In teaching, there are boundaries. Severe, strict, uncrossable boundaries: those who trespass the border will be summarily isolated, flogged, and cordoned off from society and the teaching community. There are reasons for these boundaries, and I willingly allowed myself to install these rules and regulations like metal plating into my own skull. No matter what your connection to your students, you are not a parent, or a friend, or any of that, and it’s kind of okay if they think you’re a cyborg.
In teacher training, I worked hard to maintain these lines. As a male in elementary education (and I did my first stint of student teaching in a Kindergarten, no less) I am under some considerable scrutiny. People are generally nice about men teaching elementary school, and ra-ra isn’t it nice to have some male role models, but they also have niggling suspicions. Namely that maybe we are card-carrying NAMBLA members lying in wait for the opportunity to prey upon our nation’s young ones. Thus, I, and every other guy I knew in teaching, took extra care to show how unyieldingly professional we were.
It’s easier said than done. Kindergarteners are tiny, and generally needy. They yearn for constant love and attention and access to play-dough and also hugs. And they will take these hugs, often by force. Usually at mach speeds, and from across the room. I quickly learned that n Kindergartener travelling at x speed towards surprised teacher M results in a 4 year-old face nuzzled directly in my crotch. I thus developed a hug-sense, a knowledge of when one of the little booger-factories would attack, and I knew to swing to the side so they would bury into hip, or to throw up a smokescreen and inundate them with high-fives.
One day, one of my Kindergarteners, Tony*, gamboled up to me and asked me a question. “Do you live at the school?” This was a question I cherished. He assumed me to be unlike real people, a weird pod-person that hopped into a large chest-freezer at night and only unsealed myself once more to sing the weather song, teach about colours and the glockenspiel, and prepare snacks for the day, to clamber back into the cold depths once the day was done.
My connection to authority was then still tenuous, more one of putting up airs than anything I felt, and thus I needed to carefully establish myself as beyond reproach. I clung to any and every shroud of secrecy and teacherly authority I could muster. I held strong to the Mr. desperately. I stood my ground staunchly and stubbornly, and I made it clear what could and could not be said to me. Of course I lived at school. Also, I was born at age 20 and never had a childhood or a first name.
If I wanted to be taken seriously, to ever carve out my identity as a teacher, or to come close to the holy grail of an actual teaching job, I needed to stop being an actual person, and become a teacher.
It is hard, then, coming to Korea where all of the lines jump. The boundaries are different, in terms of teacher’s relationships to students, in terms of what they can and cannot say and know. Because I have wired my home teaching laws into my brain, I find it nigh-impossible to budge, and thus I sometimes come off as cold and elusive. Some weirdo who really enjoys privacy and students not knowing where he lives.
One night while coming back from my Korean class, a pack of my grade 5 and 6 boys spotted me in the park and tore up to me. I already felt weird talking to the goon squad so late at night, as though the lateness of the hour already made our interaction illicit. We spoke in our stilted Konglish pidgin, and we made some nice conversation. As they often do, they asked if I had a girlfriend, and where I lived (to which I always tell them either, “Busan” or I give a vague, airy “Over there” as I wave to the distance). They asked the size of my apartment, which I found a little odd, and also depressing once I thought about how horrible and tiny my apartment is.
Then they began asking if they could come over, and that I should bring them to and show them my home. I hope that my face did not betray my horror and dread. In Canada, this statement being uttered aloud would indicate grievous errors were already committed, that the kids could even think of this as a possibility. My home is full of Borg-like equipment to recharge my battery packs, and also the stewing remains of circus animals, so why would children want to go there? These kids should have no desire to see where I live beyond dull, scientific curiosity, and that they seemed to want to spend additional time with me was at once adorable and petrifying.
Because teachers and students here have different relationships. It is entirely common for teachers to share their cell numbers with students, and to freely release their email accounts into the school ether. At home, I carefully worked to make sure students did not know my first name (and when I worked in an alternative school, where the kids addressed me by my first name, I cast a similar veil of secrecy over my last name). I erased my full name off of most of the internet, lest the kids try to find me. I claimed not to have a cell phone, or an email account. “What,” I often inquired, “is the ‘internet’ you speak of?” Contact outside of school in Canada, except by accident, indicates fishiness. Here, it indicates that you’re not a jerk.
My students come in for hugs, and ask me dozens of inane questions, and wonder about my cell phone number. They bring me food and gifts and react with unadulterated, feverish glee if they spot me in public. When the boundary lines jump to such different places in other countries, I find it hard to keep up.
[On another note, I’m never letting the little hooligans anywhere near my building, let alone my apartment. Have you seen kids? They would get their hands all over my stuff. Nuts to that.
*Student names, as always, are pseudonyms.]