The day started with the quietest seven high schoolers I’ve ever laid eyes on in my life, and it ended with me wanting to adopt an eighteen-year-old boy.
It was a gray rainy day but that didn’t stop me from pulling into the empty campus, with Jenny opening the school gates for me, and living out a brief high school K-drama fantasy.
The fantasy lasted approximately three minutes, or the time it took to drop my umbrella by the entrance and shuffle into the English classroom.
Jenny was still outside waiting for kids by the gate so I was alone in a class with three early birds. Two girls sitting together at a clump of desks, and one tall boy in the far corner. I figured it was more awkward for me to say nothing so I went to each student and asked for their name and high school. As the other four shuffled in, I did the same but did not try to make additional conversation. The brief introduction had already proved these kids were not going to be the chatterboxes of my elementary school. But even I had to feel surprised that students who willingly chose to spend every Saturday at a voluntary English debate program were so taciturn.
Jenny finally returned to rescue me from the imposing silence only to make me the captain. I thought she might want to kick things off but she just looked at me and said, “you can start your class”.
Luckily I am well accustomed to both last minute planning in Korea and teenagers, so I started off the same way I had with my elementary kids. Guess my life.
You could hear a pin drop in the room but as a former Quiet Kid and former teenager, I knew they just needed more time to feel comfortable.
“My name is Abigail. You can call me Abigail Teacher. First question– where am I from?”
One tall boy who was the first to arrive said, “the… US?”
They guessed a few more facts about my family, hometown, favorite Korean food, and college major before I decided to hand out the autobiography worksheets I had made a week prior.
After they finished, I had them play about ten rounds of “Would You Rather”. After question four, I started to ask them to explain their answers and then realized how far we were from the words of Helen: “I think you’ll be surprised how fluent high schoolers are”.
They were not fluent. They could not answer in complete sentences, when they were willing to answer. I came to understand later that their listening skills are good but their speaking skills are not.
I somehow managed to extend the introductory period into fifty minutes as Jenny requested. We then took a ten-minute break and it was my turn to interview the girls for an hour. The boys would follow.
It seemed to overwhelming to have one girl sit alone in front of me like an interview so instead I had us all sit in a cluster of desks. I pulled out their worksheets from earlier and was surprised to see answers like “I want to be a diplomat” or “I don’t have a dream job but I do want to live abroad”. Maybe unsurprisingly, their written grammar was also lacking but I’ve been learning more about the system of public English education in Korea and let it go for now.
There was one girl, with the tiniest and most delicate hands I’ve ever seen, who confidently quoted OECD statistics. All the girls needed ample time to think and needed their phone dictionaries for just about every question.
I had fun learning about their hobbies, their favorite handsome celebrities, their perfect day, their ideal job. One girl translated and then read with perfect pronunciation, “the person I want to get to know most is you, Teacher. I am enjoying our time here very much.” I was caught off guard by her sudden loquaciousness, but then our period was over and the girls were exchanged for three boys.
I felt nervous. Though I have brothers, I just didn’t know what to expect from Korean high school boys. Would they be inappropriate? Would they be disrespectful?
I remained professional and got us started. What I couldn’t have imagined is that they would share things with me that would rock my world.
The tall boy to my right was most fluent in English. He explained he wanted to be a pilot and had always enjoyed planes because they gave him a sense of freedom. I glowed at him– that’s how I feel about ice skating. There’s such a sense of liberty to disconnecting from gravity.
I turned to the middle boy. He had written under the dream box “not yet”. His favorite person was listed as “myself”. Frankly, he hadn’t written much at all, and I was worried that he’d be that token uninterested student who was made to sign up because of his parents. But I came to know a whole lot more from his stilted, incomplete sentences.
The third boy had enviably long eye lashes and a ring on his finger. “My favorite person is my girlfriend. And my family.” He told me without shame. He also wants to be a car engineer and his favorite movie series is Fast and Furious. Say it with me, Tokyooooo drift!
I had hoped that me divulging my college major might strike a cord in someone.
The boys were better in speaking than the girls and used their phones much less often. I had them pull conversation questions out of an envelope. Their hands were too big to fit inside the small mailer and instead they shook slips of paper out one at a time.
What’s your favorite book?
“Okay, let’s throw that out, all of you wrote ‘I hate reading’ on your autobiography sheet.”
What are two important personality traits a person should have?
Boy 1: Patience and confidence
Boy 3: Love and compassion.
What is a fun fact about you?
Boy 2: There’s nothing interesting about me.
Boy 3: One of my eyes is monolid and the other is creased. Also, I can eat a lot but don’t gain weight.
“And how do you feel about that? Do I you like eating a lot and staying the same?” I asked him, genuinely curious.
“Sometimes I think it’s good but sometimes I want to be bigger.” He circled his fingers around his wrist as of trying to show this is where he was too small.
What would you change about Korea?
Boy 1: Respect towards soldiers.
At this point, Boy 3 chimed in to add that there should be perks for soldiers like discounted movie tickets or food coupons. I thought and nodded. That’s really not a lot to ask since all Korean men have to serve a mandatory two years in the military. I started to think how that affects morale of the younger generation, and how that can cause anger towards the government and the population for not recognizing their sacrifice.
Boy 2: Respect for blue collar workers.
He obviously did not use “blue collar” but that was his intention– he hated that Korea looks down on people who do not work in corporate. I found out why he answered this way in the next question.
What is something that makes you angry?
Boy 2: My future.
“Your future?” I asked.
“Yes. I don’t study well so I can’t work at the company.”
I felt my heart shake. Korean society hinges upon education, too much I feel. To get a livable salary one must work at a big company. To work at a big company, one must graduate from one of the three ivy league schools (shortened to SKY: Seoul National University, Korea National University, Yonsei University). To be admitted into SKY one must be top of the class and score nearly perfect in all three sections of KSAT: math, reading, English. To rank high in school and score high on the test, one must attend private academies every day after school to beat the other students doing exactly the same.
It is extreme. There is no place in Korea for people who don’t want to do this. If Boy 2 lived in the US, he could go to a state school no problem, or attend a trade school. He would have options. But not in Korea. That his whole future looked bleak was upsetting to both of us.
The next question was the most telling of all.
What’s the best compliment you ever received?
Boy 1: People tell me I try hard.
Boy 2: I don’t really get compliments.
Boy 3: I also haven’t really experienced this.
I thought of every message board I’ve read of men explaining how rarely they hear compliments and immediately decided to correct it. My sons were going to get complimented whether they liked it or not!
I turned to Boy 2, who I felt needed it the most, and said, “I think you are honest and smart. You express yourself well.” I turned to Boy 3, who despite having a girlfriend, doesn’t get much praise. “Although you’re a man, you value love and compassion. I think that’s great.”
Later I regretted adding “although you’re a man” but Korea is so concrete in gender roles that I wanted to honor this part of him. How many times has a Korean teacher told me to divide the class into girls and boys for every game and activity? Even in 90s America I don’t remember such heavy emphasis on gender division in the classroom.
If boys study all day, compete for first place in every facet of life, attend mandatory military service, and never have an outlet to grow or play or take a break, what does that do to their psyche?
A male friend in Seoul once explained that while going through puberty he felt a lot of rage and didn’t know where to direct it all.
As boys adjust to surging testosterone their anger mounts and in a schedule with no breaks, from high school to post-college career, that anger is eventually directed towards people with less power like women or immigrants. You can see it in the political rhetoric of recent mayoral candidates, and the message continues to grow as we near the presidential election next year. “Don’t blame us, blame women. Blame immigrants. Blame Japan.” The candidates have the power to provide services to help these young men but knowingly redirect anger so their voter base doesn’t see how little effort they put into making lives better.
For the first time I understood how tough it is to be a young man and that to make strides in equality and justice, we need to help and guide our young men just as much as our young women. They need love, tenderness, and a listening ear. They do not need to be told to “suck it up” or “act like a man” because ultimately, those emotions need an outlet. Boys are people, too, and we need to stop treating children as if they are so wildly different.
There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.Desmond Tutu
I am amazed and humbled that the three shared their truth with me. I suspect that I represent a safe space to them– speaking in another language, and to a foreigner from a country with a more open culture, they know (I hope) that I’m not going to judge them.
The four of us sat there in a charged circle for a moment before Jenny came back and broke the spell by announcing the end of class. I don’t think I imagined their reluctance, however briefly, to get up from the table.
Suddenly it was over and students were shuffling out the door. I wish we could have done a short wrap up, just a simple, “good job, see you next week” because opening and closing are really important to me as a teacher and a student.
On their way out, I gave each student two mini muffins I had picked up from the local bakery that morning. In Korea, there will never be a time that food gifts are unacceptable. It felt weirdly unfitting for the heavy morning but I’m sure all the kids needed a breather from three hours of straight English time.
I’ll see them all again this weekend and I wonder if they’ll see me as an untouchable native speaker or as a mentor. Time will reveal what our relationship will become.