Seven Billion Crayons in One Big Box*

It took me a few moments to come up with a title for this entry.  I hope I haven’t offended animal rights activists or more sensitive environmentalists by focusing on the human race with that lucky number seven (don’t worry–it’s due to go up to nine by 2050, but with any luck I’ll be dead by then, instead of just dying like everyone else–sorry to wax glum; I promise to cheer up in the next paragraph; ah the joys of bipolar disorder!); I realize the legend smacks of speciesism.  My wife, however, is worse, as she doesn’t even believe that we humans are animals.  She’s right in the sense that we may have certain aptitudes other species don’t possess, and we also have a dazzling ability to ruin everything in our path like a tsunami of molten lava.  But it’s a hell of a lot better to be an animal than a soulless, amoral monster in human form, an automaton, or an emasculated angel (her department–not to say that she is one, but she would consider it hunky-dory if she were).

On Wednesday Jina and I went to teach our two elementary school students at the hagwon, or “institute,” which sounds ridiculously euphemistic considering how dinky the place is.  It’s a place where children go for extra tutoring in various subjects, and de rigueur for Korean children as well as adults.  Actually, I went first since, even though she’d grumbled that I was dragging my feet by not taking a shower and getting dressed until she’d finished her breakfast, I noticed that she was still wearing her striped sleep-shirt and Mickey Mouse-faced pajama-ish bottoms.

We had had three elementary school students until that day, including Bo, a seven-year old, Dan, a ten-year old, and Lisa, a thirteen-year old.  (I’m giving them English names because it takes too long to think of Korean equivalents, even though I’ve been teaching Koreans for fifteen years; besides, a lot of students adopt English names anyway, though I’ve yet to meet a Reginald, which sounds like an exceptionally English name to me.)  Bo decided to bail on us, which is just as well, as he was a pain in the ass to teach.  That’s not meant as character assassination; learning a language is a pain in the ass, especially when you’re seven years old.  I mean, I’m forty-seven and I only know about three words of Korean.

Bo decided to focus on tae kwon do instead–probably a wise choice that’s sure to impress the chicks in his class, even though he’s a ways from puberty yet, and calling them “chicks” feels downright creepy (of course, from his point of view, maybe they are, in the sense of being much younger than full-grown chickens; if that’s the way Bo thinks, he may have a future working in a factory farm).

Lisa, Bo’s older sister, is a quick study.  Her aunt Sally also teaches English at the school and takes a weekly private lesson with me.  She’s even more of a piece of cake to teach, naturally; we usually just engage in free conversation.  I punish her by doing most of the talking (at home the situation is reversed; karma works in strange ways), and she’s too kind to complain.  I’ve yet to master the fine art of shutting up.

Dan was waiting for me when I arrived.  I’d just chewed and swallowed the remnants of an American chocolate bar whose brand name I won’t mention out of squeamishness, before opening the door.  I’d picked up a box of chocolate-covered digestive biscuits from a convenience store after getting out of the taxi I took to get there.  Danny Boy was more than happy to help me eat them.  

Dan’s a funny kid in both senses of the word.  He’s an only child, and his father is Japanese.  He seems pretty well-adjusted, however, considering what I’ve heard about the kind of hazing children here of mixed parentage (is that even a word?) receive.  He usually maintains a poker face, his chubby cheeks motionless, mouth closed, inscrutable eyes fixed on whichever teacher happens to be gabbling at him (Jina and I teach the class together, a nice arrangement, since she can explain everything to them in Korean; it would be much more taxing without her help).

Jina was worried that Dan would be crestfallen by Bo’s dropping out of the class; neither she nor I mentioned the fact to Dan, and he didn’t bring it up himself.  As Stephen Colbert might say, “Bo, you are dead to me!”  (Just kidding; he’s a great kid; Bo would refuse any snacks I offered him, apart from tangerines, unwilling as he was to eat processed shite; Jina told me during a cab ride that his favorite snack is ginseng–such a healthy boy.)

When I came into the room, Dan was looking at some color photos of his family and him from the trip they took to Cebu in the Philippines last week.  I asked him if he could share them, and he did.  There were pictures of him and his mother on a boat, smiling and holding up tiny fish, which they subsequently threw back (“Hey, thanks for the split lip.”).  His father, whom I haven’t met, wore mirror shades and a crew cut.  I can see where Dan gets his stone face from.  His mother, who also was photographed with Dan wearing a snorkel and a diving mask, their heads and shoulders rising from the turquoise waters, has a radiant smile.  I’ve met her a couple of times.  She’s a nice lady.  It’s fun to rap with her in Japanese.

Lisa arrived after ten minutes or so, to my relief and surprise.  Dan’s class starts at two, and Lisa’s isn’t supposed to begin until three.  The reason I was relieved is not just because she’s a better conversationalist than Dan, but because this way he wouldn’t feel too lonely.  She was happy to be able to study with him too, as it broke the monotony of her usual private lesson.

Jina appeared shortly thereafter, right smack dab in the middle of a game of Hangman (no relation to actor Larry).  Dan had never played before, and Lisa was kind enough to explain the rules to him in Korean to save time.  For the first round, I picked out an easy sentence from Dan’s textbook (Lisa uses a more advanced one):  “Flowers grow in the spring,” and had them open their books to make it nice and easy for Dan’s historic introduction to the Wonderful World of Hangman.

I told them how a good strategy is to get the vowels out of the way first, reminding them what vowels were (I didn’t use the eliciting techniques I learned from the TEFL course I took several years ago; I simply forgot to).  Then I wrote down all the consonants in a separate list and labeled them accordingly.

It didn’t take them long to figure out the sentence; Dan was rescued from the trauma of virtual death by his own quick-wittedness.  For the second round, I tried to think of a cliche that would be easy for them to pinpoint, then remembered “I love you.”  I don’t know how often Korean parents say this to their children, but I’ve heard it might even be good for their mental health.

Jina was enthusiastic and she began rapping in Korean.  Lisa figured out the second sentence in a jiffy.  Both children said they wanted something harder, so I wrote up the spaces for “Lions live in Africa.”  This one took a bit more doing for them, but they eventually got it.

Afterwards we played Pictionary, which I was going to write about, but I got carried away with describing everything that happened before, so I’ll have to save it for another entry.  It pays to outline first.

One good thing about teaching children is that you know the topics of politics, economics, global famine, and the Dow Jones industrial average will never come up.  And if they do, you know you’ve got a depressed–if gifted–child on your hands.  Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Only as a little child may you enter the kingdom of heaven,” unless he was just telling believers to  be dumb and uncritical.  Or maybe he was prejudiced against adults, like Michael Jackson.  

“You must be at least this short to go on this ride.”

I just hope he wasn’t trying to say that the only good child is a dead child (no, you’re thinking of W.C. Fields).

Appraise the Lord!

* I was going to write about the concepts of oneness and interdependence in Buddhism, which accounts for the title’s irrelevance to almost everything that follows.  

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