Foreign teachers in Korea are made to stick around during the semester breaks. We get some vacation, but in an effort to make us actually do some work in our otherwise cushy jobs and not let us run wild and free with exorbitant vacation time, we teach “English camps” in the summer and winter vacation time. These are, essentially, bonus classes with any number of configurations of kids. The classes are made up of volunteers or, more often, screaming, kicking, disillusioned vacationers being extorted into extracurricular education by parents who would very much enjoy getting them out of the house for a few extra hours.
I look down my attendance lists and can generally pick out which ones are coming of their own volition, and which ones have a mom helicoptering around, hectoring them into taking English classes during their brief summer respite. JB, for instance, has signed up for every camp he could since he reached third grade, according to previous records. Others are holdovers from previous camps that know what they’re in for and signed back up: S and B both love English, excel at it, and if they are forced to do a summer camp, will hop on mine rather than doing extra math in the summer.
But I know the others. They trudge in on the first day, and give a defeated, half-hearted, “Hello… Michaelteacher…” Their shoulders slump hangdoggishly, their expressions melting like so much chocolate under the sweltering Korean August death-heat. Their eyes are glazed and lifeless. They yearn so badly for freedom, for sunlight, or even the rain. For milkshake goobags. For watermelon. For soccer, and videogames, and sleeping in. For 12 consecutive hours of Starcraft at the PC Room.
I, in turn, am a monster. I am the embodiment of The Man, who is keeping them down, and personally robbing them of their precious free time. If I did not exist, or was not in this country, mom and dad wouldn’t have been able to foist them upon me, and thus it is my fault. They communicate this with their drooping eyes, and then drop down into their acid-green English Zone chairs, feeling loathing for me, the school, the universe, and the language.
It is for this reason that I generally make camp a write-off. When your charges are semi-conscious floating corpses, somnambulatory husks wafting through their dreary, dystopic lives, you can’t expect a lot out of them. It is like squeezing blood from a stone with most of them, except in place of stones you have dead-eyed 10-year-old zombies yearning to breathe free.
And I don’t want to do anything strenuous either, really. My brain naturally understands summer as free time, at least in terms of school, because that’s how it was back home. You work hard through the school year, as either a teacher or a student. And society rewards you by giving you mandatory time apart, a socially acceptable emancipation from educational responsibilities, because summer is long and hot, and if you spent any more time with the kids or them with you, someone would probably die or go insane. I want to be outside too.
And so: Michael Teacher’s summer camp extravaganza.
This year’s summer camp included a full day dedicated to science and following planetary orbit paths, one day purely spent playing drama games, another in English competitions. For a full day, I washed most of my budget out on working with the kids on watercolours. When they walked in and saw these materials, the newspapers shellacked over every surface, the stains of colour across my hands, the abundant water and brushes and things with which to create mess, they grew suspicious. Was I having fun when they weren’t here, and now we would sit through the lecture? Was this a trick, designed to lull them into the promise of joy, to only rend it from them and be just as boring as originally anticipated? But no: we would be painting, all day, and being as messy as possible without destroying my furniture.
I manage to shove in English where I can, but that I’m delivering all of the instructions entirely in English is often enough. At least as far as me and the kids are concerned. And this is a chance to work on my other, atrophied teaching skills, to see if I can explain the differences between herbivores and carnivores satisfactorily, to manage to keep the paints and water from being spilled all over my classroom*, to try and explain the concept of What time is it Mr. Wolf to 8 year-olds who have never had someone speak English to them before**.
*Successful, but mostly because my introductory speech before they accessed the paints outlined the severity of my wrath should they begin fucking aroundt. Their work, their presence in the camp, their grades, their very lives would be at stake. If they looked into my eyes while I explained how deep my anger and despair would be, they would have seen the fires of hell, the ravaged tundra of the Arctic, the ferocity of the wild, coming for them. If a single drop stained, if an errant brush was aimed at anything but paper, I would swiftly and brutally devour their souls. And this was just watercolour paint.
**Surprisingly simple, as it turns out. Also, they liked it enough that they played it of their own volition in the off-time, though outside of the actual English numbers, most of the call-and-response English became a kind of phonetic slurry. “Wa tai ih jit mishta oolf?” They cared less and less about the actual pronunciation as the game went on and slipped away from my tutelage and into their hands, and thus it became their own.
And for the most part, it worked. After getting over the terrifying prospect that they were going to learn, they realized I would take it pretty easy. The kids seemed to enjoy it. They would still drop my class and run out the door if the opportunity presented, I have no illusions: during recess, many of the boys stood sentry at the window, wistfully glaring down at the others playing soccer in the field. Their fragile, brittle child hearts trembling and snapping in forlornness. But aside from one or two kids patently determined to hate me and everything I stand for, heavy sighs were minimal, smiles were plentiful, and some of the third graders even grilled me to see if I was sticking around to teach the next winter camp.
So they liked English for a little while, even if they would have given up and fled if the opportunity presented itself. But let’s nod kid: give me a beach or a beer on a patio and I would have been out the door faster than the kids.