Doing Good

“Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile.”  Albany, Shakespeare, King Lear

One drawback of living in the Age of Cool is that it’s harder to get away with being a goofball, or at least to be respected for it.  Here in Korea people consider it extremely important to keep up appearances, which must be why the woman who served my wife and me coffee at the cafe we went to tonight was wearing glasses frames without lenses.  (It’s much easier to rub your eyes that way if they’re sore.)

I’ve learned the hard way that taking yourself too seriously is the ticket to unhappiness.  As the Rolling Stones say, you can’t always get what you want, but you can to a greater degree be master of your fate if you refuse to react angrily to annoying things that happen to you.  (More often than not with me the annoyances are self-induced.)

For example, this morning when I came home from teaching my first class, I removed the Scruples cards from my backpack and set them atop the leaning tower of data perched on the seat of the dormant stationary bike, whose handlebars are adorned with an array of laundry that brings to mind the hairdo of Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons.  I’d been meaning to go through the stack of papers, weeding out what’s no longer of use or interest.  However, I wasn’t expecting the short stack of laminated Scruples answer cards to slide off the top of the pile and flutter down to the floor.

My attempt to lean over and retrieve them resulted in the two-foot high tower of papers and books collapsing without fanfare.  Jina’s groggy voice coming through the wall from the bedroom helped me keep my anger in check.  It would have been silly and childish to throw a tantrum over something I’d brought on myself (not that it’s ever anything but to do so), even though I might have pulled such a stunt several years ago, or had I been in a less neutral mood.

As it stood, I shrugged it off and took a shower after dismissively answering Jina’s question, letting the matter go immediately.  Much to my relief, she didn’t get up and behold the minor disaster in the meantime, which gave me time after donning flannel pajamas to tidy up before joining her for a brief nap.

At the school where we teach Korean elementary school students English, I had to manage the first group (six second graders) by myself as Jina had to go take care of some religious stuff at her nearby church.  I invariably panic a bit when I have to teach the class on my own, as it requires summoning more energy than I’m wont to muster without impersonating a more enthusiastic ringleader.  Luckily, caffeine can solve any problem.

When I asked the students to work on some phonics exercises (notice how I say “asked,” as opposed to “told”), they balked and groaned and said, “No phonics!”  I can’t say as I blame them, considering that’s what I always have them do.  Jina’s a lot more imaginative with them, as well as resourceful and industrious.  She also has a knack for disciplining others that I essentially lack.  Maybe because I’m the youngest kid in my family, I’m not used to ordering people around.  Besides, I’m more in my element teaching adults, as I can take a more laid-back approach.  Jina accuses me of not loving my young students enough, not caring enough about their learning processes.  

This is constructive criticism on her part, and I took it to heart by being a mite more forceful today without becoming a raving fascist with enough foam spewing from his mouth to resemble a human car wash.  With the exception of a few gym instructors, none of my teachers while I was growing up (or college professors, for that matter) were particularly strict, and if they had been I probably woudn’t have been willing to do their bidding.

I’ve been told that Korean kids respond much more readily to hard-assed educators.  As long as I can remember that teaching is at times mainly a matter of acting, I can occasionally shift into that mode without becoming the reincarnation of Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong (welcome back to the classroom of life, fellas).

A lot of my fellow foreigners here in Seoul hate teaching children; some of them can’t believe I do it on a regular basis.  I actually enjoy it, even though I’m not sure how much my students are learning.  Jina claims they don’t respect me, which is probably true, and perfectly understandable.  If they did, I’d have to wonder about their mental health.

Like many people, I’m not sure if my career is really my calling, even though I’ve been teaching for twenty years.  Writing is the thing I love to do the most, even though I haven’t figured out how to make any money at it yet, and I’m concerned that the anticipated death of the traditional publishing industry might prevent any success in that department for good.

Still, as Paul McCartney says in the song “Live and Let Die” (which is contending to be the new U. S. national anthem), “When you’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to do it well.”  (Martin Luther King says something similar in one of his virtually countless speeches.)  So after letting half of the kids warm up by playing the card game Set, and letting the other half fart around by playing computer games on their smartphones, and letting in an unexpected visitor who turned out to be a new (and conspicuously clueless) student, along with his elder brother, who sat in the back of the room, I raised my voice enough to command their attention and, following Jina’s advice, made eye contact with each of them before distributing the hand-outs with the phonics exercises on them.

One boy helped the new kid find and underline the words in a poem with the long “e” sound in them, and the rest of the students attended to the exercises with varying degrees of alacrity, passion, and interest.  They usually treat such activities as a race (contemporary Korean society is obsessed with something called “bali, bali!” which basically means, “Hurry the fuck up!”)  I have to revive the presence of mind needed to slow them and myself down enough to make sure they understand what they’re doing, which isn’t always easy to confirm.

Finally, one boy suggested a game of Hangman (this was after the visitor had left; according to the boy, a friend of his, he’d be back to join us as a regular student on Monday), which went well, apart from the two girls ensconced in the worlds of their smartphone screens.

When at last Jina appeared, it was nearly time for the students to leave.  As soon as they did and said goodbye for the weekend, Jina used the interim between classes to chew me out for agreeing to give unpaid, extra teaching time to my private student, who’s the nephew of a good friend of ours.  Her English nickname is Tammy, and the boy’s English nickname is Jim (everyone in Korea has an English nickname, including Kim Jong Eun; I think his is Kevin).

Tammy volunteers as an interpreter during the lesson, a novel experience for me, and since Jim is such a motivated lad (granted, he’s forced to be by his irrepressibly perfectionistic mom), our private lesson is always a delight.  But naysayer Jina says I shouldn’t mix business with friendship, and that Tammy is taking advantage of me since she refuses to bring Jim to our apartment and Jina thinks I have to go out of their way to teach them.

This is one of the many things Jina and I have never seen eye-to-eye about.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if her obstinacy in the matter didn’t spring from misplaced jealousy.  Although I love Tammy as a friend, Jina has absolutely nothing to fear in this department.

But I had to pretend I’d be willing to jettison the lesson to humor Jina during her pecking session between elementary school classes, when lo and behold, one of our ten-year-old students showed up (saved by the bell) and the conflict was temporarily shelved.  

Teaching, by the way, is a labor of love.  It doesn’t pay very well–at least not the kind of teaching I do–and it’s sometimes hard to come up with fresh ideas to keep the routine from becoming too stultifying or stifling, but as the aptitude test I took in high school predicted, I’ve ended up in a career working with people, which I consider a good thing, as it balances out the necessarily antisocial exigencies of writing, laboring away in the laboratory, sweating it out in the crucible in the name of what little entertainment I can wring out of the perpetually overtaxed and undernourished creative sponge.

If anyone has any tips on how to keep your creative juices flowing and stay resilient instead of growing mediocre, I’d love to hear them.

Have a groovy weekend; by the way, I’ll finish regaling you with the foot saga soon, probably tomorrow.

(Incidentally, the Shakespeare quote at the beginning, I realize, is absolutely irrelevant to this post; I’ll have to save that theme for another day.)


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