Monday, 26 February 2007

Saw a really cool movie.

So I saw this movie a couple weekends ago. . . I think it's also out in N. America these days. It's called "Bridge to Terabithia" and it's about an imaginative kid who's a bit of a loner, and I don't know when was the last time a movie managed to touch as many nerves all in such a short space.

Really enjoyed it -- don't want to say too much about what happens and how it kept tossing its darts right through me, bone-deep if you will, because I'll give away some of the film's surprises, twists and turns, but. . . touching, wonderful film. If you ever played "let's pretend" in a forest by your house, if you ever invented a new country in your imagination, if you ever had a best friend when you were a kid, or didn't get along with the other kids in your class, or got bullied, or fought with your sister, or lived in, or knew somebody who lived in a small North American town, and went to a small-town North American elementary school, well, you might relate to parts of it.

Maybe part of the reason I related so much to it was because of its rural, N. American setting, and the way I've been away from that for so long -- urban Seoul is about as different as you can get from rural N. America without being on a space station, but it sure got the texture and the details bang-on.

I saw it with a friend, who was disappointed that it was closer to real life, and not as deep into the fantasy world as "Chronicles of Narnia", but when a film is as true to life and true to its characters, as compassionate and honest as this (it's from a Newberry Award Winning book: no surprise there) I'll forgive that.

So, if you are, or ever were, 13 years old, go see this movie. Worthwhile. Plus, Disney just gave me a free wristwatch for writing this blog post! (I wish.)

(PS: While I worked at POLY School, which had a large library of English books for young readers, I got a chance to read a bunch of books for young adults, and gained a serious respect for writers of that genre. It's difficult to get it right, to relate to that age but also add grains of learning and truth. If you ever see a book with a "Newberry Award" sticker on its front, read it, or give it to the nearest 13-year-old you know. Just awesome.)

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Holy Cow my student almost died last weekend!

So I came into class on Tuesday, the 20th, the first morning after a three day weekend. Here in Korea, Lunar new year is the second biggest family holiday of the year, kind of Thanksgiving to Chusok's Christmas. (Chusok is the Korean harvest festival, and it's amazing: EVERYBODY goes to their ancestral home/town/grandparents' house, offers up special foods and dishes to the ancestors in the old way, dressed up in the traditional hanbok clothes. I've seen the ceremony at a friend's girlfriend's house, and it's quite impressive.) The city empties out -- it's almost eerie. Even the street food stands are closed up! Then, at the end of the weekend, everybody returns to Seoul, and the gridlock begins fifty kilometers outside of the greater Seoul area, all the way into town.

{Tangential story alert: Once I travelled on a holiday weekend, and the trip took four hours out by bus, and twelve hours back, because of seventy kilometers (no joke) of stop and go traffic. Even better, the tour organizer had rented three movies to watch on the trip: X-men (not bad) Black Hawk Down, and Saving Private Ryan. That's comic book action movies: 1, Gory gory war movies: 2. Being trapped on a bus, in stop and go traffic, hung over (as most of the group was), with "Oh GOD IT HURTS" "I can't stop the bleeding Ty!" "You're gonna be okay, Eddie. You're gonna be okay. What's your daughter's name? You'll see her again, Eddie, I promise." "I feel cold Ty. I feel cold" for two hours is just hard to manage. So after Black Hawk Down (the noisiest, most overwhelming war movie I've ever seen: long and just gross), the guy was about to put on Saving Private Ryan (the second noisiest, most overwhelming war movie I've seen) on, and the entire bus vetoed the choice. At the next rest stop, somebody went to the DVD stand and bought "When Harry Met Sally" or "You've God Mail" or some Sandra Bullock romantic comedy, and the travellers were placated. End of tangential story.}

Well, some people go into the mountains, to see their ancestral gravesite, as did my student Lucas. As I asked about the students' weekends, this story came out, piecemeal, as Lucas remembered different impressions of his adventure. The total innocence in his eyes matched my own sheer disbelief at how close this kid came to being hospitalized, at least.

He saw a snake, and decided he didn't like having that snake in that spot. So, being a kid, innocent as all Eden, he chose to move that snake along by prodding it with his foot. "Teacher and then the tail is up and," he held his hand up and moved it side-to-side to copy a tail's shaking. Shaking a raised tail is a common warning signal for poisonous snakes (not just rattlesnakes, as I learned by research). He poked it again, and "teacher, it biting me in the pants" and he pointed to the cuff of his pants, right behind his ankle. Because it was February, and cold, the snake was slow; had he poked it in June, it probably would have had the speed and wherewithal bite him properly, but as it was, the thing missed his ankle. By then his father had spotted Lucas, and saw what was happening. His dad ran over and punted the snake, kickin it far clear of his son, but I don't think he saw the whole scene, because Lucas never mentioned an extremely angry father in the jumbled account of his story.

I was so incredulous I immediately went to the next class to tell Caleb about what had just happened. The kid never even realized how close he was to serious danger.

(Side note: there are four species of poisonous snake in Korea, in the viper/asp category. None are as deadly as the cobra, the black mamba, or the dreaded snakes of Australia, but none are to be trifled with either. Lucas being a child, the poison would have been more dangerous because he has a smaller body mass than say, me. Of the snakes in Korea, the one with the coolest name is called (in Japan) the mamushi. Just say that together with me one time. Mamushi.)

I'm glad Lucas made it through honouring his ancestors, without joining them. He's a sweet kid. Except when he isn't.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

These video clips made me laugh.

Deb, I think you'll especially enjoy the second one.

This one is short. And funny.

You might recognize the thin, silly one as Hugh Laurie, now most famous as the abrasive star of the TV series "House". He actually has a background in comedy that goes all the way back to "Black Adder", the early '80s sitcom that also gave Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) his first big break, and is FAR superior to Mr. Bean in every way. I also like Hugh Laurie's comedy stuff far better than the TV show house. . . what's with all the medical and crime investigative dramas on TV these days? Here in Korea there are only three or four channels that regularly play English programming, and at any given time, one of them is playing a Jean-Claude VanDamme movie (which cease to be entertaining even ironically after two watchings) and another is playing CSI, or one of its spinoffs, rife with grotesque modes of death and gratuitous autopsy scenes.

Sigh.

Oh well. At least it's weaned me off watching TV.

But THESE clips are funny. You should watch them.





This one plays around with actors, lines, and scene setups. It makes me smile, having acted on stage myself.



This third one. . . I think they're making fun of flag-waving singers. I'm not sure though.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Valentine's Day. . . meet a friend of mine.

I have a friend named Zooey. Here's a picture of him, partaking in a vice. . . usually he's not that bad. Really. Upstanding, even. (And let's give him a break: Leffe is a really good quality beer.)






Even though he sometimes drinks beer (he swears it was only that once), he also really likes to come to school with me and meet my students. He lives an adventurous life: adventurous enough that he often appears in the stories I tell to my students. He's a bit of a rennaisance elephant: he speaks tiger, bear, octopus, English, Korean, and a handful of other useful languages (not to mention African elephant, as well as Indian elephant).

When Sally the genius' family was struck by a tragedy that shall go unmentioned, I introduced Sally to Rhonda, the only other known mini-elephant. Here's Rhonda. (Un?)surpringly, Zooey and Rhonda hit it off when they met, and have been courting in the traditional mammothian way. Rhonda's even helping Zooey with his addiction to peanut butter.

Here's Rhonda.




My students love Zooey, and love to hear stories about Zooey. One day, after visiting Sally, I accidentally left Zooey at her house, and Zooey and Rhonda spent that whole week together. After that, Sally asked if Rhonda wanted to come to my house for a few days. I agreed, so that Rhonda could meet my students. My students loved her, and wanted to hear all about Zooey and Rhonda.

Then, two months after her appearance at SLP, on Valentine's day, Arooh made valentines for all her classmates, including me, and even one for Zooey. However, she couldn't remember Rhonda's English name, so she had to write her Elephant name.

Here is the card she wrote for Zooey and Rhonda.








It made me smile a lot.

I will be teaching adults next month: my contract with SLP is up, and I just couldn't imagine another year of teaching little kids, and mediating conflicts like "Kevin hit me." "James hit me first." "No, Zach pushing me so I hit you accident." However, I'll miss the sweetness of Arooh trying to sound out an elephant's trumpet.

For sure.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Kevin's Really Funny.

On February 26th, we have a graduation show: my preschool class is finishing their two year preschool program, and graduating to elementary school. This is nice. The graduation show, though, is stressful. We have to put on a big old show to prove to the parents that their money was worth it and their kids now kick butt in English. As the preschool director, it falls upon my head to make sure everything comes off well.

Today, during gym class, we practiced with the six-year-olds. That was as cute as you would ever believe. It's such an easy job directing a performance of six-year-olds: if the kids get it all right, it's really impressive. If they get it wrong and somebody turns the wrong way, it's really cute. You just can't lose! Anyway, the kids did a really good job, considering the graduation show is almost two weeks away.

The seven-year-old kids are working really hard to do a good job, of course.

Well, I was practicing the lines with my class of seven-year-olds during phone teaching today, and the kids really impressed me: they really have their lines down cold! (With one or two exceptions.) The thing about phone teaching, though, is that it's really repetitive and a bit tedious: it's my least favourite afternoon of the month (other than the month when I actually lost my temper at Tom because he was standing in the corner, with his hands over his head and his eyes closed, and still giggling and speaking Korean to Peter). In order to keep myself from shoving a pencil in my ear just to spice things up a bit, I play around with the students on the phone. When I call them, instead of saying "This is Rob teacher," I say, "This is Ashley teacher," and argue with the students about how they know I'm Rob, for sure. Well, today, I had to phone Kevin. "Is this Kevin?"
"Yes."
"No, it isn't. This is Kevin's grandfather."
"No teacher, it's Kevin."
"No. It's Kevin's grandfather!"
"Teacher!"
"Nice to meet you Kevin's grandfather!"
"Teacher!"
"Can I please talk to Kevin now?"
Without missing a beat, Kevin says, "OK," waits for five seconds in silence, and then says, "Hello this is Kevin!"

Quick wit, that one. To play along as subtly as that, with a purely verbal joke, over the phone, at seven years old, in his second language, is pretty impressive to me. I laughed out loud. Kevin's awesome. He has these squirrely bright eyes and a face whose entire shape seems to have been created for the express purpose of laughing. He's great.

At lunchtime today, David broke my heart.

During my first four months at SLP, David was in my homeroom class, and he was like one of those tempestuous days when you never know whether, five minutes later, there will be a downpour or a sunny break in the clouds. He was moody, and his bad moods were awful. Few kids manage to sulk on a par with David's epic glowers. He's the smallest kid in the class, asthmatic, with pale skin and eyes that crinkle when he smiles.

Then, in March, a new student joined, named Belle. She was a nice girl, and she and David became best friends. They played together, sat beside each other, and were really sweet. David always picked her when we played name games, and openly told people that he loved her. Their parents became friends, and they played together after school. When Belle broke her collarbone in August, she missed a month, and then came back to school sooner than the doctor's recommendation, so the doctor told her she had to stay in the classroom during lunch and breaktimes, for about four or six weeks after she returned. Every breaktime, David stayed in the classroom with her, colouring or making paper crafts, to keep her company. David's one of my favourite kids because of that kind of stuff: an absolute sweetheart.

Well, over the last two months, Belle has fallen under the spell of Willy, the most charismatic student in the class. He's bright and sociable, he has good ideas for games, and he's funny as anything. Arooh (the other girl in the class) has taken to following him around like a puppy (while Lucas follows her around like a puppy, saying things like "Arooh I love you. I want to give you a present and chocolate and everything!") For the last two weeks, David, always a slow and somewhat picky eater, has been eating even more slowly than before.

Today, as he mulled over his honeyed sweet potatoes, poking them and contemplating them, instead of eating them, I said, "Davarino? Why are you eating so slowly?"

He looked up at me and said "Teacher, in the playtime Belle is say 'don't play' and everyday 'don't play' to me," and his sweet little eyes had this forlorn helplessness that just about melted me right then and there. He was a really sweet kid, and Belle's been spurning him to be another of Willy's groupies. Silly girl doesn't recognize loyalty and sweetness when she sees it. I hope she figures it out before she grows up, that she doesn't become just another of those young ladies who shunts aside the sweet, generous boys who'll take good care of them, for the charismatic guy who attracts people into his group, but then (as Willy does) plays a bit of a tease, never quite letting a person know whether they're really in the group or not, so that they're never sure if they're in or not, so they have to keep working at the guy's approval (and stroke his ego along the way). (Arooh's had some days when he's made her feel totally rejected. . . but then other days Willy can be a really sweet kid.)

Willy has good parents (I've met them). And I've told them point blank about Willy's ability to do this, and Willy's a sweet kid by nature: he'll figure out, between his parents' guidance and his own innate sweetness, that there's a better way to treat his friends, but for now, it's sure sad to see little broken-hearted David's devotion totally ignored.

So, in summary:

Kevin's funny
David's sweet
Belle's inconstant
Willy's charismatic and charming but unaware just how much influence he has over his classmates
And I'm going to teach adults next month (found a new job) so I don't have to worry so much about issues like that between students, because I know that my students will be adults who can figure such things out on their own.

(Just to show willy's usually a good kid: two stories.

1. Caleb's wife, Heather, brought their baby, Kylie to school to meet the students. The students get so excited to see the baby, they run the risk of mauling her, so Caleb and Heather have to set clear limits on how much they can bug her. Paul reached over, once, and touched Kylie on the nose. To head off a swarm of hands that would follow, Caleb said, "Paul, please don't touch her."
Willy commented, "Yeah. When they're little they die really easily."

2. During the same phone teaching afternoon when Kevin cut me up, I asked Willy, "What special day is it tomorrow?"
"Valentine's day."
"What will you do for Valentine's day?"
"Give chocolate to the teachers."
"Will you give chocolate to Ellen teacher?"
"Of course, teacher." (He's taken to saying, "of course," lately).
"Will you give Ellen teacher a lot of chocolate?"
"Of course."
"How much chocolate will you bring for Ellen teacher?"
"Maybe she will die."

He's not a bad kid. He just doesn't realize how much he influences his group of friends.)

OK. Enough for now.

Love you all! Take care.

Rob

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Some photos.

I like to draw pictures on the board during attendance time in my homeroom class. It entertains the kids. Here are some examples.




Seals are cute. I can also draw rabbits and elephants and rabbiphants (Rabbiphants are very rare: most elephants are protestant, um, I mean, protephant).










Sam is absolutely incapable of staying in his chair. One day I joked that I need to stick him in his chair with a hammer and nails, and made this illustration.



Then I explained that I could't really do that, because of course, Sam would grow up, and then he wouldn't fit into the small chair, and modified the picture to look like this, to show everybody why I could't nail Sam to his chair. (Though I've been tempted to get out my stapler a few times.)




I'm actually proud of this one. I think it actually looks like a polar bear.



This is one of my favourites.



Sometimes air in Seoul is dirty. Those apartments you can barely see are about two kilometers away. No more than that.



Cute Konglish in a soaps shop.

Another typical day in Seoul, Korea.

So this morning I woke up as usual, poked around on the internet, started up the coffee maker (at eight in the morning, it's worth it to have the starbucks stuff on hand), and took my shower. I boiled an egg. (Boiling eggs is fun for me right now, because I just finally got the hang of it -- I'd always either do them half-raw or rubbery dry-yolk overcooked. I'm so pleased with myself for figuring this boiled egg thing out, I've been popping them like candy!) On the way to work, I bought a cinnamon swirl at the bakery I mentioned before, where they changed their baking schedule so I could have a cinnamon swirl every morning, instead of just on mornings when I was late.

Got to school, and before I even made it into the classroom, James was saying "teacheeeeerr" in that way Korean kids have perfected, where suddenly "No" can become a fourteen syllable word that requires a two octave vocal range to properly pronounce. He's telling on another student, who pushed him, or stepped on his foot, or looked in his show-and-tell bag without his permission. . . or something.

I'm thinking about implementing a policy where the student who did wrong gets punished, but the student who tattled gets an equal punishment. That's how tired I am of kids coming to teachers with their little "he looked in my book" disputes. We have a teacher named Eunice who's unreal: every time, she hears each kid out and gives them a reasonable solution to their problem. Listening to "he said I don't want to play with you" "no I didn't!" makes me want to chew holes into the inside of my cheek after a while. Her patience is laudable.

Right after that, Willy cracked me up by taking the stuffing out of me, teasing me about something I'd told his family when they invited me to his house: I'm good at cooking a bunch of foods, but I've never managed to successfully cook rice: I always make it too sticky, too dry, burnt at the bottom, or something (now that I've mastered boiled eggs, rice is next). Willy had the whole class poking fun at me about not being able to cook rice. It was funny.

Then, during break time, I was chatting with Caleb in the hallway, when right at waist-level, a little girl in a blue hooded sweater flies by us with her fists up in the air, in the "I'm a flying superhero" pose. On second glance, she has her sweater's hood pulled right over her face. It's Lisa: she has a hooded sweater with a mask on the hood, and eyeholes, so that she can be a superhero anytime she wants. Here she is, in superhero and in secret identity mode.






The boy with Lisa in the first picture is Andy, a funny little boy with gangly arms and legs who doesn't move around so much as he flops. As soon as he's moving faster than walking speed, he always reminds me just a bit of a rag doll -- a Raggedy Andy, if you will. The girl in the second picture is named Sue, owner of my favourite student nickname ever: "Soodlee-Doo!" I used to say it out loud to her, but then other students called her Soodlee-Doo so much she told us to stop calling her that, so now I call her over, and whisper it in her ear, and she twinkles with glee every time.

Anyway, lunch looked unappetizing, so I walked (in a fantastic cold that was so sharp I opened my jacket just to have myself a good shiver: sometimes a good shiver's as invigorating as twenty push-ups) to the sandwich shop near the school, where they know exactly what I want as soon as I walk in, because I always order the same thing. "Kuh-lop senduhweechee, cheejeuh bae-go, ahmaeleekah-no shirop manhee" means "club sandwich no cheese, cafe americano, lots of sugar" the lady smiled: she's seen me coming in there ordering over-sweet americanos since my first year in Korea, 2003, when they first opened, and her husband didn't know how to count out correct change yet -- if the sandwich and coffee was 4900 won, and you gave him 10000 won, he'd give you 6100 won back, or 3100, or 4900. He's much better now.

After the sandwich and coffee (takeout), back to school. More teaching, other stuff, then, after I left school, I popped by my house, picked something up, and headed out to Lotte Mart. You see, I like to hold a keyboard in my lap, but having an entire laptop in my lap is cumbersome and worrisome: what if I spell my coffee, or a sparrow flies into the apartment window and startles me, and I dump the computer on the floor? Yesterday, I bought a keyboard, plugged it in, only to discover that the J key was garbage: it didn't register when struck, unless you really cracked it, and it had a weird feel, different than the other keys. Unbearable, when you're trying to type fast -- like jogging with a stone in your shoe. By phone text message, I asked one of my Korean friends how to say "This keyboard had a broken key when I bought it. Please replace it." She sent the reply, and then I brought the keyboard away.

On the way to Lotte Mart, the taxi driver tried to rip me off, but I caught him before he could go past my destination. This made me feel half-annoyed that this kind of thing still happens, that the driver still sees white skin and thinks I'm some chump tourist whom he can filch by playing dumb, and half-pleased that I'm savvy enough to catch him heading the wrong way and ask him, in Korean, "why aren't you turning right?"

Then, I exchanged the keyboard easily, by showing the text message, the receipt, and the wonky "J" key to the fellow, but was stopped on my way to the escalator by another store clerk who didn't speak English, and didn't understand that I'd already exchanged the keyboard: they thought I still wanted to change the new one, and laughed at my broken Korean and body language. Finally, by going to the clerk who'd already made the exchange (who resolved the issue in three words), they got it, and let me go. I walked out of the store, noticed halfway home that they hadn't taken off the unit's anti-theft security tag, but also noticed that no alarms had gone off on my way home, anyway.

This is my life in Korea. The rule of twos still applies from time to time (in my first year I formulated the principle that every new thing you attempt here takes two tries to get it right, and any task you might want to do takes twice as long as it would in a country where everybody speaks English). Sometimes it's maddening, sometimes it's hilarious, sometimes it's just brilliant. In the end, it's not that much different, I suppose, than life just about anywhere.

Amy teases me about telling pointless stories, stories that don't go anywhere. But I don't think they are pointless. When she worked at the bakery, Mom used to come home every day, and tell some story or another about a grumpy, or a funny customer, or an order she nearly got wrong, but then luckily she re-counted the hot cross buns just before she put them in the box, or other such minute details.

The point of Mom's stories was not so much to teach me something new, or even (usually) to make me laugh. The point of them, I think, was more cumulative than specific -- it wasn't so much any one story she told me, as the fact she told stories about those little things. That said to me that the little things, the pointless uninteresting things, are worth noticing. They are the texture and rhythm of our daily lives, and they keep each day different from the next. If we notice them, suddenly our lives aren't a metronome-dull repetition of wake up, eat, work, eat, work, go home, free time, bed time -- our lives can instead be all cluttered with sounds and smells and personalities we never noticed before. In his book, Letters To A Young Poet, my favourite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote, "If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it, blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place." So maybe that's why I tell stories like these: not so much because I think you'll find them riveting; more because I want to be the kind of human being who notices them. In Seymour: An Introduction, J.D. Salinger (another of my favourite writers) says, "Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?" So forgive my rambling if it bores you. I'm just looking for those patches of holy ground.

Love:
Rob