident – she’s in the hospital with some minor injuries, and as a result I get a substitute co for some classes this week. The poor woman seems to have literally been thrown into this situation. In typical Korean fashion, a “teacher friend” (probably someone of higher rank) requested a favor (favor being “come work at this random school for 3 days”) and she had to acquiesce.

Anyway, after observing my class for the first time, as we walked out together she commented: “The students are so noisy!”*

And here I was thinking we were having a pretty good, “quiet” day.

(cue the trumpets: wah-wah-wah-waaaaaaaah)

Nah, it’s okay. I already know my kids are a handful.

*She later explained that she works at a middle school with very studious and quiet students. Okay, but are they cute tho???


We were playing a True/False quiz and I asked the teams to hold up their answers (on their mini whiteboards). One of the teams had written “Talse.” Nice try kiddos, nice try. (This is a favorite ploy of many students to try to cover their bases when we play quiz games; if it’s multiple choice, sometimes they’ll write a HUGE letter A and then sneakily write B, C, and D inside the A, hoping that somehow it’ll fool me.) But anyway I love that class and I want to pinch their cute faces because they’re always so cheerful and happy about everything. Even studying.


Four times a week we have guest teachers come in to teach special after-school classes in math and English. A couple of them use “my” classroom, the English room. I’ve seen the English teacher a few times as I’m wrapping up after my last class. We usually just smile and say hi in passing, but today she stopped me and said, “Do you want one?”, holding out one of the snacks she’d brought for her students.

Occasionally weird situations (for a foreigner) come out of Korea’s culture of sharing, but sometimes it can be really sweet.

Just another Friday

Closing out the week with mixed emotions.

We’re now just a couple weeks away from the longest public holiday Korea has seen in ages (possibly ever?) – a 10-day break at the start of October for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving); the Chuseok holiday is normally only 3 days long, but the government has extended it this year for the mental health of the nation and combined it with Hangul Day (celebrating the birth of the Korean writing system) which fortuitously falls on the following Monday.

But, we’re also seemingly inching closer and closer to Something Happening on this peninsula. Thus the mixed emotions.

I will say that the added fear (or at least concern) has once again put things into perspective, though, and even the hard days at school are, relatively speaking, a joy to experience. Because, y’know, we’re all alive to experience them.

Side note: no one is panicking here (far from it), but I don’t know that that’s comforting. I think South Koreans are basically numb to this threat because they’ve been living with it for so long. Also, there’s very much an attitude of “there’s nothing we can do, so just carry on,” which I sense stems from Korea’s long and at times harrowing history of being controlled (often brutally so) by other, bigger and more powerful nations.*

*DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert in Korean history or culture and this is just my opinion.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that the Koreans in my life are extremely concerned about me being home alone on holidays such as the upcoming Chuseok, but nobody bats an eye when I stay home by myself on American Thanksgiving Day or Christmas day.

I know why this happens, of course. To them, Chuseok and the Lunar New Year are mandatory family days, so anyone who doesn’t have family to be with on those days is in a sad and lonely situation – not realizing that to me these are just another nice set of vacation days with no additional meaning.

It’s just a sort of sad irony that no one will ever come to me a few days before Thanksgiving or Christmas and say, “Are you okay? Aren’t you lonely? Will you talk to your family?” the way they do for Korean family holidays.


Covering advice-giving with my first years. I asked them to each write a problem, real or imaginary, on their paper, put them all in a bucket, then pick a random one and write advice for the anonymous person. And  I got responses like this:

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“I want boyfriend… I’m so very lonely…” “You should always live the solo” (a.k.a. be forever alone)

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“My problem is school fight… I want to disappear school fight!!” “You should no fight.” Solid advice.

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“I have a poop accident to toilet #whatshouldido” “Go to you restroom. OK?” Love the use of a hashtag. Hope this wasn’t a real situation.

yep.

Updates

The weather: hot again. shoot.

The students: surprisingly good, for a monday. on the whole. i continue to be astounded by the formerly disruptive and/or comatose (depending on the day) boy who now participates in every part of class and tries to answer questions and use the key expressions. what happened to you child. i mean, i’m not complaining.

a different class was being way too talkative and one of the girls turned to me and said “it’s too noisy to study… 맞죠 (is that right)?” and was very proud of herself for remembering the grammar structure they’ve been learning (too adj. to verb). also incidentally, it was too noisy to study.

My first interaction with the principal: he wandered into my office at the end of the day and asked my co-teacher (who shares my office) how long i’ve been at this school. (safe to say he probably doesn’t speak english.) she answered for me, and i nodded my head and smiled to hopefully show him i know something. he then seemed to ask my co-teacher whether she teaches chinese or english. then he left. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?

My physical state: hot. ridiculously hot. the tease of fall makes it even worse when my un-air-conditioned office climbs towards 90 degrees. also, apparently, tired. one of my students asked if i got punched in the eye. nope, just my dark circles and the lamentable lack of fat around my eye sockets. note to self: get more sleep (or at least do a better job on the under-eye concealer).

My mental state: hoping that peace of a sort is maintained amidst current geopolitical tensions. (knocks on wood in an i’m-not-superstitious-but-also-not-NOT-superstitious kind of way)

Goodbye, hello

On Tuesday, at 8:30 a.m., the whole school gathered at the gym/auditorium for the principal’s short farewell ceremony. Salute the Korean flag, sing the national anthem, a short speech by the head teacher, a speech by the principal, and sing the school song. Dismissed.

On Wednesday, at 1:00 p.m., the principal came to my office to say goodbye personally (he preempted my plan to visit his office later in the day). I had a chance to thank him for all of his support over these three years, and he said he hopes I continue to enjoy working at this school.

On Thursday, nothing happened at all because all the kids had a field trip. (woot woot)

And today, Friday, at 8:35 a.m., all the teachers in our school gathered in the mini-auditorium – the very same mini-auditorium where I was introduced on my first day here. We trickled in, in pairs or groups, and the air was charged with anticipation and maybe apprehension. Honestly, I started feeling a bit nervous without really knowing why. It’s not like I was the one being introduced to a new school, and I’d heard there were good things being said about him (without knowing what the good things were or who was saying them). But still.

After a few minutes, the new principal walked down the sloping aisle to the podium, and I wondered if he felt as uncomfortable as I would walking through all these people with all eyes on him. He looked calm. I guess that’s why he’s a principal and I’m not.

He greeted us with a bow, and gave a short speech introducing himself (I assume). He seems friendly and speaks in a hearty baritone. That’s about all I can ascertain for now.

Then we transferred to the main auditorium (the gym) for his greeting to the students. Salute the Korean flag, sing the national anthem, a short speech by the vice principal, a speech by the new principal, and sing the school song. Dismissed.

Other than that, it was business as usual at school today. My kids were sleepy. Very very very sleepy. Nevertheless, the rallying cry “but today is Friday!” tends to rouse them from their apathy for a brief few moments. I’ve said it often enough now that sometimes the kids will say it first, and then we all cheer.

It happened

The heat broke like a fever. From dawn to dusk today there was no hint of muggy uncomfortable warmth. I write this as I sit in front of my open window in my apartment, letting the breeze wash over me like the healing balm that it is. I haven’t felt this in months, this perfectly pure, immaculate, untainted cool air. It smells like fall. As always, I didn’t realize how much I needed this until it came back.

I know the heat will return before it’s gone for good, probably with a vengeance. But this day is a promise of so many better days to come.

Small victories

Sometimes our school schedule gets crazy. There are field trips and camping trips and violence prevention classes and fire drills and nationwide tests and unexpected miscellaneous stuff that can mess up the curriculum schedule. I’m not complaining, of course, because cancelled classes = more time to work on whatever I need, but it does do a number on my neatly-laid-out, semester-long master plan for all my classes.

So, sometimes I throw in random lessons for the classes that get too far ahead of the others.

Today was one such random day. All the other classes are still on Lesson 6, part 1, and I don’t want to start Lesson 6, part 2 with my Monday classes because later on it’ll mess up the pre-midterm-exam-review flow.

I crafted a personality lesson for my 2nd and 3rd years.

1. Vocab: Learn some personality traits (‘honest’, ‘brave’, ‘kind’, ‘shy’, ‘outgoing’, ‘helpful’…). I tried to mostly stick to positive ones so they don’t call each other bad things (I know my students all too well), but I did do ‘lazy’ and ‘mean’.

2. Apply the Vocab: Make a Venn diagram comparing your personality + your best friend’s personality and write a short paragraph about that friend using the words learned.

3. Personality Questionnaire*: Heavily modified version of one of those pop psych “personality quizzes” that we’ve all probably taken at one time or another. We’re not talking MBTI here, just a 10-question, multiple-choice, very simplified questionnaire about daily habits and preferences:

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The answers themselves were on the PowerPoint (to prevent certain kids from blazing ahead while others were trying to figure out what the question meant)

4. Quiz Results: Based on point values of each A, B, C, or D answer. I assigned an animal to each 10-point score range, so for example, 21-30 points is “The Cat,” 31-40 points is “The Dolphin,” 41-50 “The Fox,” 51-60 “The Lion,” etc., with a brief description like “you’re confident and brave” or “you’re quiet and smart.” Again, I chose only desirable/cute/nice animals so no one would feel bad. Also I didn’t totally make up the results since higher scores are supposed to indicate a bolder/more confident style while lower scores come from quieter/more reserved answers.

Anyway, the small victories here are:

>> Every class enjoyed taking the quiz and finding out their results. I mean, who doesn’t like answering questions about themselves? Even in a language that you (potentially) despise learning.

>> Even better, one of the notorious troublemakers completed his entire worksheet and quiz, patiently asking for help/translations with the questions so he could answer accurately.

>> Best of all, there’s this one really really quiet/shy girl who has spent over a year totally shut down in my class, barely able to lift her eyes from her desk much less write or speak. But today she was quietly listening to/reading the personality questions and circling her answers, the whole time. SUCCESS.


*The quiz questions I used were compiled by another teacher who posted on this thread on waygook.org, but modified by yours truly.

Just an average day at a Korean middle school

Walked into my classroom of 15-year-olds to find an anonymous student had spelled “sexy boy f***” on the whiteboard with our alphabet magnets. Promptly wiped the words away in one fell swoop with my arm and continued on my path to the front of the room.

Walked in a few hours later and my much-more-innocent 13-year-olds had spelled “Justin Bieber” and “TWICE Sana” (a K-pop group/name of a girl from the group). I deemed these acceptable to remain unscathed.

In another class we played a question game where teams had to ask me “have you ever” questions and try to make me say “yes, I have” and I received the standard “Have you ever eaten kimchi?” “Have you ever been to America?” Then I flipped it so they’d try to make me answer “no, I haven’t” and was asked, “Have you ever died?” “Have you ever killed someone?” “Have you ever eaten human meat?”

… … … Well, at least they were being creative. And using proper grammar.

Finally, I had one of my very favorite classes today, really sweet and cheerful kids. I went to check on a group and saw one of the girls had tears in her eyes. I asked the other two what happened and they could only try to act it out (rather poorly, might I add), so I hovered nearby to make sure she was okay. [I didn’t immediately go to ask her what was wrong because sometimes teenagers don’t really want to talk to their foreign teacher when they’re crying.]

After a minute she turned to me with slightly drier eyes and this happened:

Girl 1: “Teacher, I’m sad.”

Me: “Why? What happened?”

Girl 1: “My friend [gesturing to Girl 2, at the desk across from her] will change school [transfer]” —

Girl 2: “No, no, not true! It’s a lie!” (begins laughing in a knee-slapping kind of way because apparently she just played a hilarious joke on her bff)

Girl 1 and I looked at each other.

“I’m confused,” she said.

Me too, kiddo. Me too.

Saying goodbye with raw fish

Tonight the teachers had a special 회식 (staff dinner): a goodbye dinner for our principal. He’s been promoted and will be abruptly leaving us next week, just three weeks into the second semester. The following day the new principal will arrive, and word on the street (or word in the classroom) is that no one knows what we’ll get. Man or woman, friendly or standoffish, lenient or strict. It’s all luck of the draw.

I’ve got to pull the formal Korean introduction phrases from the back of my brain and dust them off in preparation for meeting this new principal. It’s been quite a while, since our current principal has been at my school since I arrived.

Speaking of him, one thing is certain: the new one can’t possibly be kinder. This principal was always supportive of the teachers and did everything he could to make our work easier, not harder. He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable and supported, both figuratively and by literally walking two stories up and all the way to the end of the hall to my office several times a year to ask me if I have “any problems in my Korea life,” and that if I ever did, I should tell him so he could help me.

My first memory of him is being ushered into his office on my first day of teaching ever, gripping the paper coffee cup he’d offered me for dear life, awkwardly wondering what to say or do beyond “Annyeonghaseyo, bangapseumnida (hello, nice to meet you).” Then he smiled and told me in English to “sit comfortably” (I was already sitting, but he probably noticed my death grip on the coffee cup or my general tension) and asked where I was from and told me that the class size at this school is small compared to other middle schools. Eventually a co-teacher arrived and rescued me, taking me up to my office.

Tonight at dinner, he stood and gave a short speech to all of the staff, and I sat there wishing that I could feel the meaning of his words like all the other teachers could. I know from what I could catch that he was saying things like he’s glad we all persevered through the stress and rough times of teaching and he’s sorry to leave us, but it’s different when you can absorb the nuance of the chosen words. I want to be told that I persevered through hard times too, dangit.

On another note, the restaurant of choice tonight was a 횟집, a.k.a. a raw fish/sashimi place. This is not what the average American pictures when someone says “let’s get sushi tonight.” This is straight-up whole baby octopi (about the size of a quarter, kinda cute but not exactly mouthwatering), an enormous platter of thickly-sliced, very sinewy and chewy raw fish (that’s how they like it here), strips of eel, an entire larger boiled octopus (about the size of a fist) whose rubbery legs and head must be cut into pieces with a kitchen shears, revealing its little heart or brain or whatever is in there… and so on.

It was my great fortune to be sitting with probably the only other three teachers in the school who also dislike raw fish: my young co-teacher, the IT teacher, and one other teacher. Other than my co-teacher, no one around us could speak English, but I quickly gathered from their conversation, body language, and laughter that we were all on the same page. (A page of commiseration.)

We amused ourselves by covering up the gaebul with rice because nobody wants to see that unholy site at the dinner table. (Check the pictures at the link and you can probably guess this wormy fish’s unappetizing nickname [hint: male anatomy]).

Then we picked at a few side dishes, tried a few pieces of this or that to see if our tastes had changed (spoiler alert: they hadn’t), drank a lot of Coca-Cola and Sprite, and slipped out as a group in raw-fish-hating solidarity after just enough time to not be totally rude.

And let it be known that I truly appreciate that this was a fancy and probably quite expensive place. I mean, we had a large room reserved to ourselves (separated from other areas of the restaurant by traditional sliding doors). It was traditional-style dining, so we all sat on the floor around long low tables, three full tables of teachers, probably 30-40 of us. Each table of four people was served dish after dish after dish of fresh fish and countless side dishes, plus sodas, plus ice buckets full of beer and soju (of which my table did not partake).

I appreciate it, but I appreciated being able to leave at a reasonable time even more.

We’ll see what happens next week as the big change occurs. I wish it didn’t have to happen now, mid-semester. Maybe I’ll update on the situation, but – as has become clear I think – no promises.