“Michael,” my coworker quavers. She is clutching a notebook in her hands, and she only uses this tone when she is about to say something she knows will upset or infuriate me. She has steeled herself for this conversation, has thought of every permutation. She has maybe practiced it a few times before a mirror, to rehearse. “The teachers had a meeting yesterday with the Vice Principal. About English education. They have some ideas that they want you to do…”
These sorts of conversations happen about once every six weeks, usually just after the staff at large has been reminded of my presence, something I generally try to keep quiet. If the other teachers see me only in passing, a strange ghost wafting through the halls and occasionally eating lunch, they spare no time to think about me, nor what horrors I must be teaching the children. I can do my job in peace and solitude and bliss, and never suffer any incursions upon the delicate English-language ecosystem I have created.
As much as I involve myself in the goings-on of the school, there is always an extent to which I am separate. There are meetings with too much Korean happening, staff dinners which conflict with my other plans. I am cordial, and everyone else is cordial, and indeed we all duel one another in grudge-matches of politeness, as we try to out-pleasant one another with our bludgeons of sincerity. But I am still a world apart, which is fine, because their world involves a lot of really dumb paper work and excess responsibilities which everybody hates. To minimize my incursions into the latter territory, I drift and waft and make little noise. I am but an empty, vacant smile and a voice box. My work is complete, my extracurriculars are pedagogically sound and unshowy, and everyone can forget that I’m there.
When they do remember that English is a subject at our school, suddenly great meetings are held. The administration and dozens of teachers are called together to toss out their ideas on what might improve the level of English in our students. Possibly everyone sits in high-backed chairs and swirls brandy in beautiful crystal tumblers, while they hold their chins in their hands, deep in thought. There are probably graphs and charts. Statistics. References to Piaget. I am never, ever consulted, because English is the language I speak and that’s sort of terrifying, and usually the other English teachers are meant to just sit quietly and absorb the new responsibilities handed down to them from on high. Because the other teachers are older, and thus better at everything, including the things they don’t teach.
Now, as a room full of educators, they are all coming at the subject with good intentions, and good intentions are nice, and if possible I would bathe in them daily. But very few of them actually speak English, and even fewer have ever taught a second language to students. As such, the ideas range from the tolerable to the mind-shakingly unpleasant.
Michael, from now on, you will teach a special grade one and two class to underprivileged students (good!). But it will be daycare, and thus students will be exiting and entering the class every few minutes (bad!). Michael, you will create an English broadcast where you will yammer directly into the camera every morning and the students will come to speak English better somehow. Michael, you will judge a song competition. Michael, you will record 400 individual key phrases, and then we will laminate 600 copies for students to take home, and students must memorize them and parrot them back to you at their convenience.
Usually I can evade these sorts of explosions of poor decision-making by smiling and nodding, and then going about my business as though I simply didn’t understand, or am forgetful, or an idiot. Dragging my feet for as long as possible has saved me from creating some tragic, depressing English broadcast. Simply pretending to be unrelentingly busy allowed me to deke out of an English club one of the parents demanded I create specifically for his sons.
But then there are times when all of my evasions are for naught. I’ve been on someone’s mind, or there’s some great and terrible national English test approaching, or just someone saw a documentary that has lit the English education fires under them. Either way, suddenly I am handed recording equipment, or shuttled off to another room, or given a fleet of children and told to make English happen. In the face of direct confrontation with terrible ideas, I can’t run or hide.
I know, of course, that the work I put in will essentially be a waste of my time. I bored myself nearly to tears recording hundreds of dry, dull key sentences for nearly an hour. I imagine myself as a child, being told to get on my home computer and download someone unemphatically, listlessly reciting sentences in a foreign language into a microphone so that I might memorize them. I imagine my reaction: horror, and bewilderment, and a sudden and deep mistrust of everything adult. No one is going to listen to these recordings, but someone had the idea for them, and thus we must produce them. The other teachers in the department know this, as well, and they must endure editing my drone and uploading it to the school website, where it can gather electric spiderwebs and be completely forgotten. But a 37-year-old teacher told the under-30s of my department that he heard this worked somewhere in another province, and thus it is a good idea.
And so I do it. Because, of course, Korean schools are about playing ball. Oh, I want to lay claim to that enormous bulletin board outside? I might need some budget for an extra-curricular series of activities I am planning quietly, furtively, alone? Vacation planning time is coming up? Well, maybe those things can get fast tracked. Maybe you can get some help. Maybe… if you make these sound files. Or do an English broadcast. If you surgically remove and donate your larynx, or your Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, to our school for study and cloning. Or subject yourself to whatever terrible idea comes your way next.
It’s a back-scratching kind of a world.