Sunday, November 11, 2007


I'm Terrible, and You?

Every day that I entered this classroom in Chuncheon, full of pre-teen Korean students, I said what the SDA Language Institute had trained me to say: “Hello, everyone.”

In their still-maturing ESL voices, they would reply in unison: “Hello, teacher.”

I continued with my orchestrated introductory greeting, saying, “How are you today?”

Korean children are also trained in how to respond, though I have no idea by whom. “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” they would say, enunciating each syllable with all the enthusiasm of a middle-aged male on his way to get his male health inspected.

It was one of the best-performing children’s classes I ever taught. There were only about 10 of them, but nearly all them attended each day, and the Korean teacher that I was assisting during my time there was ensuring that they prepared for class every time.

That’s why it came as a surprise when, one day, I asked them about their general condition, and nearly all of them responded, “Terrible.”

Okay, I thought. I guess I am about to give them a test.

Their response was the same the next day. I must have appeared confused, because the Korean teacher told me their response was probably because she was giving them a test after I left.

Even so, I resolved to vary my question from day-to-day.

“How is your teacher today?” I asked.

“Terrible,” they replied.

“How is the weather today?” I queried, pointing outside to a cloudless sky.

“Terrible,” they opined.

Finally, I went into class on a Monday when I was certain there was no test, and the lesson would be easy, and I asked them, “So … how was your weekend?”

The loudest reply came from Blake, a boy with glasses and longish hair, who clearly delighted in unloading his state of mind upon me.

“Terrible!” he shouted, standing halfway out of his desk.

I threw up my hands in capitulation. “Why?” I asked, because I could think of nothing else to add.

“Always terrible!” he explained.

At what point in life did you recognize all the work and drudgery that life had in store for you? By the age of 17, I’d realized that getting a good job meant doing well in college, and doing well in college would be much more likely if I started preparing in high school. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get that job which would require me to work 50 or so hours a week in an effort to stay ahead of the competition, whether they be in my hometown or in some place like Delhi.

At that moment, the sheer magnitude of exertion that I’d have to do in the future set in, and had a profound effect on my life: I was overcome with the desire to nap, a pastime I treasure to this day.

For Korean children, I suspect that this realization sets in earlier. From the time they enter their Asiatic equivalent of kindergarten, they are instructed to memorize facts. These facts may concern English, or maybe math, or even music, but all of them are considered necessary in order to achieve a high score on the university entrance exam.

A good score on the exam means the chance to attend a good university, which means a chance to get a respectable form of employment. A lackluster score on the exam means attending a less-prestigious school. For many of these, that means remaining unemployed until your late-20s and living with parents who daily offer wise counsel such as, “Why don’t you get a job?”

Blake and his classmates were a smart bunch; smart enough to know what life had in store for them. This was just their way of expressing their discontent.

Many people I know would have told them to think positive and to cheer up. “Many people” also went to see Saw IV on its opening weekend, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing to do. Nobody in a bad mood ever had their sentiment improved by someone who simply told them to feel better.

People who feel unhappy want you to understand how they feel, and give them a reason to feel better.

As class ended the day after Blake’s impassioned exclamation, I wrote a new word on the board. “Repeat after me,” I instructed, “‘Horrible.’” They did so, dutifully.

“So tomorrow, if you feel bad, you can tell me that you feel horrible,” I said.

The next day I asked them, “How are you today?”

“Horrible!” they said, passionately.

At the end of that class, I wrote the word ‘awful’ on the board. The following day, the word was “lousy.” Many of the children pronounced it “loos-ey,” but those who said it correctly were given candy.

This continued until the end of class. If I ever forgot, the Korean teacher would remind me to teach them a new word before I left.

On the last day of class, the foreign teachers’ main duty is to pass out the student superlative awards. First came the awards for perfect attendance.

I said each award winners name and he/she came to claim their prize.

“How do you feel?” I asked each one.

“Grim!” they replied, faces beaming.

The exception, however, was Blake. As the shocked recipient of awards for both perfect attendance and the highest grade in class, he appeared unsure of how to answer the question.

“Good,” he finally stuttered forth.

He could probably learn more synonyms for that. Hopefully another teacher will take the time to show him.

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