Nobody Gives a Shit If You Won a Speech Contest When You Were Ten

Last Friday I finished work at a Korean English language “camp” for elementary school children, which one of my co-workers pointed out should have been called a day-care center with speeches, performances, and tests.  It was a tough gig for me, as I’ve had a pretty cushy situation, work-wise, for the last year and a half or so.  Despite some preposterously circuitous commutes, I’ve been able to get by on about twelve or fifteen hours of teaching a week.  But my wife badgered me into doing it so we’d have enough money to pay for her round-trip plane ticket to the States next month.

(Shit.  My wife just woke up.  I guess I’ll have to postpone this post until a little later.  Wait a minute. . . Maybe she’ll drift off again.  Or else I could grind up some Seconal and feed it to her as a boost to perpetual oblivion, like a character in a novel I read.  There’s only one problem:  I don’t have any Seconal.  I’m also allergic to prison, which is the reward–er, punishment–for being convicted for first-degree murder. 

Damn!  Life is so unfair.

Anyway, she appears to be obediently resuming unconsciousness, at least for the time being, although I may have to cease abruptly before concluding this report.  I’ll type fast.)  

So here’s the situation.  I started this job on the third day the camp was in progress, having been hired in a pinch by one of the clowns who were running it.  Turns out three teachers had walked out on the first day, they were so appalled by the working conditions.  Of course, I didn’t find that out until I’d already been there for two weeks, when a fellow teacher mentioned it while we were commiserating about all the mindless busywork the place demanded of us.

The place wasn’t all bad, mind you.  Many of the children were cute and motivated, being Korean.  A few were budding knuckleheaded young psychopaths.  My co-workers were–or at least seemed to be–knowledgeable and competent (at least compared to me.  Take my wife, please!  I don’t get no respect.  Sorry–I momentarily metamorphosed into a Borscht belt comedian–actually, two comedians–Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield respectively).

(Right now a baby is crying its ass out in the apartment across the street.  Phew–it’s stopped already.  I use “it” because I’m assuming babies don’t have genders.  I’ve never seen one up close.  But I have seen plastic dolls, and all the ones I’ve witnessed lack genitalia, including Rick Santorum–at least he does in a scathing cartoon drawn by Mr. Fish of

Back to the story–see what a little A. D. D. can do for you?  Luckily, I only had to work at the camp three days a week due to a schedule conflict.  Every day began with a teacher’s meeting.  I arrived drenched in sweat and had to go change my clothes in one of the men’s room stalls after the meeting, then race up three flights of stairs to manage my homeroom students (the elevator was too balky; besides I needed the exercise–a lot of good it did).

The kids in my class had a reputation for being the smartest bunch in the whole camp, but they disappointed me on the final day, when there was a speech contest and a performance that each student had to participate in.  More on that later.

Although the camp only lasted three and a half weeks, it was jam-packed with activities and events to keep the children from getting bored (they did).  Some of the highlights included a trip to a Korean water park (with a cut-off of thirty-odd students, even though there were about a hundred and twenty of them in all), a “mini-Olympics” (in which a group of sixty kids defeated twelve adults in a grueling tug-of-war; I confess I was among the crestfallen elderly victims in the struggle), a “market day” (in which the children were trained in the art of consumption; they went through their play money in about five minutes, trading it in for chintzy stationery supplies; fortunately, there was another booth set up where they could have their faces painted by patient teachers and Korean assistants deftly wielding paintbrushes), a “club activity” class (not a time for them to brain baby harp seals for their fur, but to partake of ludicrous behavior orchestrated by their teacher; it was my first–and, I hope, last–stint as a gym teacher; also more on that in a moment), and the contests mentioned before.

The students’–oh, excuse me–campers’--daily routine consisted of doing rote exercises in uninspiring textbooks chosen by the love child of Franz Kafka and George Orwell.  That’s an overstatement:  the books weren’t so much instruments of torture or brainwashing devices so much as desperately dull, forgettable enforcers of the lowest common denominator–collective mediocrity anathema to imagination.

Morning classes included those for speaking, reading, and writing.  Then came lunch at the cafeteria, where the teachers had to continue supervising their charges.  Afternoons were devoted to the activities classes.  One of the activities I was responsible for imparting (there were no repeats of classes for the activities–each teacher managed a different group every time) was about telling a story.  My manager gave me several pictures of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, along with some paper to give the kids.  Then I was essentially intended to spoon-feed them the plot and have them copy it over.

The club activity involved a game that was fun for the kids, if also formidably chaotic.  The first time I did it everything worked beautifully.  I gave each child a plastic spoon and a ping pong ball.  I told the campers that they were going to have a series of relay races in which the conditions would change slightly each time.  I had to come up with enough variations to fill up a forty-minute period.

For the first race, the runner would have to put the spoon in his or her mouth, support the ping pong ball in the hollow of the spoon, and proceed towards a basket on the other side of the room.  A sharp tilt of the head enabled the ball to roll into the basket as the pupil pivoted and dashed back to his frantic teammates.  This one went well, as did every following race.  Variations included holding the ball on the spoon out in front of you like a fried egg on a spatula, holding it behind you, walking with your eyes closed, and dribbling the ball.  Again, everything proceeded without a hitch.

Oh, I forgot to mention Parents’ Day.  Actually, on that day everything went okay too.  During one class, however, the day before, when Tweedledee and Tweedledum stopped by to inspect the activity to make sure everything was up to snuff, pandemonium reigned.  One boy with glasses took the opportunity to punch one of his smaller classmates in the back.  He was duly reprimanded and keelhauled.

I had to buy a whole new set of ping pong balls to replace the ones that had been damaged or lost under desks crammed against the back walls of classrooms where I’d conducted the activity.  Then, when I asked one of my managers for a refund, she told me they’d already replaced the balls and pointed them out to me.  It wasn’t that big a deal, although I’d gotten frustrated at the supermarket/department store when I couldn’t find my way to the downstairs and yelled out my favorite word to the consternation of another shopper.  I don’t do so well in interminable sweltering summer heat and humidity.

As is the norm in Korea, nearly all of the children had English nicknames.  (With my adult students I have to memorize both sets of names, which is a royal pain in the ass, considering I have new classes once every three months.)  One boy, whom I’ll call Ricky, was notorious for being a Pricky.

I’d never even heard of the kid before I had to supervise him in the ping pong/spoon race.  He had two spoons in his mouth, and due to his stubby stature, when he tried to ram me with them, it was at ball-level (meaning my balls, not the ping pong ones).  He kept doing it, no matter how many times I told him to stop.  Eventually I had to knock the spoons out of his mouth and they clattered on the floor.  

On the last day, the children took turns giving their performances.  My homeroom group did a lackluster job.  I’d written a play for them to perform, but the lines may have been too hard for them to memorize, so I guess it was mainly my fault that they read them off their scripts.  Needless to say, we didn’t win, nor did we deserve to.  We should have been given a special Slackers’ Prize.

All but one of my students didn’t even take the time to memorize their one-to-two minute speeches for the contest.  A girl from another class won my heart with a moving speech about her menagerie of pet snails.  Again, I could only blame myself for my students’ lack of preparation.  I’m more used to teaching adults, and am not suited to be a task-master.

Guess who won the big speech contest in the main auditorium in front of all the other students, teachers, managers, and parents?  That’s right–little Ricky.  He moseyed up to the microphone and barked into it like some little dictator about how he was a bad boy.  I couldn’t follow most of what he said because I was covering my ears to keep the blood from gushing out of them onto my armrests.  It was a short speech but he practically got a standing ovation.  At least he hadn’t had to use cue cards.

The teachers were supposed to vote on their favorite speaker.  One girl gave a compelling speech about the eight planets of the solar system.  Another spoke about nutrition and the importance of avoiding fast food.

Only one of the teachers was consulted about his opinion, and it wasn’t me.

So Ricky is a fraud.  He’s a boy to watch out for.  He may even grow up to be president one day.

(One of my students told me that her little sister, also a student at the camp, complained that Ricky had hit her every day.  You can rest assured that the old adage about the scum always rising to the top is true or, as my sister once said:  

Shit floats.)

Martin Luther King, eat your heart out!


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