By Katherine Moncure, ETA ’16-’17
Today is my second day of tutoring with North Korean defectors, and I have absolutely nothing planned. Yes, I know that’s pretty bad. During the week, I teach at an all-girls high school and last week I tutored older students, but today I’m switched to a room with five boys somewhere between ages seven and nine. I’m already sweating.
These little boys can barely hold themselves in a chair. I take a deep breath. They ignore me completely, speaking in Korean and wrestling each other as my friend Emma and I try to get their attention. “Okay! Yay! Okay! Hello!” We both have absurd smiles glued to our faces as one of them glances at us, then keeps speaking Korean. Emma and I pat on the desk and their chairs, and a couple more students break their conversations to look toward us. A young Korean woman walks in to help, and she calls them each by name and gets them to be quiet for about 30 seconds. “My name is Katherine! Katherine!” They stare blankly and then gradually slip away.
“My name!” I try to shout over them. “My name is Kae-suh-reen! Kae-suh-reen!”
“Chicken!” they all laugh. “Chicken chicken!”
“Kae-suh-reen!” I reply. But honestly, “chicken” is English so it’s close enough.
Whenever I have a crazy lesson, I always think back to my first time in a formal classroom. It was senior year of college, when I volunteered to teach second graders immersion-style Spanish using a lot of hand motions, repetition and context. Our official training wasn’t until after the first week, so the organizers pulled together a short meeting to make sure we weren’t totally clueless before starting. Still, I felt like I was going in cold.
I arrived at school that day to find out that the teacher I was supposed to assist (and the one who had a lesson plan) was in a meeting that day and there was a substitute instead. The substitute teacher was a small, middle-aged woman who sat in the corner of the classroom. “Do you know Spanish?” I asked her. She laughed.
“No. Good luck.”
Before I had time to react, little kids streamed into the classroom and I could feel my heart rate increase. There were 23 of them, so I figured I could kill 23 minutes on names?
The little boys struggle to move to the carpet, and I quickly realize they cannot stand still in a circle and act like miniature adults, as I assumed they would. I think we can get them to learn Simon Says, and Emma and I start yelling the names of body parts. “Head! Head! Nose! Nooooose!” I shout about my nose as if I’ve just discovered it on my body, right there below my eyes. Sticking it up in the air, I jab it with my pointer finger, momentarily going cross-eyed to look at it. Two boys are still in their chairs—one has completely given up and has his face down on the table, refusing to speak to anyone. Another boy is half on the chair and half on the floor, his feet slowly sliding across the tile.
Two kids on the carpet start wrestling again, and one of them pretends to have a gun. I pause from trying to play Simon Says. Oh no, toxic masculinity already setting in. When I look at the boys as a group, they remind me of the musical scene from Charlie Brown Christmas, where all the Peanuts flop around in a weird sort of dance. Except right now, these little boys are pulling at each other’s shirts, and this is not a musical. This is the real life version. I glance at Emma, who seems to be just as lost as I am, and when I turn back to the boys, one of them is on the floor crying.
After finishing “me llamo,”1 I looked at the 23 little kids on the floor in front of me. I had nothing left, and I had contributed a total of 23 minutes of service to public education. They looked back at me. I looked at the clock. It hadn’t moved much. Someone once told me that a good transition for young kids is standing up or sitting down. “Levántate!”2 I yelled and motioned with my hands to stand up. Feeling like a magician, I commanded the sea to rise. Once the whole class was up, I paused and said, “Y… siéntate!”3 They all sat down again.
“Levántate!” And up again. “Siéntate!” And down again. “Levántate!… Siéntate!”
We kept going like this for a while until some of them started to look confused. Thankfully, I remembered that we did “Simón dice”4 in our short training meeting.
“Quieren jugar Simón dice?”5 I asked them.
“Simón dice! Simón dice!” they chanted. This was an obvious winner.
I let them take turns being Simón, but after about 10 minutes they got bored. We stopped, and one girl burst into tears.
Apparently, she didn’t get to be Simón. Her scrunched up, tear-streaked face stared me down from across the circle. Uhhhhh, oh god, oh god. I could feel myself getting sweatier now, the magic gone, to the point where I was sure the kids could smell my nervous body odor. Kids can smell fear, right?
“Ahh, pobrecita! Estás bien?”6 She continued to stare at me. “Estás bien?” I repeated, and I did a thumbs up and thumbs down hand motion.
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SAYING!” she shouted across the circle.
I shouldn’t speak English, right? That’s not allowed?
“Quieres un abrazo?”7 I held my arms open, gesturing a hug. Reluctantly accepting, she stopped crying.
I later found out that hugging students, or touching of any kind, is generally accepted as a Big Time Bad Idea in the United States. Who knew?
Emma checks her watch. 15 minutes to go. The crying boy gets ushered outside by the Korean woman who’s been translating for us. I watch him walk out, and his head is so big for his little-kid body, I wonder how it stays on.
The kids can’t handle the carpet, so we move back to the table. I am determined to teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” even though I’m terrible at singing, and my sudden start seems to draw their attention. At “mouth and nose,” my voice nearly cracking, I sing louder because maybe the louder I get, the more they’ll learn, right? Emma and I stick our feet up on the table every time we say “toes” and one of the boys is really into this—he sticks his feet up too.
The only song I knew in Spanish was about feet, and it was called “Pies.”8 The lyrics to “Pies” were pretty simple: “Pies pies pies, pies pies, pies pies!” (Clap clap). Stomping our feet into the carpet, we jumped around chanting. After a few repeats, finally, magically, we were down to the end of class.
All the students stood up and formed a line to leave the classroom. A lot of them were smiling. Like they had fun? And learned how to say “feet”? They turned toward me and waved goodbye before shuffling out. I collapsed into one of the tiny chairs. It didn’t fit my hips, but I could make it work.
The last few minutes with these boys are eaten away by our efforts to keep them in their seats. Emma and I look at each other before edging toward the door. “Is it time to go?” I ask.
“Yeah it’s time.”
“Okay…so… we can go?”
Emma nods and glances at the students. They’re in their own worlds, talking to each other. For a moment I imagine the past 45 minutes as some kind of alternate reality, where I was actually the baby here, shouting random sounds at them as they speak a sophisticated language I’m still learning.
And then one boy pushes his palm straight into another boy’s face.
“Goodbye!” Emma and I wave our hands. They all suddenly seem aware of our presence, as if they had forgotten we were there.
“Insa!”9 the woman commands. They look up one by one before tumbling onto the rug.
We walk out. One lesson down, 11 to go. I think about the weeks after my first Spanish class at Oberlin, and how the little girl who cried later became the most eager class participant. By the end of what had become a unit on body parts, she could remember more Spanish anatomy words than I could. For five minutes of my last class with them, I broke the Spanish rule to say my final goodbye. “She speaks English! I knew it!” someone shouted. There were audible gasps. On my way out the door, they barrelled into me with a group hug, one that I was allowed to accept.
Fellow teacher Riki meets us outside the NKD classroom. “Did you survive?” she asks, and Emma and I laugh. “Yeah, we did.” Maybe this will turn into a body parts unit too.
Katherine Moncure is a 2016-2017 ETA at Weongwang Girls’ High School in Iksan, Jeollabuk-do.