Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Definition of Irony

Text message I got from a Korean friend of mine yesterday:

"Sorry. I can't meet you tonight for dinner. I have to study English."

Monday, November 27, 2006

Here are some of my favourite pictures of my students.

Tom might be the cutest boy in any of my classes. Speaks amazingly well too.

Ryan actually thinks he's Tigger. Sometimes he climbs out of his chair, and stands in front of me, bouncing like Tigger. I sang "The Tigger Song" to him and he almost fell over from dancing so hard.
I love the pure joy in Jessie's face here, and also in Cecilia's face on the next picture.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

November 25th 2006: More sad news and a long-awaited update.

Hi everybody. Thanks so much for continuing to care and hear about me. One of my other friends, who writes updates, kindly gave her readers an opt-out clause. I never have before, but here you go. If you don't read these anyway, or if you don't want them, or never liked me in the first place (ha ha ha), please feel free to reply, and ask me to take you off the list. I'm not a great correspondent, so being off this list doesn't mean I'll immediately start writing you personal e-mails -- this update is intended to keep people I care about in the loop, despite my bad record at keeping in touch. But that said, if you don't want the letters, feel free to opt out. I won't give you any grief if you're too busy, or if you feel like your life has moved on.

Since my last e-mail, things have been hectic, beginning with...

A trip to Shanghai -- fantastic city! Interesting regions, lots of french architecture, because it was originally built up by the
French. Huge difference between rich and poor there, but a fantastically engineered skyline and some really, really, really great food. Also, the internationals there (though maybe this was just because I moved around in the tourist areas) were a lot more varied than in Korea, it seemed. In Korea, most internationals are English speaking teachers or soldiers, or German-speaking tourists (to be really general). I heard snatches of all kinds of languages in Shanghai, and faces that looked like they came from all kinds of places.

My longtime coworker Heather had a baby! They're all healthy, and her husband Caleb Overstreet (you know him, Cheryl) is so cute when he talks about being a daddy. Suddenly he turned about five times softer and sweeter. My brother once told me about one of his friends seeing his first child for the first time, saying "a whole new section of my heart opened up", and I've seen Caleb change once that new section opened in his heart. It's amazing. It's difficult for me to wax eloquent about such a thing because I've only seen the effect and not experienced it, except to say that anybody I've ever asked about it (including a
brand-new grandfather) still steadfastly tells me that seeing your own kids for the first time is one of the most transformative events in your life. Maybe sometime I'll get a chance to experience that. (Now don't everybody think I'm dropping hints or fixing to settle down by that -- this is just to say that I've been seriously touched by this parenthood thing.) Having seen how parenthood (or coming parenthood) has changed a handful of my friends (and more every year), it's a beautiful thing, the way their roots suddenly, so effortlessly deepen, and their lives suddenly have another meaning added to it, and a meaning that comes completely out of love. It also helps me understand how some of the parents I deal with in the preschool have so little perspective on their kids -- "Well, he's really a good boy -- he just has a little problem hitting his classmates and stealing their toys and ripping pages out of books for attention and whining when he's punished -- but he has a sweet heart inside."

As Heather's due date approached, the doctor's order for her to stop teaching and rest added a whole new wrinkle to the whole
work situation. Our boss didn't manage to find a replacement on time, so first I had to teach overtime to fill in for some of her classes, and then the replacement he did find. . .

None of the teachers at the school got a good feeling about the e-mails she sent, but we didn't really do much about it at the time. Then, she arrived. Her name was Angi. She was older than the rest of us, and an extremely intense person. We'd have a beer together and she'd want to have more, go to another place, go to the clubbing district, and go until six AM. Somehow, every time she talked to my boss, it turned into a shouting, crying fit -- I've never seen a relationship get to explosive so quickly before. She made unreasonable demands that were outside the contract's parameters, she lost the receipt for her airplane ticket, when my boss had sent her money to buy it. If she didn't get what she wanted, right away, she'd blow up, and turn extremely rude. Meanwhile, she showed up late for work regularly, smoked in our building (which is against the law), and basically made the workplace very stressful.

She got herself fired in only three weeks, which is remarkable. Really remarkable. Considering how expensive it is to get a western teacher out to Korea, to have Mr. Kim willing to cut his losses and get her out of the school community after such a short time shows how negative her influence was on the school, in just about every way.

So, I was back to teaching overtime until we could find another replacement. Meanwhile, the school's new academic supervisor
had her first September, which is the beginning of a new semester, and she had to learn the ropes while juggling new classes, new books, and hundreds of phone calls from parents who wanted their kids in a higher level. As she was busy, she passed the SLP Speech Contest completely over to me. So, I was working overtime, organizing a schoolwide contest, and trying to hold together a preschool program with a new teacher, and a missing teacher. My roommate Antony was a champ for filling in for as long as he did, working twelve hour days without complaining. Finally, Lorraine came, and she's worked out really well, and my schedule, since the Speech Contest finished (on my birthday), has returned to normal just in time for next year's preschool recruiting season.

All that to say, I've been busy. It's been an adventurous time. Melissa, my old roommate, left, and her replacement is great. I like Amy quite a bit. We miss Melissa, of course, but Amy's nice too.

Since mid-August, if you asked me about my life, I'd tell you that I was too busy to do the things I loved in life.

Too busy to see friends, too busy to spend huge tracts of time alone in coffee shops, too busy to take long walks, do yoga, and write poetry.

Then I'd tell you about the bright spot in my life:

When Melissa left, she introduced me to a family she knew. The two daughters were Sally and Lisa, and Sally is a certifiable genius. She taught herself English, and now she speaks it, and writes it, better than most native speakers her age. She's nine, and she reads books written for 12-15 year-olds.

here's a video clip from a movie I saw (one of my favorites) about a Korean girl who signs up for English lessons. Sally
appears in it. Wait for the clip to upload, and then skip to about the 8:20 mark, and you can see her. The movie was made in 2003, so she's a bit older now, but you get the idea.

[the video has been taken down, due to copyright violations]

That's Sally saying "Your English is terrible."

She's sweet and smart and awesome. Her tutor is teaching her advanced writing -- formal writing in particular -- because her mom wants her to score perfect on the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) also known as the test whose score will determine whether second-language English speakers can qualify for North American Universities. She scored nearly perfect on the TOEIC (Test Of English for International Communication), which is business focussed, rather than academic, and will earn you a job, rather than a spot in a university.

The first day we met, Lisa (the younger sister) was going through a book, and we were reading about Camels, and talking about Kiwi, and the phrase "Kiwi the Camel" came up. We thought that would be a good name for a character in a children's story. We decided to write a story about Kiwi the Camel -- I said "If you write me a story about Kiwi the Camel, I'll write one for you."

Next time I saw them, Lisa (the seven year old) told me a short story. Sally gave me a five-page long first chapter for a book about Kiwi the Camel! I agreed to write the second chapter, she wrote the third, I wrote the fourth, and so we'll go until we finish the story. Sally's funny, bright, inquisitive, and she soaks up everything I can tell her, and teaches ME stuff on the way. She's one of the three coolest ten-year-olds I've ever met. Maybe the number one!

Her younger sister Lisa was the funniest little thing. Seven years old, she earned the nickname Giggles in no time, and made me laugh out loud. She also liked storytelling, and we'd get into silly little tangents about one thing and another, and she'd draw little pictures in her or get into teasing, tickling fights with her sister. I was utterly charmed. See the attached pictures of Sally and Lisa.

Then, last Tuesday, I went to a Sauna with Caleb, and when I came out, I had two missed calls from Sally. I called back, and her grandmother answered the phone, didn't speak English, so passed the phone to Sally.

"Hi Sally how are you?"
"Not so good."
"Oh. Well what's up?"
"Guess where Lisa went." (Sally always has a roundabout
way of giving news.)
"To Thailand?" (I always give silly answers first when Sally
says, "guess what?")
"This is serious, Rob." (That was when I noticed her sad, tired voice.)
"Is she OK? Did she go to the hospital?"
"Rob, there was an accident with a bus. Lisa went to heaven."

A seven-year-old I know got killed by a careless bus driver! The family is absolutely devastated. On Wednesday I arrived at their house at my usual time, armed with a present for Sally, a card, and a lot of spaghetti sauce, for days when they don't feel like cooking. Everybody looked pretty rough, Mom and sister especially. I'll go back again next Wednesday, and then the challenge is to figure out how much a goofy Canadian can do in this situation.

Because I'm older, and not a long-time acquaintance, it changes what I can and can't do, but I've been through the wringer of loss just recently, so at least I know what not to do, and I know how cloying it is when people say "I can help you." I guess I'll take most of my signals from Sally, and if she wants to talk, I'll do my best to listen kindly, and if she doesn't, I'll just be around, and be steady. Steady's nice, too.

It's sad that a kid as young as Sally has to go through such a loss, and even worse that a kid like Lisa can be taken away so young. The random, arbitrariness by which some people die young and other live out their lives, by which some people's lives are just loaded up with death and others never lose anybody (I knew a girl named Erin who lost her brothers to malaria at age 10, and lost her parents in a plane crash at age 20), makes it difficult to make any sense of things that happen. Maybe that's the idea -- maybe we aren't supposed to make sense of it. Maybe it's just too big, too mysterious for us to say anything about it at all. Maybe the thing we learn from most deaths is simply that everybody dies.

I have a friend who stopped believing in God not long ago, and she said the main difference in her life (other than her Sunday routine) is that now she's afraid of dying.

Another of my dear friends just found out her dear step-father has terminal cancer.

And I just can't think of anything else to say.

Anyway, that's what's been on my mind lately.

My father spent two days in the hospital: there was some bleeding somewhere in his body, but it's healed up. I hope he'll be OK.

Take care, everyone.

love: Rob
(look for cute student stories and Engrish follies below)

Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise.
-Rainer Maria Rilke-
Ninth Elegy

(here is the cute students section of the letter. I wanted
to put a clear break between this and the rest. I almost
wanted to put them in a separate e-mail)

"David, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A scientist."
"What kind of scientist? An animal scientist? A rock
scientist? A dinosaur scientist?"
"I want to be a make yummy food and chocolate scientist."
"You want to be a food scientist."
"Yes. Food scientist."
"Well maybe you can give me some of your yummy food!"
"No teacher. You can buy in the store."

"My daddy has a Christmas car. It's a Santa Fe"

Ten plus five is fifteen. Ten plus six is sixteen. Ten plus Ryan is Ryanteen!

Instead of activity book, my kid said "Get out your captivity book." -- and he actually knew what captivity was! He made that joke on purpose!

I taught them "silly billy". Next time I was giving silly answers to questions instead of straight answers, my kid reprimanded me saying, "Teacher, don't say a billy silly!"

and my favorite wasn't from a student. It was at the Chinese Circus I saw in Shanghai. There were signs around the auditorium saying "please turn off your cellphone and don't bring bombs" (maybe they meant flashbulbs)

It made me laugh: why haven't US airlines thought of this? Just put up a sign and that'll end all danger on flights! You could put it next to the seatbelt sign and the "no smoking" sign that never turns off.

Imagine the dialogues.
Head Attendant: "Excuse me, sir, I'll have to ask you to
return to your chair and stop threatening the flight attendants.
You'll notice that the 'No Terrorism' light is still on in the cabin."
Terrorist: "Oh. Oops. My bad." (Returns to chair, embarrassed.)

Here are pictures of Sally, and Lisa, who was killed.