Friday, May 15, 2009

Meet the Kids

Today marks the end of my third month here in Korea.  The journey has had it's ups and downs, my ability to enjoy the adventure specifically has gone through comfort and crisis, but throughout it all the one thing that's kept me grounded has been the kids under my care.  Before coming to Korea my teaching experience was limited to substitute teaching where I would only really get to babysit a group of children one time for 45 minutes and then after the bell rang accept a whole new group of strangers.  Now though I am lucky enough to be able to watch a group of boys and girls mature before my eyes over a long period of time, day in and day out.  It's a truly humbling experience when I think on who these kids were when I first met them, or for that matter, who I was.

Bottom Row, from left: Joonsuh, Eileen, Jenny, Ariel, and Aaron.
Top Row, from left: Rachel, Eugene, Tony, and your humble scribe.

This picture was taken at Jenny's birthday party.  When I assumed the class a few months ago they had already been at LCI Kid's Club for two years and had only been taught by female teachers.  The transition towards accepting me took a couple weeks.  Mainly the boys were so excited to see another bigger boy and the girls were almost totally confused.  In addition to my naivety as an instructor there was also the cultural distinction of having only previously taught in the American Public School System which stresses absolutely NO PHYSICAL CONTACT with the children of any kind.  In Korea they do not believe in this however.  They believe in something that roughly translates to "skin-tact," which means playing with the children, picking them up, kissing them on the forehead, and basically showing them decent and deserved human affection.  Something, because of my previous experiences, I was reticent and basically inexperienced in my capacity to provide.  

When the first few weeks were going on the kids would grab me, wrap themselves around my leg, kiss me, and the whole time my instinct was to look into the security camera above our heads and mouth "I'm not touching them..."  As you can imagine this caused the kids and myself a great deal of confusion.  My supervisor would get calls from the parents saying things like, "(so and so) doesn't think Alan Teacher loves her/him."  My supervisor, who lived in England for about five years, understood my hesitations and just explained that in the culture I'm from I could get sued or thrown in jail if I touched a kid in what my culture would honestly see as inappropriate.  So for my education as an instructor one of the first things I had to learn was it's okay to kiss the kids and hug them and play.  It took almost 3 weeks to shake me out of my preconceptions and since then the connection between the students and I is almost palpable.  I genuinely can say I love these children and feel their affection towards me, so much so that discipline in class is not an issue like it was in the first month.  They don't want to let me down.  It's interesting how disarming a hug can be isn't it?

The personalities of the children never cease to surprise and entertain me.  Jenny's mother is an English teacher herself and has been a huge help in explaining her daughter to me.  At first glance you could say after watching Mrs. J's behavior that she is a little precocious, yet she is an only child and a damn smart one at that.  Over time I see she wants love from as many people as she can get it from, a situation I think we can all relate to.  Eileen is the quiet artist with a fantastic drawing style who likes to write poems in English and Korean.  Her parents are already in their early 60's which I think gives her that unique perspective growing up with people who, by this point, probably have a few more things figured out then the rest of us.  Ariel, here in her silly monkey face, is the daughter of a Doctor and a Nurse and is scarily intelligent.  Already proficient at the head of the class in English she is now focusing her attention on Chinese.  Her ability to remember the lessons after one day amazes me, much less her propensity towards multiplication in Kindergarten!  

Ahhh Eugene.  Mr. Eugene is an incredibly energetic only child that has the funniest voice I have ever heard on a kid.  I cannot tell if there's some cleft sinus condition or if he's just got a naturally deep nasally voice but he sounds much older than a child of 7 years old (6 in Western aging) should.  He is almost incapable of sitting still and if I were to play pop psychologist I think he has ADHD.  I find it interesting that if Eugene were raised in my culture he would have been given Riddlin by this point and maybe even taken to a psychologist but over here they do not believe in diagnosing such things, especially for children, because of the shame it brings on yourself and your family.  I cannot say which is better because I've seen plenty of people in the West over analyze and over prescribe these conditions and drugs to children whereas here the exact opposite is true.  Not to sound like a Scientologist but I think putting kids on psycho-chemical drugs is stupid and harmful, however, I don't think acknowledging a child's situation and working with them on conquering it through therapy is a bad thing either.  In the meantime I just work on corralling this tornado everyday to sit in his seat and focus on the work at hand.  Like other things here (and everywhere for that matter), going to English school is a status symbol and Eugene, Aaron, and Rachel, despite being amazingly adorable and good natured children, really shouldn't have been pushed through to the highest level Kindergarten class as their abilities are almost a full year below their classmates.  But English is a business here and if the parents are willing to pay almost a million WON a month, in the top level class they will go.  Besides, I truly don't know where I would be without hearing this manly nasally voice coming out of a 7 year old every morning going, "Hey Al."

Ariel has adopted a silly monkey face whenever there is a camera around now.

Tony is a fantastically adorable child that's been the test for me in terms of bullying.  There has to be one in every class right?  The thing is he doesn't mean to be so mean but whenever there is playtime he will go in elbows blazing and knock everyone else flat on their ass to get to the toy blocks first.  Girl, boy, it doesn't matter, if you're in Tony's way you're getting knocked out.  Also he is not ironically one of the most sensitive of the children and one of the few left that's prone to crying almost daily, specifically because he thinks everyone doesn't like him.  I'm always reminded of a phrase my brother told me when his son came into the world: with children logic goes right out the window.  Of course they think you're a jerk Tony, you grab stuff out of their hands and scream "MINE!" or laugh at them like a hobgoblin to make them feel bad if they're proud of themselves over a drawing or classwork.  So instead of using logic I use the tried and true method of rewards and demerits under the moniker of "stickers."  Everytime you're a prick you lose one sticker.  Every time you share and don't drop down from the top ropes onto a girl because she's got the "telephone block" you get a sticker.  Three months have gone by and it's finally starting to settle in.  

This was at the end of the day and Aaron and Rachel look less than amused.  Joonsuh is in his fighting pose ready to strike which is ironic considering what a gentle giant he is.  Joonsuh is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Tony.  He is a very large child, dense too, he must weigh almost 80 pounds at this point, and most other children think he is at least 9 or 10.  This frustrates him being only 7 years old but translates into his personality nicely as he is one of best mannered and behaved students in the class.  He always shares, puts out fights, never tattletales, and genuinely wants to learn.  It's interesting how class dynamics work and am always thankful that there's a Joonsuh or Ariel in my class to inspire the others.  

Three months have come an gone already.  It's incredible to think back on them.  It feels more like three years.  As much as the children are learning their English lessons, I'm learning twice as much on how to be a successful teacher towards them.  Seeing which avenues of attack yield the greatest results and which lead you face first into a brick wall.  I also heard from others that you don't know yourself until you've had a child.  I haven't been blessed with my own children yet but having adopted these eight kids these last few months I have certainly come face to face with my greatest strengths and been shamed by my greatest weaknesses.  Nothing, I've come to realize, dispels our illusions about ourselves like seeing how a child actually perceives you.  I thought I had patience, I was wrong.  I thought I was overflowing with compassion, ohhhh I was wrong.  Yet throughout this I have seen one truth about myself reflected through their comfort and behavior which makes me feel like I'm on the right path.

I am genuine.  

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