--->Travelogue #45: Why A Korean Man Told Me He's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA!"
From the first day of last November to the middle of this July, I experienced a relationship full of laughter, learning, and frustration. Through its peaks and valleys I felt like an authority figure, a put-upon older brother, and a performance artist, often all at once. When calling attendance, I was apt to sing a student's name (Jenn-i-FER! Jenn-i-FER!) to vociferous boos of "uhm-chee" (Korean for "bad singer"). I would then raise my voice to calm the noise, laugh, twirl my black marker through the air, and teach-act vocabulary words like "presumptuous" and "arrogant" with over-the-top gestures. My students would giggle, sometimes with me, sometimes at me. One mastered the art of rolling her eyes. Many of them would never accept my hairy legs. But through it all, they raised their hands. They wanted to participate. They really wanted to participate. "Don't chew (ignore) me teacher!" Ray would say if I wouldn't pick him to read. "Ray, I'm doing my best, everybody wants to read," I'd say. He'd mull this for a moment. "You're chewing me!" he'd shout. All this would happen in the span of a single forty-minute class, and before I'd know it, the bell would ring.
On Friday, after seven and half months, the bell rang for the last time. (If my students would read that sentence, they would groan, "Cheesy, teacher!" Here's to you guys.)
In the beginning, the class was just one: Anna. She was twelve-years old, blue-framed glasses creeping up her nose, and a shy squeaky English that started and stopped at random beats. Anna was smart and an avid reader; she liked Peter and the Starcatchers, a hit children's book published in the United States. I could actually have a real conversation with her; she found humor in my jokes not just because she thought I made a goofy face, but because she could understand my words. I discovered quickly this would not be some low-level "what does the word 'recipe' mean?" ESL class, but a legitimate exchange of ideas. I was excited.
A couple weeks later, the class had grown to six or seven. All of them were bright.
Just like any promising relationship, initial excitement stabilized into mutual comfort and affection. I respected them, and they respected me, though one of them, after learning my middle name, began to call me "Greg" in the hallway instead of "Mr. Pollack." As a class we chuckled over the dunderheaded Gavin Bloom, a silly character in a detective story who would talk about going for a fun swim rather than solving the mystery at hand. The students plainly got it.
They understood character motivations and they cracked the story's mystery far sooner than did the characters. As for interaction among the students themselves, the boys and girls did not sit next to each other, but they did get along, laughing at each other's jokes and listening to each other's comments.
Shortly after a memorable day in late February, things started to change. The class grew larger and continued to grow larger through the spring. Instead of six pairs of hands raised high in the air, there were thirteen or fourteen.
One student wrote emails to me, complaining that she was not given enough time to talk, nevermind that she was already the most vocal participant in the room. My perfect class looked less and less perfect by the day: one boy began to annoy everybody, to the point where students were outwardly whispering "shut up." Another student suffered from a severe lack of confidence, and a peculiar hiccup-cough when she read aloud. Though she was one of the best writers in the class, she rarely wanted to participate. Some new kids came into the class, became overwhelmed by the intimidating sea of raised hands, and never returned. The kids' light-hearted jokes at my expense hardened to the point that the hiccup-girl wrote a scary story that ended with me killed by a whiz of bullets. What began in November as a family-like atmosphere of easygoing education had turned into a circus of side-chatter, hurt feelings, and kids feeling either ignored or put on the spot. Again I analogize it to a real relationship between two people, albeit the comparison this time is a negative one: what used to be by turns thrilling and comforting became not-so-vaguely annoying.
My eyes wandered. I took a deeper interest in another class, one with a small number of sweet-natured, engaged students.
I even bought them ice cream. They were quickly becoming...my new favorites.
The new schedule for busy season was released last week. I noticed that I had lost the class I had maintained ever since that afternoon in November. My supervisor said there was no malicious motive for the switch; the reason was to merely let the students see a new face in front of the dry-erase board.
Friday was my last day. I brought three bags of candy. Also, I aimed for the nostalgia card, printing out a paper with this picture :
The picture backfired. "Why are you frowning at Joy?" they demanded. Poor Joy was the youngest girl in the class: a fourth grader among fifth and sixth graders. When we studied Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," she covered her ears at the scene where the demented narrator cuts out a feline's eyeball. "Don't worry, it's not real!" I said. "But it makes me think of my rabbit!" Joy said. Keria, precocious Keira, cut in with, "Mr. Pollack, stop reading this story! You're being selfish!"
With that history, I should have known Joy might have been sensitive. "Why are you making that angry face at me?" she asked.
I explained that it was supposed to be funny, but the kids weren't laughing. It was my last day, and all they could talk about was my mean face in the picture.
They brightened up when I popped open the bags of candy. I told them they could ask me or tell me anything, that this would be our closing day where we could wrap up our classtime and just talk. Joy raised her hand. "Yes," I said. "How many candies are we allowed to get?" she asked.
What can you do? Kids like candy. Still, a few of them reminisced about my hairy legs, with Grace arguing that class was better in the winter when I wore pants. Ray asked questions about a girl whom I described a few speaking tests ago. The students' task was to describe their ideal future husband or wife, and to properly embarrass myself so they wouldn't be embarrassed, I had described my "dream girl."
We chatted briefly about what they had learned in the class, but mostly they just fought over the chocolate. When the bell dinged, there were good-bye high-fives, waves, and with the more brittle students, only nods of the head. I don't remember whether or not I told them I'd miss them.
Will I miss them? Some of them, sure, but all of them? Probably not. I will see them in the hallways over the next three months; after that, I'll probably never see them again.
Will I change my mind about missing those who annoyed me? If you ask me three years down the line, will I smile at the memory of the girl with the hiccup-cough who plotted my death in her scary story?
I guess we'll have to see.