This Back Was Made for Stabbing

When I was a little boy in college, my roommate told me a story about how a professor we’d both had said several years before he’d been offered a teaching position at another school.  He’d wanted to take the job, but one of his colleagues put in a bad word for him, so to speak, and as a result he didn’t get it.  

“It’s amazing how someone can fuck with your life like that,” the professor had wrapped up the anecdote with.

These days I’m a freelance English teacher of adults in Korea–South Korea.  I teach workers–electrical workers.  I don’t mean to say that they are literally buzzing like some kind of human force field, only that they provide the country with electric power, which is awfully decent of them, I must say.  It’s actually a pretty nice gig, and I have few complaints apart from the commute (it takes about an hour to get there, all told, by taxi, subway, and bus combined, though not all at the same time).  The students in one of the two classes I teach can also be a tad wooden sometimes, which I blame the Korean educational system for, since when they’re kids they have to sit and listen to lectures all day and are discouraged by their classmates from asking questions as it means the class may drag on longer than desired if they do.  What a wonderful way to promote an atmosphere rife with curiosity and a thirst for learning!

Anyway, now that I’ve done my part to slag the culture of the land I’ve chosen as my adopted temporary home, I’ll tell you the real reason I’m miffed these days.  But not before adding that I’m in the enviable position of a man having his picture taken between two lovely ladies.  In Japanese this phenomenon is known as ryo te ni hana, or “a flower in either hand.”  See, I work with two other teachers, both of whom are female.  One is the head teacher; the other, like me, is part of the body (I’m not sure which one of us is the torso and who’s the legs).  For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call the head teacher Cheryl and the other body teacher Grace.  Both women are in their early thirties, or so I gather; they’re also both Christians, and that’s neither here nor there and not meant as a snub (despite all the griping I do here about my wife’s effervescent fanaticism), but you’ll glean its importance in the story in short order.  Don’t worry:  I used to be a short-order cook.  As someone who’s been around sizzling bacon, frying eggs, and ferris wheels of toast, I surmise that Grace subscribes to the philosophy, “If you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to break some eggs.”

Our situation is as follows:  each gig lasts for two weeks.  I’ve been working for the same recruiter for two years, and there is between us an aura of mutual trust so strong that I didn’t even bother signing a contract.  Reputation is everything in Korea, and as it’s a big company, they wouldn’t be dumb enough to screw one of their employees over so egregiously, especially someone with a mouth as big as mine.  (They’re also nice people.)  Having said that, this “contract” is for ten weeks, meaning five two-week sessions, each split up into two groups of students based on their varying levels of English.

My two colleagues and I didn’t know how many students we were going to have; we got the sense that the operation might be a seat-of-the-pants affair.  Grace, who first gave me the impression of being someone who’s cocksure of herself, but who used to be a smoker, suggesting she’s not, and who later evinced a certain vulnerability and warmth that made her far more sympathetic, conveyed to me her concern that we might not have enough students at some point for both of us to keep working.  I don’t know where she got this idea–call it the power of negative thinking.

Now keep in mind that I’m a veritable bastion of insecurity myself.  I talk a good game, and I can fool people into thinking I’m confident as long as they don’t ask me too many tough questions, but deep down I have the feeling I don’t know what I’m talking about, at least when I venture outside my field of expertise, which is the ins and outs of English grammar, vocabulary, idioms, and pronunciation.  I can also be pathologically talkative, especially when I’m jacked up on coffee.  Without it, I’m a coma patient.

So anyway the other day Cheryl calls me aside after Grace has gone off to teach her class and sits me down for some sobering news.  I’m prepared for the worst.  I’ve been laid off before and even fired.  I know how much it hurts, but life goes on.  Mind you, I have no reason to suspect I’m about to be fired, but I’m paranoid by nature and my self-esteem is low enough for me to consider it a possibility.

“Grace told me that some of your students said you’re not giving them enough time to talk in class.”  This was not exactly the Revelation to me, so I helped myself to a generous serving of crow.

Before I could blurt out that I’m a pathologically garrulous sod, she added, “So I asked several of your students about it.  They said it wasn’t true.  But a couple of them said that Grace’s class was too difficult and that she pushed them too hard.”

I wondered if Cheryl had asked all of my students (it turns out she’d only asked about half), giving Grace the benefit of the doubt.  Then I wondered aloud why Grace hadn’t approached me about it instead of Cheryl.  Cheryl said she was going to mention it to the company that recruited us.  She was concerned since Grace had told one of the recruiters a few weeks ago that she, Grace, felt that it was unfair that Cheryl was being paid so much more than we were even though she wasn’t teaching as many hours a day.  Apparently she went overboard as she really pissed one of the recruiters off, not to mention hurting Cheryl’s feelings.

I thought it amusing that her strategy in the previous situation backfired, at least in part, even though she did achieve one objective:  the company decided to increase our hourly pay.  I was the one who’d asked that they do that, although Grace had put me up to it.  

So Cheryl had reason to doubt the veracity of Grace’s claim to begin with, as she’d already been burned once by her before.  Cheryl, as far as I can see, is essentially a saint.  She’s possessed of a forgiving nature.  Perhaps Grace, who was her roommate for three weeks, saw this and manipulated her accordingly.  

I had to go teach.  Cheryl said not to worry–that the students loved my class.  That was a relief to hear.  She also asked me not to say anything to Grace about it.  This proved harder to put into practice.  At first I was able to shrug it off, since she hadn’t managed to inflict any pain (Cheryl said Grace had noticed I was talking a lot to a couple of students I was having lunch with in the cafeteria, and from that observation may have concluded that I talked too much in class).

But at the end of the day it was starting to rankle.  While making photocopies in the teachers’ room after everyone else had gone home, I started saying nasty things about Grace out loud to myself.  The next morning I mentioned my annoyance to Cheryl, who gave me permission to address Grace about it.  I have an awkward relationship to confrontation, so it’s hard for me to assert myself without going overboard.  Remind me to tell you a story about what happened to me on my flight back to the States a few months ago if I haven’t already.  So I decided to put it off and let sleeping dogs lie before they got up to bite me in the ass again.

Luckily, I was saved from having to save anything–wimpiness prevails!–since Cheryl told the recruiters about Grace’s claim.  In retrospect I thought this could blow up in my face, considering the possibility that one of the students had actually said something substantiating Grace’s report.  As a self-fulfilling prophecy, I actually became more talkative in class.  The students in one group were sluggish anyway as they’d been studying eleven hours a day for a week.  My failure to discipline my tongue went unchecked by them.  In the last hour, I even resorted to showing them YouTube clips of ancient music videos (none of which appeared to grab them–although, to be fair, when it comes to expressing opinions in English before their peers, some Koreans are aggressively non-demonstrative).

Complicating matters, Grace is always nice to me face to face.  She’s either well-intentioned but graceless or two-faced–I can’t tell which.  Cheryl knows about my misgivings.  Grace also made a boo-boo by taking her students out for dinner at the class’s behest, even though the company policy is not to leave the building during class time.  She tried to keep it hush-hush, but one of her students blabbed to Cheryl.  Cheryl, being a Vulcan, hence incapable of lying, told the main recruiter about it.  He blew up.

For the time being, I’m just sitting back and enjoying the show–not that I have the right to be too smug about it.  Nothing in life is guaranteed, and if I were the boss I might fire both of our asses, if only because that’s what bosses are born to do.  

My wife thinks I should approach Grace and say, “Cheryl said you told her I talk too much in my class.  What’s up with that shit?”

Part of me would prefer to give her as wide a berth as possible (which ain’t too realistic, considering we work together all day, and usually have lunch and sometimes dinner together too).

Since it’s hard for me to give her any benefit of the doubt at this point, I’m not sure it’s even worth it to talk to her about it, allowing her evident gift for mendacity.

Any thoughts?



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