September 11, Break My Heart

We had the second debate class of this semester and were once again let down. Jenny reprimanded the students for failing to show up, and told them “I’m afraid that because of your insincerity this program will be canceled next year.” There was a smattering of apologies and promises but a leopard can’t change its spots.

Three overslept, one had a fever, and so our only attendees were the student VP, who was the sole attendee last time, Hyunyung, who was the sole attendee the day we went to the museum, and my son, boy #3 who I was surprised to see.

It was tough. Really tough. No matter what I prepare for the first hour, it’s always too difficult. I think I’m just not qualified for this. I can do one on one, I can do one on thirty, but I cannot do one on three kids who can’t or won’t talk.

I mentioned to Helen this week how tough it was getting the high schoolers to string a sentence together and she said if our debate class was in Changwon proper, rather than our small suburb, kids would be chomping at the bit to have a chance to practice with a native speaker.

Instead, I spent an hour guiding our trio through Would You Rather and one round of Madlibs.

During the second period, the kids were supposed to present one feature of Korean popular media. Hyunyung had forgotten her paper.

Boy #3 talked about the dark side of idol culture and the VP happily gave an overview of the group Seventeen, who you may remember was a favorite of one of my Seoul kids.

But that wasn’t enough to fill an hour, obviously, so Jenny and I tried to have a discussion and extend the topics.

It was like pulling teeth. Boy #3 blasted the “foolish government” and had some good insight about the movie Parasite while my other questions mostly fell flat: do you BTS faces challenges overseas? Did you watch Crash Landing on You? Was this artist better or worse in the past?

During the third period, Jenny left to pick up fast food for the kids which was her attempt to entice more people to show up (it didn’t work).

She had us play a game while she was gone and I felt a strong, intense cloud around Boy #3. I know that he and his girlfriend broke up over the summer, and I was worried upon hearing his strong feelings about politics. As I’ve mentioned, many politicians are using grievance politics, particularly misogyny, to stir up young male voters. As he just had his heart broken and is also facing an unpleasant mandatory military service, he is particularly vulnerable to this kind of politicking.

Jenny saved me from trying to have any more conversation when she showed up with a huge bag of fried chicken sandwiches.

I recognize that part of disappointment with this class stems from my larger frustration with Koreans being so terrified of speaking English with me that any possibility we have to grow closer remains a fantasy.

It came time to take of our masks and I didn’t want to. Why? I asked myself.

It felt horribly vulnerable and intimate to look and be looked at without half my face being covered.

The kids also seemed a little reluctant to peel off their masks but when they finally did I was surprised again. It’s impossible to guess what anyone will look like, but I’m always caught off guard by just how different people are.

My son put his mask to the side and I did too. He’s so young. The girls are so young. They’re really just babies. And for all the interesting and big-brained takes my son has, his face was a particular shock. His was a vulnerable, small, heart-shaped face.

That’s why I felt particularly affected when Jenny translated that he wants to drop out of school. If he gets into his mechanic program, he’d rather just go full time and start working.

Jenny told me to tell him not to drop out.

“At least finish high school. I know in the US it’s really tough to get any job without a GED.”

I thought again about what Helen said, that kids in the city proper fight for the best hagwons and compete for academic opportunities. And here I was, on the other side of the mountains, trying to convince my favorite student not to drop out of school.

After three hours of trying to get them all to talk, it was just too much.

My son tried to bust out of class without saying goodbye but Jenny corralled him and made him bid farewell to me.

I passed him when leaving the school and he seemed surprised to see me in my car. I waved goodbye to him as he was caught in a half bow.

I didn’t cry in the car but it was a near miss.

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