It is Halloween, and I hope you are having a ghoulishly good time
I’m writing this because I have been scolded for not posting in a while.
So I’d like to talk about my average day. This is what it is like to be an English teacher in Seoul. I’m going to talk about Wednesday, because I usually don’t go out much on Wednesday night, so it is a very ordinary day.
I usually wake up about 6:30, turn on some tunes and turn on the coffee. Then I hit the snooze button and sleep for an extra 10 minutes. So then I have to hurry and get in the shower and get dressed. I leave the house at 7:30, and walk to work. That early in the morning, all the hofs and restaurants are closed, but there are sleepy-eyed people waiting for the bus, and cyclists and cars keeping a ghost town vibe to a minimum. Then I get to The Hill. In summer I always get a bit sweaty trudging up the last 10 minutes of a vertical incline.
I get into the office along with all the other teachers. Mr. Ahn, who teaches Philosophy, sits next to me on my right, and Ms. Che, one of my co-teachers sits on my left. I say hi to everyone, and turn on my computer, then grab some coffee, and say hi to the other teachers. I’m able to speak enough Korean to be pleasant.
Mr Ahn doesn’t speak any English, but he is kind and gentle, and he always smiles at me. He is also an excellent dancer and will sometimes share a dance video with me.
I usually have a class 1st period, so I collect the worksheets I’ve prepared the day before, look them over and get everything else I need. I usually only need chalk, and most of the time it is already in the classroom. The bell rings at 8:10 and all the other teachers and I leave the teacher’s office and head to the classrooms. In Korea, the teacher’s don’t have their own classroom; we travel.
I have 4 classes everyday. Usually I have one beginner’s class, an intermediate, and an advanced in the first year( freshman) classes and second year (classes. For first year classes I have total freedom for my classes. I can do what ever I want. This is awesome, but some days I feel a bit of pressure to come up with something interesting and informative and will get them talking. I usually have the class do group work, mostly because it is easier to control the class and easier to keep the students awake.
Sleeping students is not a big problem in my class, but then I keep them moving a bit, and usually if a student puts her head down, it’s because she is sick or had to work late. Most of my students are pretty good about participating, although I do have to remind them to speak English in the groups. I generally like teaching the classes. I have a co-teacher in each class: The same teacher all day, and I think I get along with them all. They usually help me by translating if I ask, and helping the students after they get in their groups. So I enter the class, explain the tasks, put helpful vocabulary on the board, and put them in groups. Then my co-teacher and I go around the classroom helping the students with their tasks. After they are finished, usually for the last 10 minutes I have the students give a presentation. Most of the time, they are pretty good about volunteering, but sometimes I just have to pick the team that starts ( I use eine meinie minie moe)
Second year classes are a bit different. I have a book that I have to follow. To encourage participation, we have 10 points that we give out. This can turn a B into an A, so the students are pretty keen to get them. They get them by either talking to me at my desk in the teacher’s office or by doing a presentation in class. They are pretty good about participating even in the non-point generating activities. I really enjoy talking to them at my desk. I’ve learned a lot and some of my students are really interesting people. Yeah, I do love them. They are pretty cool.
Between classes I prepare for other classes, read, surf the internet and next week I’ll be re-doing the instructions for the workbook I wrote for next year. I also have to think about what I want to do for winter camp. The school says they think I work hard, but I don’t feel like I do really. I love making worksheets and creating activities, and I love being in the classroom. It doesn’t feel that work-ish to me.
School finishes at 4 and this semester I don’t have any extra classes. So I say good-bye to everyone, and chat a bit, and then leave. Some days I go to the market and get some veggies to cook up, and sometimes I go to E-mart. Right now they have avocados at Costco and I bought some of course. I go home, and make some more coffee because it is my favorite addiction, change into something comfortable, cook dinner, and go online to watch tv or a movie. I used to go out a bit more often, but lately I’ve been staying home and learning to sew and knit. I really enjoy knitting, there is something a bit meditative to it. I sometimes call home or friends, and sometimes I chat on messenger or face-book. I clean the kitchen up, and around 11-ish I go to bed. I wake up at 6:30 and do everything over again.
Right now it is getting cooler and crisper, and the leaves are changing. Tomorrow is Halloween, but this year I don’t have a many plans. I’ll meet some friends for dinner on Sunday, and Saturday I plan on going to Dongdaemun and Kyobo, and I will spend some time in a coffee shop watching the people go by. I have to go into Itaewon and pick up a couple of calling cards because half of my family don’t have Skype, and then depending on how I feel, I might put on some dancing shoes, or I might just call a friend to grab some dinner. I won’t know till I get there. Next weekend I will not go anywhere or talk to anyone. I try to have at least one day a month where I turn off the phone, and the computer and don’t get dressed.
And this is my life right now. True it isn’t very exciting, but it is enjoyable.
I think the reason I didn’t want to post, is that I didn’t want to post over my grandmother. I’m still sad. I also know I was lucky to have known her, and to have the time I did have with her.
So what has been going on since my last post? Not a whole lot. The weather has turned cold, with a bright sun and a bite to the wind. The leaves are still mostly green because of the wet autumn, but it feels like fall now. I even got out my sweaters and fuzzy slippers. I like the cooler weather, it makes me happy. I know I’m not in the majority here, but I still like the crispness to the air in late fall/winter.
So, my new hobby is knitting. I’ve gotten some great videos on youtube, and taught myself a few stitches. I even finished a scarf last night. It has the imperfections the Native Americans say let in the spirit. (actually, I think it has enough imperfections to let in the entire spirit world) The students are also learning to knit, and their project is finger – less gloves, or wrist warmers. Guess what everyone here is getting for Christmas. Go on, guess.
The students are all doing very well, as a matter of fact the last lesson actually proved to be too easy, and they finished 5 minutes early. I was quite proud of them, for all the work they are doing. My class is so different from the usual classes, because they can’t just sit there, they have to get up, get into groups and participate. This week we are going around the world. For the basic class I put as many countries on the board as I can, and I was pleasantly surprised at how few hints I had to give. They did awesome. The worksheet has the countries, plus sights and activities. I like that the statue of liberty has been re-named the woman god of free. It took me a while to figure that one out. I am always surprised at the way my students think. The class room gives me a lot of joy.
Although the last few weeks have been sad, over-all I have many blessings, and I will endeavor to remember them.
I’ve decided that just as the duck-billed platypus proves the universe has a sense of humor, hot chocolate proves the universe loves us.
My Grandmother passed yesterday. I found out today. I’m a mess of different feelings, mostly sad. But that is a bit selfish. She was 97 years old, and in the last month, all she wanted was to die. She was tired. She had quit most medicines and had quit eating. She was ready to go. I knew she was ill and ready, but I wasn’t. I live very far, but I tried to call often. I just assumed she would always be here, even as I knew she was leaving.
Last time I was home, I visited everyday. But that doesn’t seem adequate now. I loved her stories, especially the one about taking her horse to school. She went to school at a time when there weren’t any school buses, or even many cars for most people. She rode her horse to school everyday because, well, that was just the way people went. She had lived through the great depression, and raised not only her children but many foster children. She lived through WWII and the 50’s and she lived through all the changes of the 60’s and the landing on the moon, and all the changes that are going on now.
My grandmother had a difficult life, and in many ways she was a difficult woman. She was a farmer’s daughter who married a farmer and had lived most of her life on the razors edge of poverty. Yet she baked the most wonderful pies and cakes and cookies. And until after my grandfather died, she brought them to the church every Sunday. Looking back with aged eyes, I think she was much more generous than she was given credit for.
She was often stubborn and argumentative, but those are the qualities necessary to keep a farm in the great depression. When I was young, we would only go back to the farm on Thanksgiving and for a few weeks in summer. My grandmother would bake all our favorite cakes. Mine was Texas cake, a super rich chocolate pan cake. We would help set the table, and my grandmother would talk while cooking dinner and tell my dad all that had happened while we were gone. After dinner we would watch some TV, and I would hole up in a corner and read one of the few books on her bookshelf. I also loved the seed catalogs that she always had, and would daydream about the kind of garden I would have when I grew up. ( When my dad passed away, I was sitting in the living room, and someone asked where I was. My grandmother’s response? “She’s sitting in a corner, reading a book” – I wasn’t but apparently that is what I would do most of my summers back on the farm)
This is the family lore: When my grandmother married my grandfather, it broke her father’s heart. He didn’t speak to her for 7 years. Seven. She was fierce in her determination that no one child or grandchild would be a favorite,and we would all be treated equally, and that the door would always be open if we wanted to come home. All her children and grandchildren knew this. She had my uncle, her first child, on a table in the kitchen of the farm my grandfather worked on, far from her family. Yet when she talked of her father, although she was a bit angry, she wasn’t bitter. There are photos of her when she was young, and she was quite beautiful, although I don’t think she ever defined herself as that. She had polio when she was younger, and walked with a limp, but I always thought she was one of the strongest people I knew.
These are the stories that define my grandmother in my mind:
On my grandparent’s 50th anniversary, the family had a party for them. I asked who the other, non family members were. They were all the foster children that my grandmother had taken in. She took in many kids, some for a week, some for months, some for years. And they all came back to help her celebrate her anniversary. All of them. I was so proud of her.
This was after my grandfather retired from farming. We were coming back home from church on Sunday. My grandparents were in the front seat and I was in the back. Grandpa was complaining about the dinners, because mostly my grandma was making soups and sandwiches, and wasn’t cooking the big dinners she used to. Grandma said to him, that if he got to retire, so should she. And she was retiring. I admired her a little for that.
When I came to the farm, my dad would drive us. We usually arrived after dinner. We didn’t need to ask “are we there yet?” because on the way there would be a series of signs, “Pass” Don’t Pass” that we would read off, and when we turned on to the gravel road that lead to the farm we would get very excited. There were always cookies in bright blue tupperware bowls, and snacks for us. When we woke up in the morning, my grandma would make us cinnamon toast. Toast with sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top. I know it doesn’t sound particularly special, but my mother and her family never made it, so I only got it at grandma’s house. I would wake up, and she would make cinnamon toast and I would eat with the newspaper like a real grown up, while everyone was else where. My grandma always let me stay in the kitchen as long as I wanted. I never seemed to be under her feet.
Grandma collected salt and pepper shakers. They were everywhere. I don’t know when she started, or even if she meant to start collecting salt and pepper shakers, but they soon over-ran the house. They were on every shelf in the living room, on shelfs of glass by the window, on special shelves on the walls. Everywhere. I loved looking at them. All of them were so different.
My grandmother quilted. She stitched everything by hand. She didn’t use a machine at all. Most of the quilt I remember weren’t fancy. They didn’t have a lot of patterns, just squares of material from old clothes that had worn out. She had some from blankets and coats. She would sit in the living room on her chair, next to grandpa’s chair and stitch while she watched “All My Children” after lunch. She had turned what was supposed to be the dinning room into a quilting room. I remember bits and pieces of quits almost finished on the big table, and quilts folded and stacked on a cot to the side. It was also my favorite room, because there was a bookshelf with Reader’s Digest condensed books and a big comfy chair, and I would sit and read as grandma cut and sewed.
I won’t be able to go back for the funeral. I live too far away. I’ve always lived far away. Sometimes I’ve felt one step back and three steps to the side of everyone else in the family. I will go back in February and I will say my final good byes to her gravestone. She will finally rest, and I hope it is in peace.
I was talking with a friend while we were walking to the subway after dinner. We had eaten at a Vietnamese/Thai fusion which was awesome by the way. And as we were winding around, the conversation wended as the are wont to do on a beautiful October evening in the middle of the week. We talked about our days and weeks and plans and then we started talking about ideas.
I’m reading a book – Justice by Michael J. Sandel. It is more about political philosophy, and one of the philosophers that he discusses is John Rawls. He has a distributive justice idea, that I’m not sure I fully understand enough to explain, but one of the ideas he has is that we don’t really deserve all the things we have earned. I tend to agree. I don’t really “deserve” my job. A lot of my good fortune in life was not from my work, or even my talent. I was born in a country that speaks a language other countries want to learn. I didn’t earn that, I didn’t work for that, it isn’t even a great talent. I just happened to be born into that language, and that makes me valuable. Don’t get me wrong, I do work hard at being the best teacher I can be. I worked hard for my degree, but again, I was lucky to come from a country that gives second chances for education. It isn’t something I choose, it is just the way my society runs things.
There are many people smarter than I am, who work harder, and who have more talent than I ever will. Yet because they were born in a different situation, they will not be able to work as a teacher in many countries, whereas I can. I don’t “deserve” this good fortune. If I acknowledge this, I have to acknowledge the other side. Many people in worse situations don’t “deserve” them either.
As a teacher it is easy to forget this. It is easy to like the students who like you, and who like your subject. It is much harder to realize that the students who don’t like English, who have other talents, some talents that are not as valued as English or Math skills, are also deserving and worthy. I admit that there are students that frustrate me. They seem truculent and uncooperative, they don’t want to participate. I have to remember that I felt the same way in many of my classes in high school ( actually I was a horrible student in high school – I think I may have even driven a few teachers to drink). I have to remember that the “bad” students aren’t bad people, that the students who aren’t talented in languages aren’t untalented in life. I try to have compassion for them. Notice I said try.
And that is what my friend and I were talking about. Compassion. What does it mean to have compassion? I don’t think it means having sympathy or even empathy with someone. I don’t think having compassion excuses un-social behavior or not working. I don’t think it means we should give students that don’t study or don’t “get it” no matter how hard they try a pass. I do think that compassion is very different from that. Compassion is difficult.
As a teacher I try to have compassion for my students, even the ones I don’t really like, or the ones that don’t want to work in my class. It isn’t always easy. And I often fail. I’m feeling less than compassionate right now. There is one student that has leveled up. She said she was afraid. I felt bad, I’m not that scary in the upper level classes. Honest. But she is a bit of an outcast in her current class. I’ve been trying to reach out to her a bit, but it is hard, and I don’t want to make things worse. Some of the students (even ones that I thought were kind of nice and pretty cool) don’t want to sit with her, or let her into their groups. They don’t hide their displeasure at having her join their work-groups. This student is afraid that it will be worse in the next class, because now, she has gotten used to things in this class. I feel a lot of sympathy for her. As someone not particularly popular in class I also feel a lot of empathy. I have a hard time feeling much compassion for the girls who bully her.
It comes at a time when several boys had been bullied until they committed suicide in the US. It breaks my heart to see kids that had so much potential, who had so much to offer, leave us so early. I think they are “deserving” of compassion. I want to have compassion for those that bullied them as well. But that seems like I’m saying, oh, those poor bullies, who will think of them. I don’t want to say that. They have done too much damage.
But what is compassion if it is only bestowed on the good guys?
I don’t have an answer. I try to be a good person. I try to be a good teacher. I try to “earn” my good fortune. I try to be compassionate, not just to the ‘good’ students, but also the ‘bad’ students. I try to be compassionate to myself.
No, I’m not sad. I’m not depressed. I’m not angry. I just feel like I’ve been the energizer bunny for the past week. I usually like to be around people, I usually don’t mind the crowds that much (although occasionally, I feel a bit claustrophobic on the subway).
So I’ve turned my phone off, and I’m not checking into facebook for chat, and I’m only going out for a bike ride if it doesn’t start to rain.
Yesterday I did the same thing. I rode my bike, and it was gorgeous until it started to rain. I got home just in time for a fairly heavy downpour. (this rain is getting a bit out of hand. Just because I want to hole up a bit doesn’t mean I don’t want the sun to shine). I did some crochet, watched a movie T.V. resisted the lure of the computer, read a bit, and played with my new sewing machine. I bought it two weeks ago, and picked it up last Saturday. And that is when the super busy but not super exciting week started.
Don’t get me wrong. I love meeting my friends on the weekend. I love my Korean class. I love meeting friends after class. I love shopping. I love meeting new people. But every night I came home more and more tired. By Thursday I felt exhausted. Each day I felt more tired and I couldn’t stop, I had appointments and obligations, and I had squeezed people in, and it just felt like a bit of me was being lost.
Friday we started mid-term tests so Thursday at work all the students would mention how beautiful I looked, but I had to disappoint them; I’m not in charge of grading. I only help to write one of the tests. Friday to celebrate the foreign language teachers all went to lunch, out in the country. It was very good, Korean beef and pork, excellent salad, and we were all too full for duck, so I got some from e-mart and had that on Saturday. On the way back, my co-teacher and I got to see a cosmos festival. Cosmos has to be one of my favorite flowers. I just felt bad I hadn’t brought my camera. My co-teacher said “your eyes have to be your camera” – so I tried to memorize the fields of purple and orange flowers bobbing in the soft winds.
I do love Seoul. I love all the parks by the river, the small parks in most neighborhoods. I love the mountains nearby even if everyone else and their mother, grandmother and a few cousins are climbing there too. I love how you can be walking along and find a festival, event, or interesting happening by chance.
But today, I’m not going to go out. I’m going to get some rest, and re-charge my energizer. Because there is another climbing trip, and October is one of the most beautiful months in Korea.