Black Man Field Trip


Sang Sang has big ears and wears huge Woody Allen glasses.  His head is thin, his hair is short, and he laughs every time he speaks English.  I’m not sure why, but I generally laugh when he speaks English too.  Sang Sang is one of the best English speakers at the school and yet it’s an adventure when we try to have a conversation.  Typically, we’re both baffled by what he’s saying.  Unlike other Korean high school students, though, Sang Sang isn’t embarrassed into silence due his (can we say) developing English ability.  He’s amused by it, the same way I might be if you dressed me up in pads and skates and threw me out into the middle of an ice hockey rink.

I know that when Sang Sang cracks up, he’s really just trying to tell me, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now.  Enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

My most memorable conversation with Sang Sang happened during the English Interview Contest my school had me do about a month ago.  In a nutshell, students signed up to come into a classroom and have me interview them.  After doing the interviews, I would pick a winner.  It sounded easy enough, especially because my superior, Peter Teacher, gave me a brilliant list of questions to use.  It contained such gems as:

“Do you enjoy reading?”

“What is your favorite book?”

“What was your favorite part of the book?”

In dealing with the brilliant but inflexible Peter Teacher, I’ve learned not to question anything.  If he wanted me to ask them these questions, that’s what I would do.  On the day of the contest about fifteen kids showed up, all giggling nervously.  One by one they came into the classroom and I gave them the 3rd degree about their favorite books.  Most stumbled through descriptions of The Alchemist, grabbing their faces in frustration every now and again when they fell into a pit of indecipherable babble.  The agony showed on them like they were players on a football team that had just lost its fourth straight Superbowl (Go Bills!!!).  Somehow their second language had failed them and they blew it.  Peter Teacher glared at them sternly.  For my part, I was very nice.

“Oh,” I’d say, trying to help, “that sounds interesting.  Do you like colors?  What’s your favorite?  Blue?”

It was with a sigh of relief that I greeted Sang Sang, sitting down for his interview, a big goofy smile already on his face.  He talked about reading and his favorite book.  I don’t remember the name, nor do I remember in detail what his favorite part was, but it had something to do with racism.  The book was set in the US, and in the scene, a black man asked a white family for directions and was ignored simply because he was black.

“Why was that your favorite part, Sang Sang?” I asked earnestly.  The other students liked the action scenes, or the parts with the greatest drama.  Why on earth did Sang Sang like a scene in which a white family gave a black dude the Danny Glover taxi treatment?

“Because I like black people,” he said.

This was interesting.  Odd, yes, but interesting.  There are very few black people in South Korea – most are soldiers, either from the US or Ghana.  Koreans typically know nothing about black people other than that they exist, in places other than Korea.  Two years ago, during my first stint in Korea, I asked my class to name as many black people as they could.  Here was their list:

Michael Jackson

Michael Jordan


George Washington Carver

It’s insane to me that George Washington Carver, of all people, is known across the Pacific.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that Koreans don’t really like peanuts and peanut butter at Homeplus is incredibly overpriced.  (In time, the students would reveal that they knew more than those four – their minds must’ve gone blank when put on the spot.)

Anyways, I digress.  Back to the interview.  Despite the ominous presence of Peter Teacher, I broke from the script.  “Sang Sang,” I said, “have you ever met a black person?”

Sang Sang lit up.  It was like a parent talking about a child or a film director talking about his next movie.  “Yes!” he said excitedly.  “Last year we had a field trip to Itaewon and I talked to a black man!”

Itaewon is the area of Seoul where the US troops are stationed.  “On the street?” I asked Sang Sang.  “Where did you talk to him?”

“He was in a room,” Sang Sang said.  “The school wanted us to meet a black person, so we had a field trip to Itaewon.  We were all able to talk to him and ask questions.”

I really wanted to know more about this.  Who was this black man – was he someone important?  Sang Sang didn’t think so.  He was just a regular guy.  I was dumbfounded.  Had Mansu High School really conducted a field trip to Itaewon – a good two hours from the school – for the sole purpose of having the students talk to a random black person?  I wondered how they approached the dude with the idea for the field trip:

“Say, our students only know who four black people are, and two of them are dead.  If you’re not busy this week, would you mind sitting in a room and having fifty Korean boys stare at you?”

How many students did they really take on this trip?  Did they need permission slips?

“Sang Sang,” I said, “is that the only time you’ve ever spoken to a black person?”

“Yes!” he said, nodding his head enthusiastically.  “I will never forget it.  It was a great experience!”

Koreans must spend a staggering amount of time talking to other Koreans.  Here was a high school full of boys who can’t sustain a simple English conversation even though they’ve taken English class for the last 10 years of their lives and many of them go to hokwons (private tutoring centers) to study English outside of school.  But the English classes in public schools are taught by Korean teachers, and hokwons are expensive.  For my students, English is still a very Korean thing.

I tried to picture, in my head, what the bus must have been like the morning of The Black Man Field Trip.  Were the students excited or were the scared?  Nervous.  Was the bus filled with talking or silence?  I wondered if the students realized that this was the first and maybe last time they would ever talk to a black person.  What went through their minds (in Korean, of course, not English)?  Did they wonder how different he’d be, or did they wonder how much he’d be like them?


The Agony of Teaching Spec Ed


There was a pair of twins in my reading class.  One day, a girl in the class asked one of them what he would do if his brother died.  He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “I’d carry a full-length mirror around with me.  That way I could look in it and think he was still there.”

His response made the whole class laugh.  It was ridiculous, yes, but also clever.  I had nine students in my reading class, and they were all labeled “special ed.”  At the end of the year, they would have to take the same state test as every other ninth-grade student in the school.  None of my students had passed their eighth grade test, and most didn’t come very close.  In North Carolina, the state uses past testing data to create predictor scores for every student – the score the student will likely get on an upcoming test (I’m not sure if other states do this).  According to the predictor scores, not one student in my class was going to pass their state-made final exam.  Everyone would fail, and fail pretty badly. 

Thanks to No Child Left Behind, my nine students were required to pass this test in order to eventually graduate from high school.  It seems like a logical conundrum – if the state and the school system have reliable data to suggest the students will not pass the test, then how are they still being held to that standard?  That’s kind of like throwing a fish down on a hot street and hoping it’ll breathe.  To extend that metaphor, I would be sort of like a life guard, assigned to helping the fish learn to use it’s gills like lungs.  Perhaps that’s a negative way to look at things, but it’s how you start to think when you’re a spec ed teacher: Do they really believe that I can do this?  The thing is, it’s hard to imagine that the school system truly does think that you can get all those students to pass.  Which creates a second question: Have they really given me an impossible assignment and just walked away with their fingers crossed? 

Let’s go back to my little reading class.  We spent the year reading and writing like a good English class is supposed to.  I tried my best to make the curriculum interesting: we used Wu-Tang Clan lyrics to learn assonance, played “Match Game” to learn analogies, and had a class poetry reading complete with coffee and candy cigarettes.  My nine students were trying as hard as they could.  Sometimes they’d get frustrated and close their books – the work was too much.  Sometimes we’d just talk and laugh, about how I’d had a bad date over the weekend, or at DC’s new purple wig, or at the thought of a twin using a mirror to trick himself.

At the end of the year, I held my breath while they took their test.  After retesting, 4 out of 9 passed.  Everyone outdid their predictor score.  Which brings us to the true agony of the spec ed teacher: Was our class a success or a failure?  We outdid expectations and everyone showed progress.  Yet over half the class failed.  I talked on the phone with overjoyed parents.  Yet their joy was brought on by a grade of D minus – happiness because their child hit the lowest possible passing score on the nose.  I was thanked.  DC hugged me because she was so proud she’d passed a state reading test.  Another student, HG, literally screamed when I told him he passed.  He was 17 , still in the ninth grade and had failed all of his classes first semester.  Usually when he got news from his teacher, it wasn’t this sweet.

To be a spec ed teacher is to bank everything on hope.  You hope you can teach them.  You hope the odds aren’t as bad as they seem.  Finally you hope that the small victories will add up, the weight of failure doesn’t become too much, and that your students will keep having ridiculous and clever ideas, and the ability to laugh at them.