Archive for the ‘oh captain my captain’ Category

On Rice Cakes, Traditional Rice Taffy, and Hot 6

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Today was the 수능 (Suneung – the college entrance exam), and life here in CP went on like normal. You’d think on a day that determined the future of so many young people you’d be able to feel it in the air, the very atmosphere would be crackling with electricity and you could smell the standardized tests from miles away, but if you didn’t know you’d assume it was a day just like any other. If you live in a city you can tell. Planes aren’t allowed to take off or land, all high schools and some middle schools are closed, the police escort late risers to testing sites, and parents often spend the entire day in prayer. However in sleepy sleepy CP, less than a mile from my high school where all of the third grade boys in the county were taking the exam, the cars trundled along as per usual and the old people sat and chatted on the street corner for hours.

The first group of students that I really connected with, the students that were first graders back when I was a first year teacher, took the Suneung today. One of them was my host sister, who I have only seen twice since leaving Yesan at the end of my first year. We’ve tried to keep in touch through kakaotalk and skype, but with both of our schedules it’s been difficult. When I first moved in she was one semester into high school, and in February she’ll graduate and, depending on the results of this test, go on to the university of her dreams, or to a university she had to settle for. I want her to do well. I Miss You SO Much(e) Boy also took the Suneung. I also hope he did well. Same with all of the students who stood on their desks and shouted OH CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN, all of the students in class 2.2 of SGHS I did the pen pal exchange with, the girls in my club class my first fall at CPHS, my thousand kilowatt senior, and so many more. I want them all to do well.

Unfortunately, they can’t. The nature of this test, and the way that it’s scored, is that in order for someone to do well, someone has to fail. You receive a percentile ranking, which is one of the things that makes this test so competitive. If it’s not my students that do poorly, it’ll be someone else’s students.

The students all know this, and though they are friendly and support each other, though they’ve spent the last three years eating, and sleeping, and studying, and playing with their classmates, when they walk into the classroom on Suneung day they know they are walking shoulder-to-shoulder with their competitors. On this day, a senior has no friends. The first and second grade students recognize and understand this burden and cheer on their seniors, knowing that in one or two years the same will be done for them. This goes beyond the actual testing day – you can see it all year. On an average day at CPHS, you’ll see the second grade class captains standing in the stairwell of the main building during lunchtime, two boys and two girls. They rotate this duty so that different students do it on different days, but it’s always four students standing there, ready to shush the loud first graders as they run up to their classrooms after lunch, because the third graders need lunchtime to study without any distractions. The first and second graders, though they dislike each other, take note of and respect the third graders’ drive to succeed, and do their best to help them along.

Korea has a lot of superstitions about tests, more so than Americans do, at least to my knowledge. As there’s a lot more emphasis on testing, this isn’t all that surprising. On a test day, you’re not supposed to wash your hair, because then you’ll wash all the answers out of your brain. Another superstition, is that you cannot eat 미역국 (miyeokguk – seaweed soup) before an exam. The seaweed soup is so slippery that it will cause you to do badly. This belief is so prevalent that an idiomatic expression for failing a test is 미역국을 먹다 – I ate seaweed soup. A surprisingly logical reaction to this superstition is the idea that if you eat sticky food, you will do well on the test. Therefore, it’s thought that eating 떡 (deok – rice cake) or 엿 (yeot – a traditional and very sticky rice taffy, normally eaten by the older generation) is optimal test food.

On Tuesday I ran into multiple students leaving school. I walked with a first grade girl for part of the way to the market, where she was buying rice taffy. I asked if it was for her, and she giggled and said that it was for the seniors taking the test. She mimed chewing rigorously, and then explained that it would help all of the things that they had studied stick in their brains on Thursday. I told her that if flavor didn’t matter she should get the pumpkin because it was the best, and she giggled and raced off. The second student I ran into, a second grade boy, was also buying presents for the seniors. Instead of rice cake or taffy he was buying Hot Six, a ridiculously powerful energy drink. I was struck by the differences between the two gifts – one, a traditional and difficult-to-eat snack that followed superstition, and one, a very modern invention guaranteed to take years off your life. However, more than that I was struck by the effort the students went to in order to support their seniors.

The Suneung is over, for most of the third graders. Some of the students that scored very poorly will elect to take off a year and study again. They’ll take classes in the city at an academy designed to prep students to retake the Suneung, and rent rooms roughly the size of closets near these academies to reduce distractions. For the ones that receive good test scores, or scores that are good enough, they’ll embark on the time-consuming task of applying to university, but also they’ll find themselves surprisingly free. If they hang out of the windows of their homerooms it’ll be to breathe in the fresh air, and gaze at their surroundings, instead of to keep themselves awake while studying. If they stay awake late at night, it’ll be to talk to friends instead of cramming for the practice test. If they go into the nearby city, it’ll be to go to academies that fulfill their own interests, or to get their driver’s license, instead of to study math or any other core subject. They’ll get perms and dye their hair, join gyms to throw off the weight they’ve gained studying, buy new clothes for university, and some of them will get plastic surgery. As they slowly come to life again, the second graders – my CPHS babies, my life for the past year and a half – will slowly start to fade into the 360-odd day “final” push to the Suneung, something that seemed so far away when they first entered high school.

This is my final Suneung as a teacher in Korea, I’ll leave six months after my host sister graduates. That’s good, because I don’t think I can take another one. It makes me sad that I won’t see Hongdae, Solomon, Fistbump Kid, EC, or any of my other CPHS students (or the SGHS students I was only able to teach for a semester) graduate, and I’m sad I won’t be there to support them through this process, but I’m also happy I don’t have to see them go through the pressures of Suneung day. I’m also happy to know that their juniors, the students who come after them, will support them.

Goodbyes Part 5: Friday- Oh Captain, my Captain.

Friday, July 15th, 2011

This morning Mr. M gave me a replica of a famous Baekje dynasty era incense burner as a going away present. Yesterday he told me that he was sad that I was leaving, and he thinks of me like a daughter. He is super sweet.

Today was difficult. Is difficult, really, because though I’ve finished my classes I’m not done with my goodbyes. Today is also my last day at hapkido.

I taught class 1.2 in the morning (low-level, 1st grade, all boys, approximately 25 students). They’re good kids, and they try reasonably hard, but I don’t have a super strong bond with them as a class. The class I was really fretting about teaching was class 2.1, during third period.

Class 2.1 (advanced, 2nd grade, co-ed, approximately 30 students) is the first class I really got to know student’s individually in, because the students in my lunchtime conversation club were all from this class. I don’t even know what to say about this class – they’re amazing. I’ve rarely had discipline problems, and normally it’s just that they’re too high energy and won’t stop chatting or shouting out English answers. This class has IMYSM(e), most of my pop-song contest girls, my host sister, and it seems like every person in there is a character. I knew they would be the hardest to say goodbye to.

I’ve always put a disproportionate amount of work into 2.1’s class compared to the other classes. I write one lesson plan for most of my low levels, one for the two intermediates (though sometimes the intermediates do the lower level lesson), but class 2.1 always gets its own lesson, and I normally only use that lesson plan one time. It’s not that I don’t work hard on the other lesson plans, it’s just that I spend a few hours on one lesson plan that I can use for four or five different classes, but then spend the same amount of time on the lesson plan that I’m only going to teach to 2.1. However, there’s no other class at the school that’s really anywhere near their level – their speaking and comprehension is really good, and they’re so motivated and so enthusiastic that I haven’t wanted to just teach them a more difficult version of the intermediate lesson and lesson planning for them has actually been a joy. I tried my hardest to make lessons for them challenging, but enjoyable and ultimately useful. In class we wrote poetry, made up protest chants, and debated the ethics of who should be left behind in a burning building. Every class was speaking intensive.

I knew that this was going to be the hardest class for me to say goodbye to, and also I think the class that has grown the most attached to me as well. This class I normally teach in the English room instead of their homeroom, but 10:30 rolled around and no one was in the classroom. A student came up, got me, and told me to come to their homeroom instead. I got there a bit too early and came through the back, so they weren’t ready, but they had written phrases all over the board (my personal favorites being “I love you – and I’m a girl!” and the Korean words for “adjective” and “noun” written the way I normally say them – i.e. wrong). They had also made a chocopie cake topped with a candle made of paper that they asked me to blow out.

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At the end of class, the students started standing on their desks and chairs, and then one of them (“Changyeonce” as the other students call her – “Chang” being the first half of her name, and “yeonce” being a reference to how she’s like Beyonce. She’s a member of my pop-song group) screamed “Oh Captain, my Captain,” a reference to Dead Poet’s Society. I can’t tell you how moving that was, especially if they think that I’m on par with the teacher in that movie.  Most of the students stayed after to talk to me even after the bell for the next class had rung, meaning as a class they were late for gym, and I got attacked by individual students hugging me, telling me not to cry, one of them crying herself, and wishing me good luck. They also gave me two pieces of paper decorated with messages in Korean and English from all of the students in class 2.1.

I then ran to the bathroom and burst into tears right before I got there.

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