A Beautiful Day to Learn

Tom had to teach all day on Saturday, but his students were agreeable and eager to learn English.  It could be rough going sometimes, especially as it was a five-month course and they weren’t even halfway through yet.  Spring fever had hit, and everyone commiserated about having to spend every Saturday high up in an office building, instead of frolicking in the park nearby with the children flying gliders and kites, and operating remote-controlled dune buggies that rumbled intrepidly over the helpless grass.

When Tom was but a wee boy himself, knee-high to an aphid, he thought Cat Stevens was asking not “Where Do the Children Play?” but why do they play?  Perhaps that accounted for his pseudo-philosophical disposition.

He’d found it funny that not only did visitors to the park all walk in the same direction around the track, as if it were some kind of unspoken rule, but also that no one ventured out onto the grassy zone about the size of an American football field.  But then, to his delight and relief, he saw from the window of the building at the end of the workday that people had flooded the space, no doubt obeying an instinct to connect with what remained of nature. Maybe they’d just been giving the grass some time to recover from the cruel, vicious, savage winter (pardon this histrionic use of the pathetic fallacy).

The students had to give two speeches every week–one for Tom’s class, and one for another teacher’s–which they wrote and prepared the week before.  They emailed Tom and his manager the rough drafts of their speeches, and Tom sat down with each one and performed whatever surgery was needed to make it sound more like native English.  At first he’d balked at this task, finding it onerous and thankless.  After having taught for so many years, Tom was bitter and jaded.  Since he was also a failed and unpublished author, he resented having to devote time he could be spending generating his own work to “changing dirty diapers,” as a friend of his had put it (although the friend had been referring to American college professors having to wrestle with hackneyed or sophomoric student prose).

But later he changed his tune or gave his attitude a tune-up, as he realized he could benefit the students and they were making a noble effort to improve their English.  They also seemed to appreciate his input, and they followed through when he asked them to copy the speeches over with his corrections and changes.

Each speech was only meant to last three minutes, but most of them dragged on longer than that, usually because the speaker hadn’t practiced reading it enough times to memorize it, or because he choked and ad-libbed irrelevant non-sequiturs as padding long after he’d flatlined.  And yet, they managed to pull through every time, often beginning by saying “Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” and concluding by saying, “Thank you for listening to my speech.”  Tom was inclined to dissuade them from using this formula, but his colleague said he let his own class use such lines, as it gave them something to hold onto.  Tom then figured they already had enough on their plates to write, revise, and memorize two speeches every week without his having to turn into Mr. Heimrich Himmler of the Grammar Brigade.

After the students had all had time to give their speeches, Tom had a private conference with each of them for five minutes to provide them with feedback and ask if they had any questions.  Since they were lower middle-aged Korean males, and therefore reticent in such situations, they usually didn’t.  By that time of day, they were just happy to have gotten the whole thing over with and probably wanted to get the hell out of there so they could kick back and relax with their families or go out eating and drinking with friends.

Tom’s wife Soonhee called him while he was standing in the park, having just said goodbye to one of his students, who was walking away with his wife and bearing their three-year-old son on his shoulders.  The boy knew one word of English–hello–which he must have said to Tom at least twenty-five times in the course of their brief walk.  Out of courtesy Tom said hello back every time.  The kid was cute, but the maddeningness of the exchange led Tom to make a mental note not to have any children–at least not directly, Dustin Hoffman be damned (Hoffman said he envied women the ability to get pregnant and give birth and wished he could do so himself).  The boy also kept repeating the letter “W,” evidently referring to the robotic anthropomorphic automobile he held in his hand, a toy that looked capable of singlehandedly either starting or ending a global thermonuclear war, depending on its mood.

Soonhee was mad at Tom for not calling him first.  She wanted to have dinner together.  He moseyed back to the subway station and stood the whole way home as sitting was a pain in the ass.  On the train he read Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s final novel, written when he was in his late eighties, an iconoclastic tribute to the Old Testament, Cain.  Tom appreciated Saramago’s going for the jugular by having Cain call God on his bullshit every time–from inciting Cain to murder his brother, to bringing down the walls of Jericho, from laying waste to the Israelites for making a golden calf to punishing Job as part of a deal made with Satan himself.  God was, as an old friend of Tom’s had put it, “a ubiquitous fascist.”

Tom looked forward to reading Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

Although he could just as easily have walked to the bus stop where he was due to meet Soonhee, Tom was too knackered from lugging a weighty backpack around for an hour and his suit was sticky from the unseasonable heat that had infiltrated this sunny may day.  He decided to wait for the bus, reading in the twilight about Cain’s imaginary encounter with Noah (who, oddly enough, resembled Russell Crowe).  One short ride later, he got off, sat down, and read some more, waiting for Soonhee to call him.

When his phone played its little jingle, he picked it up and dragged his finger across the screen to activate the sophisticated electronic mechanism as his manufacturer had trained him to.


“Where are you?” Soonhee asked.  “Why didn’t you call me?” 

“I’m at the bus stop in front of the Kimbap Cheongguk.  I thought you were going to call me.  I told you I’d be here in ten minutes.”

“Come to the restaurant we usually go to–no, I mean the one next door to it.”


Tom pressed the red hang-up icon and continued reading the book.  Another couple of paragraphs couldn’t hurt.  A few minutes later the phone rang again.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m just reading a book.  I’ll be right there.”

When Tom found Soonhee waiting impatiently for him in front of the restaurant, he apologized and said he’d been reading about Noah.  Since she was a gungho fan of the bible and Christ, a woman for whom life couldn’t be Jesuzzy enough, he thought she’d be impressed.

She wasn’t; she was pissed.  Off, that is.

They sat down on some molded red plastic stools with black seats with holes in the middle around a round stainless steel table that also had a hole in the middle.  A man came over and lowered the telescopic stainless steel elephant’s trunk that sucked up the propane gas fumes from the grill as he used a pair of tongs to insert a bucket of hot coals into the hole in the table, replacing the grill on top of it.

He then brought them a stainless steel platter with a mound of raw pork on it and left it on the table.  Soonhee did the honors of cooking the meat, snipping the slabs of carnage with a pair of scissors devised expressly for the purpose.  As the smell of sizzling pork filled the air around them, competing with the sound of boisterous Korean men trading stories and boozing it up over bottles of soju at the next table, Soonhee’s mood softened, at least for the moment.

Tom found it curious that while Muslims eschewed pork because they found pigs unclean animals (not so, although certain dogs are–sorry to some Koreans–why not eat cats?  They’re clean as hell), Hindus didn’t eat beef since they deemed cattle sacred.  He wondered if there existed a species of shark that refused to eat people because they considered us humans unclean animals.  What would have been even funnier would be if they were dumb enough to think we were sacred.

After they’d finished their meal, another nail in Tom’s coffin as far as he was concerned, they proceeded slowly up the stone staircase that led to their home, otherwise known as the stairway to heaven on the highway to hell.  Having recently gotten into the habit of going for short hikes, Tom went up the steps at a brisk clip.

Soonhee, meanwhile, trailed behind him.  She raised her head and gave him a resentful look.  She didn’t appreciate his not waiting for her, even though she was as slow as a sleepy slug pushing a boulder the size of a pebble up a mountain of molasses.

“I smell like meat,” she said.

Tom thought that sounded like an odd choice for a come-on line.

“That’s okay,” Tom said.  “Just tell people you washed your hair with shampoo made of pig guts.”

“That’s a dirty joke!”

“No, it’s not.  A dirty joke is about sex.”

“It’s not funny.”

“Well, I bet the pig we ate didn’t think that was funny either,” Tom said with a smile.

“Don’t try to make me feel guilty.”

“I’m not.  I just don’t see why we should sugar-coat the truth.”

Soonhee wanted to go buy food at the supermarket, but Tom had been up since five in the morning and needed to get some sleep.  Soonhee was not pleased at his failure to acquiesce to her demands.  Tom decided to give her as wide a berth as possible, letting her commandeer the computer while he finished reading the Saramago book.

Cain, the first murderer according to biblical history (oxymoron?), turned out to be the hero the human race had never had, the man who had the guts to defy God, the biggest and most shameless mass-murderin’ genocidal wackadoo of them all and of the mall.

Too bad we couldn’t have elected Cain to be God instead.  He couldn’t have done a worse job than that yahoo Yahweh.  



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