Four Days in the Unfortunate Universe of Having a Job


blog jason vorheesDay One

Time: late August

Weather: hot

Physical Appearance: wearing blue suit, hair looks good, small pimple on chin

The beginning of a new school year is a lot like the first twenty minutes of a slasher movie.

You meet new people. Everyone is happy and the sky is generally bright and sunny. There are parties. People hook up. Clichés are muttered, like this is going to be a great school year, just as someone in a slasher movie might say this is going to be a great vacation out here in the wilderness. But meanwhile, despite all the pleasantness, there are undertones. Dark undertones. Hints of evil lurking in the near future. On occasion, ominous music plays (like the school chimes). Eventually you begin to wonder which of your teacher friends will be the first to go, and what back story will justify the actions of your psychotic students (overbearing mothers, traumas from the past, they witnessed poor classroom management as young children, etc.).

Keeping this in mind, I have my goal set for the year. Survival. I want nothing more than to make it to the end alive. Because the school year will soon disintegrate into Wolf Creek, and once that happens, I’d like to make sure the engine of my car is checked before all the crazy people start pulling on the door handles.

blog teacher dudeDay Two

Time: early September

Weather: slightly less hot than day one

Physical Appearance: wearing shirt and tie, unshaven, pimple on neck thankfully hidden by collar

It’s a curse to be blessed with talents in an area not of your choosing.

At the risk of sounding like an egomaniac, I’m a pretty darn good teacher. Damn good, even. I can run a class smoothly, limit behavior problems, and get the kids working. They have fun in my class and they cooperate. At times, I feel like this might be my calling. The kids are learning, everything is awesome, and, as much as I hate to admit, I’m sort of enjoying myself.

But, you see, all that is really bad. It’s devastating, actually. Because I never wanted to be a teacher. No, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I mean, who really aspires to be a teacher? No one. People aspire to be writers and end up as teachers. I spend my nights after school writing, slaving away at projects that never seem to get any closer to completion. That’s because, if I’m being honest with myself, my writing isn’t all that great. Sometimes things come out pretty decent and I’m satisfied, but it takes a lot of work and it never comes easy.

So this is my big problem. The torture of being good at something you didn’t ask to be good at. At work, on days where I have one excellent class after the next, I’m just more painfully aware that I’m a way better teacher than I am a writer. That this is my job, my profession, and the thing that I have all that passion for, well, that’s my hobby.

And then I start letting the writing slide, and spend my nights looking over lesson plans like a true loser.

'You're wasting your time. I like my job, but I'll never love it.'Day Three

Time: mid September

Weather: warm, nice pollution fog

Physical Appearance: checkered shirt and tie although I’m not sure they go together and feel somewhat self-conscious

Work can make a person’s dreams fade away.

This is what I’ve learned. Against my better judgment, I fear that I’ve become one of those people. You know the type. I spend hours of my free time doing things that relate to my job. When out with people, I talk about my job. When thinking, I think about my job. When dreaming, I dream about marshmallow people, but that’s only because I have no control over what I dream. Otherwise it would be my job. My job has become the one dominant focal point in my life, and I’m so ashamed of myself.

The real problem is that I’m happy. Yes, I know, it’s a catastrophe. Even though I complain a lot, I’m beginning to realize that I might (sigh) really like my line of work. I might even…dare I say…love it. Oh my God, how did this happen?  I’m like the person that gets kidnapped and then falls in love with their captor. I’m like Patty Hearst. At first I was kicking and screaming, and now I never want to be rescued.

My writing has completely stopped. I tell myself it was only a hobby anyways. I was born to be a teacher, and my lack of writing isn’t laziness…it’s destiny.

blog kids middle fingerDay Four

Time: late September

Weather: chilly, nipples slightly erect

Physical Appearance: wearing long grey trench coat, tell myself I look like Don Draper but think I look more like a flasher

A great thing happened today!

My class was terrible!

Absolutely terrible. The children were out of control, nobody learned anything, kids were giving each other the middle finger, and nobody did any work at all. I think these days are blessings. Granted, this is mostly because they’re few and far between, but when Wolf Creek happens, it’s kind of nice. It makes one pause and take a step back, look at the big picture for a moment.

This is my job. Not my life. I guess I need bad days to remind me of this. There are things that need to be written, projects that need to be completed, dreams that need to be chased. Without all that…I’d only have this job, this thing that pays me and takes up most of my time and occasionally involves children making lewd gestures at each other. And if that’s all I have…I’ll probably go crazy and end up in a looney bin trying to teach grammar in a straight jacket.

I sit in my room and smoke a cigarette. Then I open up my novel, which I haven’t looked at in almost a month. It sits on the same screen where my lesson plans have been a permanent fixture for the last five weeks.

Tomorrow the kids will probably be good again, and I’ll probably feel cocky about triumphantly completing my lesson on the future continuous tense. But for now I’ll write. I’ll take a few hours to dream. Because work is over and, technically, I’m not a teacher again until eight o’clock tomorrow morning.


Generation Glue Stick


Title: Generation Glue Stick

Main Idea: How the invention of the glue stick has changed an entire generation of young people.

Introduction: If Laura wasn’t so adorable, she might be mistaken for a brat. It would be an understandable mistake. Laura is nine years old, wears nice little dresses and bursts into laughter a lot. She could be the poster child for cute children. She could also be the poster child for COCD – Childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Give Laura the colored pencils to color with and she will have a fit (she prefers the markers). Hand Laura the scissors with the red handle and she will refuse to use them (she will only use the scissors with the blue handle). Grade her paper by putting a smile face next to the right answers, and she will remove them with White Out (correct answers, obviously, are scored with hearts). The thing is, Laura isn’t the only one with COCD. Most of the kids I work with have it to some degree. It’s not a new phenomenon – kids have always been stubborn – but it’s getting worse. Why, you ask? Perhaps it began with but one small invention, the glue stick.

Body Paragraph #1: Way back in 1969, a German company named Henkel had a bright idea. They studied lipstick and noted how remarkably easy the ‘twist-up’ applicator was to use. What if, they asked themselves, other items could be created in lipstick’s image? Henkel decided that glue would be an ideal candidate and soon after introduced “The Pritt Stick,” the first incarnation of the modern glue stick. Only three years later, Pritt Sticks were being sold in 38 countries. By 2001, that number climbed to 121. But while the bright idea of creating a glue applicator modeled after lipstick came originally from Henkel, another company piggy-backed it with a bright idea of its own. The Elmer’s Company, who used a cartoon figure named Elmer the Bull as their mascot, had the brilliant notion of sticking the word ‘school’ in the name of their products. This worked wonders. Schools always needed cheap crafting products, and Elmer’s jumped all over that. Elmer’s products such ‘School Glue,’ ‘Krazy Glue,’ and the ‘X-Acto Knife’ became ubiquitous in schools all over America. The focus of Elmer’s advertising is still squarely placed on educators and students; go to their website today, and you will find a feature entitled ‘The 1st Day of School’ filling their homepage, with side links for parents and teachers.

Body Paragraph #2: So what does any of this mean? I argue that through the advancement in the quality of products (The Pritt Stick, for instance) and their widespread usage in schools (thanks to companies like Elmer’s), we have spawned Generation Glue Stick, a explosion of young people who have grown to understand the world through a prism of order, convenience, and tidiness. Let me explain. For a long time, students in younger grades had to make do with what they had. Want to glue two papers together for an art project? A student used a bottle of glue for that. This was, by its nature, an imperfect device. One had to be rather careful when using the glue bottle, making sure not to overdo it. Personally, I liked to employ the ‘glue dotting technique,’ where a person places a small dot of glue on each corner of the paper and sticks it to something that way. It required patience. The glue took awhile to dry. Also, classrooms weren’t always that well stocked with glue bottles. Sometimes there was only one big bottle and you waited your turn to use it. That said, I never considered a bottle of glue to be particularly hard to use until recently. My kids, it seems, are very glue stick reliant. Give them a bottle of glue, and it’s a disaster. There’s glue everywhere and lots of children crying. While convenience is the major draw of the glue stick, independence is a benefit as well. Schools have tons of little glue sticks so that each student can glue his or her own stuff in solitude. There is very little waiting or sharing. It’s a fact that having only four glue sticks will turn an otherwise normal class of ten kids into Lord of the Flies.

This is an awarding winning piece of art created by an elementary school student. I didn’t have much time for abstract art in elementary school, as I was too busy drawing dragons.

Body Paragraph #3: The glue stick isn’t the only culprit. Everything, for today’s young student, is constructed on a platform of order and visual aesthetic. At the risk of sounding really old, when I was a kid, White Out was a delicacy, something used only in special cases where the scribble out technique just wasn’t acceptable. Today, all my kids carry around white out tape. Before, kids wrote with little nub pencils that had shrunk down to a half an inch from lots of usage. Today’s kids have immortal mechanical pencils that they fill with pristinely thin pieces of lead in a delicate procedure, done with the care of a surgeon making an incision. Very little is handwritten today. Final drafts are almost always typed. Crayons are Stone Age-level old fashioned. With copy machines in all schools, kids can always screw up their worksheet and ask the teacher for a clean new one. Class speeches have a PowerPoint presentation to back them. Instruction has become more visual and structured as well. Take a writing assignment, for instance. I can remember jotting down a crappy outline on a sheet of loose leaf paper. Now, reading and writing assignments involve a giant variety of mental maps, graphic organizers, brain storming diagrams, and the like. There is a real sense of perfection in the work of today’s students. It’s no wonder that Laura will only use the blue scissors or accept hearts for her correct answers. For her, everything in education has been done by design, been crafted and molded to fit. It’s not a negative thing. Call it a new outlook. With the glue stick and its cohorts, our children today are being encouraged not only to be creative, but to be professional about it.

Conclusion: Generation Glue Stick, in many ways, is more advanced than previous generations were. They will grow to become people who file things well, who document, who know how to plate food in a visually pleasing way, and who will hand in reports that are spaced properly and don’t have mustard spilled on them. True, they can’t use a glue bottle, they don’t work particularly well with others, and they have difficulty dealing with mistakes and adversity. It doesn’t matter. They know how to fix things. Whatever mistakes they’ve made will safely be confined to the outline, and, I’m pretty sure, no parents hang outlines up on the refrigerator door.


Big Mother Is Watching You


Back in the USA, my classroom was very much like an impenetrable fortress.  I think “fortress” is the right word here.  Remember when Pat Buchanan nicknamed his foreign policy “Fortress America”?  He meant that the country would close its borders and return to a doctrine of isolationism.  That’s exactly what my classroom was like.  Fortress Classroom.  The door was always shut, only rarely did anyone come in to observe what was happening, and my students, for the most part, didn’t even talk to their parents about what went on in class.  In other words, the only people who had a very strong idea concerning what was going on in my classroom were me and the students.  What happened in Mr. Panara’s classroom, stayed in Mr. Panara’s classroom.

Don’t get too excited.  “What happened” in Mr. Panara’s classroom was typically English lessons, so scratch me off your list of possible bachelor party locations.

Most of the other classrooms were like this too.  I used to tell new teachers one bit of advice: never (well, in extreme circumstances yes, but otherwise never) write administrative referrals on students.  The administration encouraged teachers to fill out a form which would refer students to them for disciplinary reasons, but in truth, teachers who wrote a lot of administrative referrals were viewed as being unable to handle their classes.  It was a sign of weakness.  Conversely, a teacher could have a complete madhouse going on behind that closed door, and as long as that teacher didn’t start writing referrals, the school’s administration would go on thinking everything was fine and dandy.  Sadly, I suppose, that was the preferable option.  Teachers who went to the admins seeking help with their classes often wound up being the ones on action plans and under tight scrutiny.  Teachers who shut up got to keep teaching their hell classes without anyone breathing down their necks.

As I mentioned before, at the school where I taught, parent involvement was pretty minimal.  Most of the time, when I called parents, they were in the dark about what was happening with their kid’s education.  Trying to set up a parent/teacher conference was as difficult as trying to get Lennon and McCarthy to sit down and discuss reuniting The Beatles.  And I don’t mean in 1975.  I mean now.

By my last year teaching at my high school in Charlotte, NC, technology was altering the “Fortress Classroom” reality, albeit only slightly.  Cell phones, and their ability to record things, absolutely made teachers more aware of what they and their students were saying and doing.  Nobody wanted to end up on YouTube with the title “Teacher Meltdown” or “Dance War in Science Class.”  Also, teachers were required to keep an electronic grade book, so parents could log into a website anytime and check out their kid’s grade.  The Internet changed things too.   Websites like “Rate My Teacher,” where students can go and give teachers a number rating and leave comments, starting popping up.  Just as with other aspects of life, technology and the Internet was taking what used to be a closed door and cracking it open a little.

None of that, however, compares even slightly to what teaching at a hakwon in South Korea is like.  In America, people on the outside are peeking into the classroom only slightly.  Here, they’ve got both eyes firmly planted on you as though you’re on The Real World: Classroom Edition.  To illustrate, I will provide a helpful bulleted list:

  • In America, the classroom is typically a closed box.  The windows only teasingly expose the sun and the beautiful land the children are not allowed to enjoy until the final bell rings.  At my school in Korea, there is no view of the outside world and the fourth wall to my classroom – the one facing the hallway – is one giant sheet of glass.  Anybody can see in at any time.  In addition to this, anybody walking down the hallway inevitably captures the students’ attention and throws them off task.  This happens about once every 10-15 seconds.
  • In my classroom in Korea (where mothers typically don’t work), there is a CCTV camera.  If you’re unfamiliar with CCTV, it basically means that there’s a surveillance camera in the classroom.  The front office has a big flat screen television where there is a live feed from all the classrooms.  Often times, I’ll pass by the front office and see a few mothers sitting in there, watching.
  • The kids in Korea tend to tell their parents everything that happens.  Pretty regularly, I have some mother call the school to complain.  The biggest complaints are that I give the kids too much free time (like 5 mins at the end every other class) or that some kid swore in Korean during class.  This makes me look bad.  Not because the kids are not working on English, but because one would think I would’ve learned the Korean curse words by now.
  • Every five months or so, teachers are required to do “open classes,” where the mothers come in and literally join the class.  They typically sit there tight-lipped and stone faced, as though they’re watching the Kony video or that Adam Sandler movie where he played his own sister.

I wonder if this is an improvement over what I formerly had.  I remember the countless meetings where we tried to come up with ways to increase parental involvement. Now, I’ve got parental involvement.  In fact, I have so much parental involvement, the mothers have unlimited access to the classroom.  And you know what?  I don’t think it’s helping much of anything.  It’s got me thinking, though, and questioning how open a classroom should be.

Maybe not a fortress, and maybe not a glass house.  I do believe there needs to be some sense of privacy for a classroom to come to life, and I also think poor teachers are able to hide in the dark for too long.  I’m sure that we’ll see how accessible the classroom becomes.  The possibilities, I suppose, are endless, if you have time and a computer.

Want to know what your child did in school today?  Click ‘Download.’



Yes, They’re Killing Me, But At Least I’m Getting Paid For It


Two summers ago I was dead broke.  I was running out of money fast, draining my bank account, and I knew that I wouldn’t be getting a paycheck again until the end of the summer.  This is one of the miseries of being a teacher.  The two month summer break is awesome…except for the fact that it doesn’t really exist.  Most teachers work some kind of job during the summer, and although doing a dippy part-time job offers more freedom than teaching, it also means that the bank account is going to take a pretty substantial hit.  The arrival of summer vacation is kind of like getting a new girlfriend – it’s fun, but suddenly you’re dipping into your savings account to afford dinner at Applebee’s.  One summer I worked at a group home for people with traumatic brain injuries; another summer I taught an English camp in Korea for a month and a half and flew back to America two days before the start of the new school year.

I was supposed to go back for another summer camp two years ago, but it ended up falling through, leaving me jobless and going broke.  One night at a bar with my teacher friends, the science teacher at my old school, who was a good friend of mine, said something that interested me.

“They rejected my plasma,” she said.  “You know, you can make a lot of money selling your plasma.”

“You tried to sell your plasma?” I asked.  Was this really what things were coming to for teachers?  Were economic times so bad, we had to sell our body’s plasma to make ends meet?

“Yeah,” she said, “they took a sample but I guess my plasma isn’t what they’re looking for.”

“Maybe I’ll try to sell my plasma,” I said, wondering how I was going to pay the bar tab.

“You should.  Really, if you’re desperate for money, sign up to do scientific experiments.  It’s easy and they pay pretty well.”

The next day, I did just that.  I went online and found the website where I could sign up to participate in clinical trials and get paid for it.  Suddenly, it was as though a whole new world of weirdness opened up to me.  Every week I’d get an email outlining the new trials I could volunteer for.  I never knew before how many bizarre experiments there were going on in the city; reading through the emails, I learned all sorts of interesting things.

I could sign up to help doctors research Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is a surprisingly common disorder where the body’s immune cells attack – for unknown reasons – the tear glands.  Yes, for people with Sjogren’s Syndrome, the body’s immune system refuses to let that person cry.  “And this whole time,” I said to myself, “I thought all of my ex-girlfriends were just cold.”

Or, if I didn’t want to be crying all the time taking some new Sjogren’s medication, I could sign up to help doctors learn more about Wake Therapy and its effects on depression.  For one week, I would stay in a hospital and they would see how sleep deprivation and light therapy would alter my mood.  Apparently, sleep deprivation has been shown to improve feelings of sadness in people with depression, although those improvements have not lasted over time.  So for a week, I would get some cash, but I’d have to get woken up a lot.  I had a feeling this would not result in the ‘happy’ effect the scientists were anticipating.  I saw lots of grumpiness and irritability happening.

Or I could take a pill called Psilocybin and see if it would stop my cravings for alcohol.  As someone who has bounced in and out of AA for years, this idea intrigued me but also made me sad.  Could a pill cure alcoholism and, in doing so, prove itself to be stronger than things like will power and the human spirit?  Really, if it worked, a stupid pill would be able to do something I had been failing at for over a decade.  “The investigators hypothesize that drinking will decrease following the psilocybin sessions, and that increases in motivation, self-efficacy, and spirituality will be observed among study participants,” it said.

I imagined myself overdoing it – I mean, if the pill was so good, why not?  People would see me passed out in an alley and would ask, “Is he drunk?” and then someone would say, “No, he’s just ripped on Psilocybin and exhausted from light therapy.”

I tried to volunteer for several of these studies, but was only contacted back by one (which I did not try to sign up for myself).  It was testing out a new diet pill.  I weighed 135 pounds and was massively underweight; somehow taking a diet pill didn’t seem like such a good idea.  Furthermore, is that the kind of PR the company really wanted?  I pictured their future commercial: “Are our diet pills effective?  Well, listen up!  You’ll lose so much weight, you’ll die!”

Then there would be a “before” picture of me, looking happy.  And the “after” picture would be a skeleton.

But then again, I was pretty broke.  Yeah, they’d be killing me with diet pills, but at least I’d be getting paid for it.

As things turned out, I got through the summer without ever doing one paid clinical experiment.  I still get the weekly emails and look through them, seeing what wonderful and baffling things the science world is up to.  There are lots of problems trying to be solved.  Maybe the best solution to all these problems – and I could be speaking out of personal bias here – is a 12 month school year.


Writing about My Father Makes Me Realize I’m Being a Jackass and I Need to Chill Out


Part One – The Time Slightly Before Becoming a Jackass

“Do you have an English name,” I asked the new student.  He was a cute little dude, maybe seven years old.  I hoped he already had an English name, because I suck at naming the new kids.  Luckily, he did.

“My name is Cooper,” he said.  He seemed excited to meet me.

“Cooper,” I repeated.  “Excellent.  I like that name a lot.”

Part Two – I, Jackass

Two days later, Cooper came up to me before class.  He was concerned about something I had written on the board.  During out English game in class, I wrote all the students’ names on the board and kept score.  Although he didn’t say anything at the time, Cooper was sad.

“Teacher,” he said, “my name is with K.”


“You wrote wrong on board.”

“What do you mean?  That’s how you spell it.  C-o-o-p-e-r.  Cooper.”

He said that was wrong.  He took a marker and wrote the correct version on the board.


“Um, no buddy,” I said, firmly.  “I’ve never seen it spelled like that.  I think maybe your teacher made a mistake.  We’re gonna spell it with a C and two O’s from now on.”

“No teacher!” he said, panicked.  “It is with K!  K-u-p-e-r!”

In my head, I wondered who taught him that.  It was likely a Korean English teacher who couldn’t really speak English.  Who else would spell Cooper that way?  Kuper?  Like Super.  For the next week or so, this turned into a major bone of contention.  I wanted him to spell the name properly, and he, with every ounce of his tiny body, was dead set on spelling it his way.

“No!” he’d shout when I wrote Cooper on the board.  “K!  K!  K!”

“Listen,” I said, “that’s a racist organization and you shouldn’t support them.  Now look, this is the right way to spell it, Cooper.  I like your name…I just think you should spell it right.”

He covered his face with his hands, devastated.  It was like his entire world had gone up in smoke.  Like the moment you realize there is no Santa Claus, or that the Tooth Fairy is your father, or that Milli Vanilli lip sank “Blame it on the Rain.”  It was one of those moments.  Disillusionment.

It wasn’t brought on by the new spelling of his name, though, but instead by the realization that this teacher was not, under any circumstances, going to change it back.

Part Three – Jackass Epiphany

The day before Thanksgiving, I wrote a silly blog post about my family.  In it, there was an innocuous line of dialogue where my father calls me “Billy.”  My father always called me Billy.  The strange tension with Cooper made me reflect on that a bit, and I thought back.

When I was a little kid – Cooper’s age – I liked being called Billy.  It was a fun name, I thought.  Then something happened.  Around middle school time, suddenly the kids at school began teasing me over it.  It started with Larry Miller.  My mother didn’t like Larry because she said he had a dirty neck (good reason not to like someone, really).  I thought Larry was a cool person, and I considered him my friend.  That’s why I was surprised when Larry started doing a mean impersonation of me for the class.

“Hi!” he said in kind of a weird, lispy voice.  “I’m Billy Panara!”

I wondered why Larry was making fun of me.  What the hell did I do?  Soon a lot of kids at school were coming up to me and saying “Hi Billy!” and laughing.  The joke became that I was still a little kid; that while they were maturing, I was stuck in a state of arrested development.

“Billy!  Are you gonna play with Mommy and Daddy?  Have you been a good boy, Billy?”

I hated it.  My solution was simple – I’d drop the ‘y.’  That, I figured, would solve the problem entirely.  Want proof that I’m not a kid anymore?  Check out my name!  Bill!  Man, that would say it all.  It was easy to make fun of Billy…but Bill would be a whole different story.  Bill’s a stand up guy, the type of buddy you shoot the shit with.  So that was settled.  Billy was gone, and now I was Bill.

My father, though, was not having it.  I told the old man that I was Bill now, and he just sort of shrugged and said ‘no.’  That wasn’t happening, and for the next twenty years, he would insist on calling me Billy.  At school I’d walk down the hallway, having kids shout out “Billy, did Daddy help you dress today?!” or something like that, and I’d hang my head.  The real hurt came back at home, though, with my father.

“I’m Bill now,” I told him.  “I won’t respond to Billy.”

“Stop it Billy,” he said.  “You’re being ridiculous.”

I would sit in my bedroom and think, “Shit, the kids at school are right.  I AM still a baby.”  Then I would take my mind off things by playing with my Ninja Turtle action figures.

Looking back on it, the whole thing seems silly.  At the time, though, nothing made me feel smaller than when my dad called me Billy.  I hadn’t really thought about it until I wrote that blog post, and then my mind went to Cooper.

Part Four – Post Jackass

“Hey Cooper,” I said, right before I wrote his name on the board for our class game.  “How do you spell your name again?”

The kid stuck to his guns.  “K-u-p-e-r.”

“Yup,” I said.  “That’s right.”  I wrote his name like that on the board, and he was happy.  The battle over the spelling of his name was finished.  He had won.

In the big picture, kids don’t have control over a whole lot.  They’re told what to do, when to go to bed, what they will eat, and what things they can’t break.  Really, their names might be the only thing that is fully theirs; that they have ownership of.  That shouldn’t be taken away.  It’s important.

Now if I could just get the kid to stop writing ‘kat,’ ‘kar,’ and ‘korn on the kob,’ life would be golden.


Horse Shoes and Heavy Artillery


On a dreary morning back in 2006, I was stopped by the police on my way to work.  At that time, I taught at an elementary school in a rough area of Charlotte, North Carolina.  To get to the school, I had to follow a series of twisting roads that weaved their way through the projects.  Each time I drove through, it was depressing.  It was eye opening to see the conditions my kids lived in.  That particular morning when the police stopped me, I was ordered to turn my car around and go to the school a different way.  The police didn’t say why.

It wasn’t until I got to school that I was told, “Everyone got turned around.  It’s a crime scene.  There’s a dead body in the street.”

Then, a few hours later, I was called into the guidance counselor’s office.  “Mr. P,” she said, “the person who was shot late last night…well, it’s Jamaal’s cousin.”  Jamaal was one of my students.  He was in the third grade, energetic and always smiling.  He had little corn rows and was insanely cute.  The guidance counselor continued, “He’s not the only child in our school who has had a family member die recently.  I’m going to start a group at the school for grief counseling.  I will let you know when I’ll be taking Jamaal out of class.”


For the students in South Korea, nothing is funnier than to joke about death.  The death joke is a real crowd pleaser.  During the daily attendance, I might ask something like, “Is Harold here today?”  Some kid will inevitably shout out, “No teacher – he is die!”  Then the whole class will burst into laughter.  Yesterday, I did a lesson with “Champ” class about using the words ‘always’ and ‘never.’  I asked the class, “What is something you never do?”

“I never die!”

“I never kill my mother!”

“I never kill my friends!”

“Your answers concern me,” I said, “although I’d be more concerned if you said those things for ‘always.’”  Other things concern me too.  Once, I asked a student named John, “What do you want to be when you get older?”  He shot back, “Teacher, I want to be terrorist!”  While the class went bananas with laughter, I thought about how that joke would NEVER fly in the US.  On another occasion, I was teaching a class of around 35 kids at the public high school in Incheon, when a student named ‘Rust’ burst into the classroom holding a toy gun.

“Bam!  Bang!” Rust shouted, aiming the gun at his classmates and pretending to fire.  I stood there dumbfounded.  It didn’t even concern me that he had interrupted the lesson.  The whole class laughed and smiled at Rust’s joke.  The toy gun looked real.

I wonder if, in America, the students would’ve jumped under their desks.


In the warm Charlotte spring, my small class of elementary students got 45 minutes a day to play on the playground.  I
was walking to the playground with Jamaal one day when we passed an area that had been set up for the game Horseshoes.  There were stakes put in the ground, maybe thirty feet apart.  I looked at the stakes in the ground and immediately thought, “Horseshoes.”  Jamaal thought something different.

“Mr. P,” he said, pointing to them, “who’s buried there?”

I tried to explain that nobody was buried there.  It was a game.  Horseshoes.  He didn’t know the game.  After school I went into the school gym and asked the gym teacher if she had a set of horseshoes so we could play.

“Horseshoes?” she said, surprised.  “No, I don’t have that.  Why do you want to play horseshoes?”

“I dunno,” I said.  “The kids in the class don’t know it.”

“Here, I have a couple Frisbees,” she said.  “You could throw them.”

Good enough.  The next day my class played “Frisbee Horseshoes.”  It wasn’t especially interesting or fun.  I’m not sure the kids really learned the game; as for me, I learned that hitting a stake in the ground with a Frisbee is a lot harder than hitting it with a u-shaped piece of metal.

Much more importantly, I wonder if Jamaal understood.

It’s a game.  Not a graveyard.  It’s okay to be a kid.


Almost one year ago today, North Korea fired 170 artillery rounds at Yeonpyeong Island in response to a South Korean military drill.  On November 23, 2010, North Korea fired on the island’s military base, killing four and injuring 18.  I remember how freaked out a lot of the foreigners teaching in Korea were, and how calm and collected the Koreans acted.  At my high school in Incheon, it was business as usual.  No one seemed to bat an eyelash over the attack, which the United Nations said was the “most serious crisis on the Korean peninsula since the 1953 armistice which ended the Korean War.”

About a week after it happened, one of my students rushed into class.  “Teacher!” he shouted.  “North Korea has attacked again!  It is war!”

I had just gotten off the Internet and saw nothing about a new attack.  All I could think to say to the student was, “Really?”

He laughed.  “No teacher.  It is joke.”

I couldn’t help but smile.  “Well played, my friend.”

Last year’s attack is a reminder that the possibility of war, while remote, is present.  Maybe because I can’t speak Korean, I can’t really tell if my students worry about that or if they’ve accepted it as a part of their reality.  I remember some students proudly saying, “We will fight North Korea, and we will win!”  While others said, “There will be no war.  They are our brothers.  We are all Korean.”

Still, although the threat of violence is so close, I don’t think the kids in Korea know death like my students in America did.  I later transferred to a high school in Charlotte; I remember the students talking about their friends and family members who had been shot and killed.  Death isn’t something that the students make jokes about.  It doesn’t mean that the students in Korea are less mature.  Actually, their innocence is maybe the way it should be.  It must be nice be nice to grow up in a place where guns, terrorism, and death are just ideas, safe and abstract.

And where the teacher doesn’t have to take an alternate route, because his third grade student’s cousin is covered with a blanket out in the middle of the street.


Billy Is Gay!


This is the story of how I butted heads with a student, ended up stealing her cell phone, and was eventually reprimanded by my school for giving her an obscene gesture (although I was innocent).  In the course of reading this, I hope you will see how a teacher can never really guess what’s going to happen next.  Teaching is full of surprises, little moments that a reflective person unlike myself can learn from.  I don’t know if I learned anything from the events that transpired with “Miss A,” other than the statement of fact that provides our story with its title:

Billy is gay.

It all began on a Thursday, my first Thursday at the new school.  Up until that point, things had gone wonderfully.  The kids seemed awesome and classes were off to a good start.  That all changed when a heavy-set middle school girl came bounding through the door.  This was my last Thursday class, a group of ten middle school kids.  My attention was quickly gobbled up by the girl I mentioned earlier; she was incredibly loud and seemed to be the leader of the gang of middle school girls that sat around her.  It’s not hard to tell when the “bad” student walks into the room.  They typically like to announce their presence.

“Hello everyone,” I said to the class.  I wrote my name on the board.  “My name is Bill.  It’s easy to remember.  Just like Bill Gates, or Bill Clinton, or Bill Belamy.”

I figured the students would know one of them, most likely Belamy, and that would help them pronounce my name.  Before I could say another word, the girl I’d already started to worry about exploded.

“Billy!” she shouted.  “Hahaha!!!  Billy is gay!  Teacher is gay!”

This caused the rest of the class to go berserk.  Suddenly everyone was saying, “Billy!  Billy!”

“Um,” I said.  “Okay.  It’s actually Bill.  So it would be good if we could stick to that, I guess.  Bill.”

“Teacher!” the girl laughed.  “Billy means gay!”

“Well, that’s nice to know,” I said, and then tried to change the subject.  “What is your name?”

“Billy!  My name is Billy!”

The class was seriously losing it.  I felt embarrassed and it was only two minutes into the first class.  I faked a laugh.  “Nice one.  Really, what is your name?”

“No name,” she said, a huge smile on her face.  “Haha.  Gay.  Billy.

That fifty minute class seemed to go on forever.  When it finally came to a close, Leah, my boss, came in my room.  “How was the big girl?” she asked me.  “She gave the last foreign teacher many problems.”

“She was bad,” I said, admittedly.  “We’ll figure her out.”

I’ve been teaching for awhile now, and so I was confident that I could ease this student back onto the road more travelled

The ladies of Miss A

(the road where students don’t answer ‘how are you?’ with ‘teacher is gay’).  The next time the class met, I gave her lots of attention and was super nice.  She still wouldn’t make up a name for herself, so I dubbed her “Miss A” after the popular Korean music group.  I joked around with her and gave her candy at the end of class.  The following week was more of the same.  This was theory one – win her over.  I rigged the English game we played so that she won and then gave her money (only 1,000 KW, but still) as a prize.

I was convinced that soon she would not see me as an adversary; she would see me as the greatest person ever to step foot in her hogwon.

For that first month, Miss A was still bad, but she was manageable.  She was loud and obsessed with the whole Billy thing, but she did her work and participated in the class.  Things would regress in the second month.  I blame a two week span where I didn’t see her class at all – my English class was cancelled due to testing.  When Miss A came back, it was like the first day times infinity.

“Teacher likes boys!  Teacher is gay!  Gay gay gay!  Billy!”

And then it caught on.  In one of my elementary school classes, a tiny little boy named Daniel pointed at me and said, “Bill Teacher is gay.”  Walking through the hallways, I started to get it from the majority of the middle school kids I’d walk by.  “Hi Billy!” they’d say, cracking up.

The second theory went into effect – ignore it and be above it.  Now, I wish I could say that being called ‘gay’ was no different from them saying ‘stupid’ or ‘ugly.’  That it was just another name.  Really, the whole thing was starting to get under my skin, and I wish I could say that it was because it disrupted class and, hey, I’m human and I just don’t like being laughed at constantly.  That wouldn’t be the truth, though.  I think if it was “teacher is stupid,” I wouldn’t have cared too much.  It probably is a bit homophobic; being called gay all the time bothered me.  Especially because it led to having a bunch of kids, including a lot of young boys, going around the school saying “teacher likes boys.”  That was NOT cool at all.  It was slander, man.  Baseless slander.  Or slander based on, I guess, my name.

“Damn,” I said to myself.  “I should’ve told them my name is William.”

Ignoring it wasn’t making it go away.  It was only getting worse.  Miss A had infected the whole school.

Finally, on a Wednesday, I went straight into theory three – get strict.  I was sitting at my desk when Miss A ran into the classroom, a bunch of girls following behind her.  I was surprised to see her, as she’s not in my Wednesday class.  “Teacher,” she said, smiling, “do you like boys?”

The girls behind her burst into hysterics.  I stood up.  I told the others to leave.  “Listen,” I said in my serious voice, the door closed behind us, “it isn’t funny anymore.  NOT FUNNY.  No more gay joke.  Do you understand?  I want you to STOP IT.  No more.”

She nodded and smiled and laughed like I was telling her the parrot joke.  The next day in class, it was obvious that our little talk was pointless.  “Billy!” she shouted to the delight of her peers.  “Teacher is Billy!”

I wanted to kick her in the face.  As a professional, my judgment told me to refrain from that.  “Deep breaths,” I said to myself.  “Stay cool.”  I told her to stop again.  She didn’t.  Then I noticed that her cell phone was sitting on her desk.  I snatched it up and put it in my pocket.

“Done,” I said.  “The joke is done.  No more.  If you want your phone back, quiet rest of class.  No more talking.  Quiet.”

This was theory four – desperation.

Like its predecessors, it failed miserably.  Miss A kept talking, just now in Korean.  The class kept laughing.  “Okay,” I said.  I took a piece of paper and wrote the following:

“Dear Parents, Your daughter’s phone was taken due to poor behavior.  To get it back, call me.  I would like to talk to you.  My number is ________________.  Thanks.”    

I gave the paper to Miss A.  “You’re not getting your phone back until mom or dad calls,” I said.  This quieted her.  For the rest of class, she wrote a long apology letter.  After the bell rang, she approached me with it.

“Teacher, I am very sorry,” she said.

“That’s nice,” I said.  “You’ll get your phone back when mom or dad calls me.”

She held the note out.  I took it and threw it in the garbage.

“Teacher!” she called to me, frantically.  “I am sorry!  Please give me phone!”

I shut the door.  My serious tone was gone.  I was pissed.  “I tried to be nice to you.  I tried to talk to you.  I told you yesterday to stop it, and you didn’t.  It’s been two months of this!  I took the phone and told you to be quiet, and you kept on talking.  It’s NOT FUNNY.  You’re not getting this phone back until I hear from your parents.  You’re not sorry – you just want your phone back.”

I stormed out of the building before any of the Korean teachers would know what was happening.  Miss A followed me to my apartment.  I left her outside while I put the phone in my nightstand.  I had plans in Incheon that night, and I headed for the subway.  Miss A and her posse followed me almost the entire way.

“Teacher,” they pleaded, “we did not understand.  It is because you are American and we are Korean.  It is culture mistake.”

I did my best not to argue, but once in awhile I couldn’t stay quiet.  “That’s ridiculous.  It has nothing to do with culture.”  They kept following me.  Eventually they gave up.  I walked away as fast as I could, and, with my back turned to them, threw up the peace sign.

Riding the subway I felt nervous.  Had I done the right thing?  Probably not, but did I do something outrageously wrong?  I wondered if I should’ve talked to the Korean teachers.  I didn’t because I’d been told stories that, since a hogwon (private English academy) is more like a business than a school, the students get away with murder – the institutes don’t want to jeopardize a student dropping out and losing the enrollment money.  I told myself to forget about it.  To try and enjoy my night and forget about Miss A for the time being.

At seven o’clock the next morning, I was reminded of the whole thing in the worst way possible.  Miss A’s alarm was going off and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.  Being woken up early, I suppose, is one of the dangers in taking a kid’s cell phone.

On Friday, a Korean teacher I’d never met before came down to talk to me.  “You have my student’s cell phone,” she said.  “She would like to see you and apologize.  She’s very sorry.

“Um,” I said, feeling awkward, “here’s the thing.  I get that she’s sorry.  That’s cool.  This is about making sure it doesn’t happen again, and that’s why I need to speak to her parents.”

“Her parents are very strict, though, and they will be angry.”

“Right.  I guess that’s kind of the point.”

The teacher obviously wanted me to give the phone back.  “She cannot study.  Her mind is thinking about the phone.  She has cried many times.”

“I understand,” I said, not yielding.  “So have the parents call me, and I’ll give the phone back, and everything will be awesome.”

“Her parents don’t speak English.  What can you say?  How will you talk to them?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  It was a good point.  “I just want them to call, I guess.  To show that they’re aware and so I’ll have their number to contact if something else happens later.”

The bell ran and I went to class.  Between every class, the same teacher came down, trying to talk me into giving the phone back.  “What am I supposed to do?” she asked several times.  “How can I help this situation?”

By her fourth visit, I was losing patience.  “Have the parents call me,” I said, in an irritated tone.  “That’s what you can do.”

It got more uncomfortable.  Leah came in to talk to me.  “It is a culture misunderstanding,” she said.  “In Korea, it is okay to be gay.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said.  Then I lied a little.  “But it’s not about the word ‘gay.’  I just want her to stop disrupting class.”
“Her parents are angry with the school,” she said.  “They have called and yelled.  You gave her ‘fuck you’ hand gesture.”

This was a curveball I didn’t expect.  “What?!” I nearly shouted.

“You did this,” she said, and then she did the British two-finger ‘fuck you’ thing.  I thought back to what happened.  When I walked away to get on the subway, I had thrown up the peace sign.  Since my back was to her, it was backwards and probably looked a lot like the two fingered salute.

“I didn’t do that!” I said defensively.  “I’m American!  I don’t do that two fingered thing.  I threw up deuces!  It was deuces, man, not the fuck you thing!  If I wanted to say ‘fuck you,’ I’d put up one finger!”

Everything was wrong.  It was a mess.  To summarize what happened next, I gave Miss A her phone back on Monday.  Then she either dropped out of English class or stopped going to the hogwon altogether.  I’m not sure and I didn’t ask.  I haven’t seen her in three weeks, not since I handed her the phone back.  I was happy to, in a way.  Getting woken up at 7:00 in the morning sucks.

I don’t know what to think of the whole fiasco.  Her former class is very good now, well behaved and positive.  I feel like they get something from the lessons.  Nobody calls me ‘gay’ or says I like boys.  The students on a whole appear to enjoy my English class.  If one believes in a greater good, then I clearly did the right thing by, ultimately, getting her to drop out.  Yet, I can’t help feeling like I failed.  She was my student and now she’s gone.  I didn’t get through to her.  In her mind, I stole her phone and flicked her off.  I was abominable.  Yes, abominable.  An abominable gay man.

Sometimes I sit at my desk and think about what I could’ve done differently.  The other day a thought came to me that I’d never thought of it before.  “Maybe,” I said to myself, “when she asked me if I liked boys, I should’ve just said ‘no.’”


Dark Hair? Yeah, We Got That


Backpack 4, one of the many books my school uses, begins with a unit on personal description.  Since I have 32 classes a week and little prep time, occasionally – gasp! – I don’t really look at the material I’m teaching ahead of time, and this was the case yesterday when an activity out of the textbook didn’t quite go as the curriculum makers probably imagined it would.

In the first activity from the book, there’s a big picture of four kids.  Backpack is all about cultural diversity, and so the children are named Juan, Jennifer, Young-mi, and Helmut.  However, the names are not in order, and the students have to match the name with the picture of the kid.  This would take some kids about two seconds, as obviously Young-mi is the Asian girl, Jennifer is the white one, Juan the Hispanic boy, and Helmut the crazy looking blonde kid.  Luckily, my class of South Korean children weren’t able to pick up on that, and so I got to play the CD.  They sat attentively, matching the names as the woman on the CD spoke:

“Helmut has blonde hair.  Jennifer has curly hair.  Young-mi has glasses.  Juan has dark hair.”

Based on the descriptions, the kids were able to tell who was who.  The next activity was when things went downhill.  The students were supposed to do a scavenger hunt of who in the class matched what description.  “Oh, I get it,” I said, looking at the activity for the first time, “this will be fun!  Let’s do it together!”

Number one read “Who has red hair?”  We all looked around the room.  “Okay,” I said.  “None of us have red hair.  So in that case, we write ‘No one has red hair.’”

Q2: Who has blonde hair?

A: No one has blonde hair.

Q3: Who has dark hair?

With this question, the trend that would follow for the rest of the activity was set.  I scratched the stubble on my face.  “This is sort of the opposite,” I said.  “Um, we can write ‘Everyone has dark hair.’”

It was dawning on me that this might not be the most effective lesson for a class of all Asian children.

Q4. Who has blue eyes?

A: No one has blue eyes.

Q5. Who has green eyes?

A: No one has green eyes.

Q6. Who has brown eyes?

A: Everyone has brown eyes.

I quickly read over the rest of the list.  Almost all of the traits were either common to everyone or completely absent.

Q7.  Who has curly hair?

A: No one has curly hair.

Q8.  Who has straight hair?

A: Everyone has straight hair.

And it went on like that.  We learned that nobody in the class has eyes that aren’t brown and hair that isn’t dark and straight.  By the end of the lesson, ‘Roy has glasses’ was the only sentence that didn’t start with ‘everyone’ or ‘no one.’  It kind of felt like the students were being generalized even though that obviously wasn’t the intention.  Everyone just turned out to have the same physical characteristics.  After the class was over, they all went to go eat noodles and practice tae kwon do (I kid the Asians).

I laughed while we did the class scavenger hunt.  Everyone was similar and that was kind of funny.  It made me a little thankful, though, that I got to go to school in a place where SOMEBODY had red hair or blue eyes.  Differences aren’t necessary, I guess, but they’re nice.

I’m sure Helmut, Juan, Jennifer and Young-mi would agree.


Namer’s Remorse


“There is a new student in 6-Fly class,” Leah, my boss at school, told me.  “He is very shy.  He doesn’t have an English name.  You can give him one today.  Give him whatever name you want.  You will be like God.”

“Actually, in the states our parents name us,” I said, being a smart-ass.  “Not God.”

“Ok, you will be like his father.  Tell me his new name after school today.”

This had actually happened before to me in Korea, and I didn’t really enjoy it.  Back in 2009 I worked at a summer camp for kids, and a good number of boys didn’t have English names.  I was asked to name them and thought that sounded fun.  Not putting much thought into it, I went with whatever names popped into my head.

“You in the front, from now on you’re Tony.  And you over there…you can be Vinny.  And you…you’re…um…you can be Angelo.”

Without realizing it, I had given them all bad Italian names, and subsequently had a class of little Korean goombas for the rest of camp.  This time, I wanted the child to have an English name he could really connect with.   On Friday afternoon, when 6-Fly class – complete with their newest addition – came lazily walking in, I decided to take a more democratic approach.

The new student was a short boy wearing glasses and a baseball cap.  “First thing,” I said, “we have to come up with a name for you.  Is there an English name that you really like?”

He shook his head ‘no.’

“That’s fine,” I said.  “Think for a moment.  Is there an actor or anything who you think is cool?  You can take that name.”

“No teacher,” the nameless boy said.  “You pick.”

“Well here’s what we’ll do,” I told the class.  “Everybody is going to get a piece of paper.  Right down five English names.  Then I’ll write all the names on the board, and the new student can pick the one he likes best.  If you wrote down the name he picks, I’ll give you a piece of candy.”

The class seemed to like this idea.  One of the other students, Amy, asked me, “Teacher, can I use my dictionary?”

“Sure, Amy,” I said, passing out scrap paper.  “Try to come up with the best five names you can.”

I was thinking of contests from the 1950s, like when The Flintstones had the viewers write in to name “Pebbles.”  The new boy sat there and watched his classmates as they jotted down candidates for his new identity.  Getting in on the act, I made my own list, with what I thought were good names for a twelve-year old boy.  Brad.  Rueben.  Dillon.  Secretly, I hoped that I myself would win the candy.

After collecting the papers, I realized that most students didn’t write real names, but instead random English words.  Looking at each, I thought, “Could that be a name?”  Some I kept (I allowed Rock and even Melon); most were discarded.  One student, Kevin, wrote Jesus Christ on his list.  I didn’t write it on the board.  With the edited list available for all to view, I turned back to the new kid.

“Take a look,” I said, and then read them all.  “Which one do you like best?”

“Teacher!” Kevin shouted.  “Where is Jesus Christ?”

“Kevin, I’m sorry, but we can’t go around calling him Jesus Christ.”

For the first time all class, the new boy perked up.  “I want that!  Jesus Christ!  Me!”

The whole class nodded in approval.

“No, no, no,” I said.  “Look at the names on the board.  Jesus Christ is not an option.”

“Why no?” Kevin asked, demanding an answer.

“Listen, I have to tell Leah Teacher the new name after school today.  If I tell her his new name is Jesus Christ…I don’t think she’ll be very happy.  And also, what would your mother say?  Would your mother want everyone at school calling you Jesus?”

“Yes,” he said.  “It is very good name.”

I contemplated allowing him to be the Hispanic Jesus – pronounced Hey-Sus.  That wouldn’t do though.  I would have to try and explain why the J sounds like an H.  Calling him Hey-Sus would make no sense to them.  They would end up just calling him Jesus Christ, sticking to their knowledge of phonics.

“Look at the list,” I said, trying to maintain order.  “You have to pick one of these.  How about Dillon?”

He still couldn’t pick, so I had each of the students vote for their favorite.  The winner turned out to be one of the words-that-could-also-be-a-name: Freedom.

“Great,” I said.  “Your name is now Freedom.  There was a very popular singer once named Freedom Williams.  He was big in the 90s.”

“Who, Teacher?” the newly anointed Freedom asked, curious.  I didn’t feel I had much of a choice, so I cued up C & C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” video on YouTube.

“EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!” the skinny girl shouted/lip-sang while the students stared at it like they were watching a home video from Mars.

I looked at the clock.  Over half of our class time had gone by.  I wondered if I really should be allowed to lead a group of kids.  I also wondered if parents feel a sense of regret, sort of akin to buyer’s remorse, once they’ve named their child.  Maybe Mary even felt that way.   Maybe she sat there in the manger, holding her divine little small fry, and thought, “I should’ve named him Vinny.”


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?