Cancellations, Evacuations and Apology-Cake

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Today has been a strange day. My Thursdays generally alternate between being incredibly quiet, with one first and one second grade lesson (both of which I’ve taught a lot this week already) and incredibly trying, with 3 consecutive third grade lessons (the lesson I haven’t taught yet) plus a 45-minute struggle with the worst behaved of all my classes.

As I imagine many of you have been told in my whinier moments, I’m not a big fan of teaching the third grade. Whilst you may jump to conclusions and think that this is purely because I don’t relish the idea of enthusing like a maniac in front of 40 (very self-aware) 16 year old boys (people back home, read ‘very self-aware 14 year old boys’), it’s actually less to do with the fact that I dislike seeing them, and rather that I don’t see them enough. Unlike the other grades, they aren’t given enough time to realise that I’m not ‘Terrifying and Incomprehensible Western Girl’ and rather am a foolish dork who doesn’t mind looking like a prat and letting them laugh at my terrible Korean skills so that they’ll feel better about making English mistakes. Because of the way that the incomprehensible third-grade timetable is laid out, I teach 5 of the 10 classes one week then the remaining 5 the next. This sounds pretty simple (and in theory it is) but Korea is famous for last-minute schedule changes, cancelled classes and whatever else which disrupt the delicate schedule with vicious tenacity, confusing the hell out of the (already constantly confused) waygook and resulting in days like today.

In short, owing to national holidays, listening tests, aptitude tests, switched classes and Class President elections, each of my three consecutive third grade classes were at a different stage in the textbook…which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the mid-term tests are next week and they all have to be on the same page by then. My first co-teacher, shocked beyond words that they had only covered one of the required three chapters, bade me to plow through the target language as if my life depended on it…no time to practice, explain a phrase and move on. Adding to the overall shitness of this lesson was the fact that the lessons do not actually correlate or continue from each other in any conceivable way, so one minute I was sprinting through the uses of “with pleasure” and the next I was hammering “why not eat kimchi?” into their already english-addled brains. I felt for the little buggers, I really did…especially when the textbook demanded I move on to yet another completely unrelated set of phrases in the last 10 minutes. Do they really need to know six different ways of making the same suggestion when they can’t tell me what their hobbies are? Owing to the aforementioned schedule changes, this is the first time they’d seen me in a month. Will they be looking forward to next time? I doubt it and nor do I blame them.

During my next class, the new co-teacher told me that the test is actually only on chapters one and two of the textbook, so I needn’t have bothered torturing them at all. Sigh. This class ended abruptly for me when the Korean teacher declared with 15 minutes left, “you can take a rest now. I must teach!”. She delivered this with such definitive clarity that I didn’t think to ask why I wasn’t permitted to complete my lesson. I just got my bag and scurried out to an awkward, broken english dinnertime conversation with the school counsellor, who I previously did not know existed.

My third class passed without incident or surprise, which was the second most surprising thing to happen all day. ‘What was the most surprising?’ I hear you ask. Well, ardent readers, I shall keep you in suspense no longer. Here follows the tale of the most surprising part of my day.

It seems unbelievable that I haven’t ranted about class 2-4 before, but I don’t think I have. Suffice to say that they are an absolute confederacy of bastards, none of them understanding the concept of silence (or even an approximation of silence) whilst the teacher talks. They respond to nothing and want to do nothing other than talk, yell, scream and fight amongst themselves. They remain the only class I have ever had to shout at as loud as I possibly can in order to be heard, and within four follow-up words I’d lost them again. They are also the class of thieving gits who pocketed my ridiculously expensive MacBook cable, but that’s a rant for another day. In short, class 2-4 are the nemeses of Carrie-Teacher.

This would be almost OK if I had a decent co-teacher for the lesson, but unfortunately she’s younger than me, it’s her first year teaching too and she demands less authority than a baby seal…still though, she’s better than nothing. 10 minutes before the lesson begun she came to my office to inform me that she wouldn’t be attending as she has a lot of paperwork to do. My heart sank, realising how hellish the next 45 minutes were sure to be, but she looked so utterly frazzled that I hid my dismay and said it’d be fine. Then she presented me with a cheesecake she’d bought for me in way of apology, and I genuinely forgave her**.

**I have a definitive ‘sugar: absolution’ for matters of this kind, which I suggest you bear in mind should you plan on wronging me. Always remember that the last word in forgiveness is a macaron, just in case you do something terrible.

I Charlie Browned to the classroom like a convict to the guillotine, clutching 40 copies of Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Diamond safely to my breast and knowing that in less than 5 minutes I’d be the helpless bystander in a mass book genocide. Korean students are known to ‘help’ pass out the books by launching them like wordy projectiles across the entire classroom, and that’s when the co-teacher is there to see it happen. I feared for those books, I really did. I got to class, began to hand out the doomed volumes and soon noticed that the students were oddly quiet. I looked around, sensing a trap, and realised that every last one of them was looking at me like I was a complete moron. I stopped, confused, and one of them eventually struck up the courage to explain to me the problem…which I must say, for someone with only a rudimentary grasp of the english language, he did with some considerable disdain. “Teacher” he said with a sigh, “Why books? This is emergency time”.

I was nonplussed, firstly because I had never before heard of ‘emergency time’ and secondly because last week that same pompous little git had squirmed his way out of participation by claiming he couldn’t speak english at all. Rest assured, his moment of lording it over teacher will cost him dear next week. The point remained though…what the hell was ‘emergency time’ and why was I in charge of it? I took a risk and left them alone whilst I went to consult a proper teacher, hoping things wouldn’t have gone Lord of the Flies in my brief absence. The teacher I consulted was flabbergasted that I didn’t understand what ‘emergency time’ was, it having been explained in such detail at the weekly staff meeting, which she most certainly saw me at. Deciding not to remind her that the weekly meeting is conducted entirely in Korean, I apologised and asked what I should be doing. She explained that I was to tune the TV into the national video, then upon hearing the siren I should escort the students out of the classroom and down to Level 2 where they should make two neat lines. I began to explain that this did not seem either likely nor possible considering I can’t speak Korean, a concern she shrugged off with a laugh and an ambiguous “they know”. I sighed, and returned to my apparent charges.


It turns out that ‘emergency time’ is like a fire drill for countries with psychopathic neighbours. The nationally broadcast video first details the threat of the Communist North and shows CGI imaginings of bombs being dropped interspersed with (for some reason) shots that I suspect were taken from Saving Private Ryan. I wondered how my students felt about taking part in a mock evacuation of an attack, looked around the classroom and discovered that the majority of them were napping, spinning their textbooks on their fingers like basketballs or had their ties around their foreheads like Rambo and were laughing hysterically at the man doling out the warnings. ‘The Threat of the North’ really isn’t too much of a thing here, I surmised. Apparently the emergency procedure also applies to earthquakes and ‘sea-related disasters’, for which everyone seems to blame Japan personally for. When I asked whether such natural disasters are commonplace in Korea, I received the same response from everyone. “Korea doesn’t have earthquakes or tsunamis…Japan does, and Korea suffers”. Bloody Japanese folks, begging for another earthquake to rattle their economy just to piss off Korea with the aftershock.

I eventually managed to lead my class to the evacuation point and get them all sat down in the brace position (with a bit of help from the ever so friendly stick-wielding PE teacher I befriended at lunch yesterday), upon which I was rescued by another of my co-teachers who was apoplectically apologetic that I had to lead the class, despite her having been privy to the cheesecake exchange and therefore expecting it. I returned to the office safe in the knowledge that should the North attack, the land boil or the sea forget where it’s supposed to live, 900 Korean schoolboys will be bracing themselves on the second floor of a huge, non earthquake-proof school, just outside the library. Foolproof.

And so I was saved from teaching my evil class alone, I contributed in the imaginary and probably useless evacuation of an entire Middle School and I received a cheesecake, which I shared with my fellow office staff in order to curry favour with them. My day was pretty much already rocking ‘best Thursday ever’ status when I left to walk home in the lovely weather and passed two of my favourite students (yes I have favourites and no, I don’t care that I shouldn’t) playing on the grabby arcade machine outside the 7/11 opposite school. They called me over using the nickname they are so proud of inventing (‘Carrie-fornia Beach’, which is longer, more complicated to pronounce and utterly nonsensical) and presented me with the fruits of their labours; 10 plush and phenominally Asian keyrings in a variety of colours and styles. 10 keyrings, as I’m sure you will have realised, is more than any regular human being requires but as I tried to hand some back they were adamant that I would keep every single one of them. I laughed, saying I don’t have that many keys, and received the following nugget of wisdom before they ran away:

“Carrie-fornia Beach, you make Korean stylee, then one day you will understand Korea!!”

I looked back over the increasingly surreal events of the day, attaching a cross-eyed clown to my keys and a bizarrely disproportionate winged puppy to my phone. As I begun my walk home, I knew that he was right.


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