Upon entering Myun Young High School for boys, Ms. Jeong instructs me to take off my shoes and choose a pair of the communal plastic sandals stacked in rows along worn wooden racks. She leads me up the four flights to the teachers’ room where in the stairwell we traverse passed onrushing throngs of greasy, pockmarked boys. Sporadically one bursts “hello,” or “fuck you,” and anonymously giggles onwards in the swarm of disheveled school uniforms. Ms. Jeong pretends to ignore them, while I smile uncertainly and struggle not to catch my suit pants in the back of my slippers.
We enter a large teachers’ room and walk passed a teacher berating two boys. He is purple-faced and screaming down at them inches from their sobbing faces. Walking down the main corridor another student curls on the cracked linoleum floor as two teachers take turns clubbing him with sticks. It reminds me of the Rodney King beating. Neither Ms. Jeong nor the scattered teachers shuffling papers at their desks takes notice. Further down a student lays motionless with his hands on the floor and elbows locked as if about to perform a push-up, but his legs are propped up high behind him in a window’s ledge so his torso is propelled downward at a 45-degree. He struggles not to collapse. A teacher momentarily spins around in his wheeled chair and inspects the boy approvingly.
At the end of the hall a benevolently beaming Mr. Li bows towards us in welcome, introducing himself as Myun Young’s head English teacher.
Sparing any social graces of small talk, he cranes his neck and closes his eyes in sudden deep thought, and then asks in broken, slurred English if you can use the word “homework” as a verb. Trying to match his intensity and sternness, I carefully respond that I don’t think so. And then more definitively I confirm that in fact you cannot. He nods firmly as if the matter is settled. But he again suddenly falls captive to his subconscious, and begins audibly humming with perplexity before finally querying, “Which is better to say, my mother likes to farm or my mother likes farming?” Before I can answer, his train of thought is interrupted by the school bell, and following its command brusquely turns to gather a textbook, cassette recorder and wooden switch. “This is a ‘love stick,’” he burbles, and hands me the items. “If a student is sleeping you hit the hands or the neck.” And he demonstrates with a closed fist in the air the desired force, and smiles.
I follow him and Ms. Jeong into a classroom of 50 or 60 unruly boys, who as we enter scatter towards their desks or lunge awake from deep sleep before all abruptly standing at attention. Mr. Li shouts at a few of them disinterestedly as he walks to the lectern where he continues hollering.
When he introduces me his demeanor softens, his countenance becoming near angelic, which makes him appear only the more maniacal. Mr. Li instructs the group to be seated and open their books.
From atop the platform I gaze across the dim room into the blur of indistinguishable faces. My pulsating nerves replace any desire for the moment to pass, which for days has been percolating with dread. I feel unfamiliarly vulnerable standing on stage in front of a room of strangers and sweating in a suit and slippers, but I finally manage to wobble and blurt out, “Good morning.” In unison a thunderous chorus echoes back my greeting.
Mr. Li observes the students with militant scrutiny and Ms. Jeong cues the cassette.
“Charlie knows those boys swimming in the river,” the tape blares and then continues to crackle in silence.
Ms. Jeong signals the go-ahead for me to repeat this to the class, and so I do. “Charlie knows those boys swimming in the river.” And the group bursts back at me in a garbled refrain. I peer at the open book on the podium and find these words written under Exercise 1, Question 1.
Question 2 reads, “Some of the boys are Charlie’s pupils.” And then through weak tweeters this sentence becomes audible. So I repeat it now too.
“Some of the boys are Charlie’s pupils,” the boys roar back.
Either satisfied or bored, Mr. Li leaves the room and Ms. Jeong dutifully follows. I could not be more relieved. I hit ‘Stop’ on the cassette and return to the front of the room.
“How are you?” I shout with a smile.
“How are you!” they bellow back with broken laughter.
The dank room quickly exudes some levity.
It is surreal and fantastic. With this liberation a compulsion comes over me, and without hesitation I am just compelled to yelp, ”Fuck you!”
Nothing has ever sounded as distinctly beautiful as a packed house screaming ‘Fuck you’ at me. Seventeen years later it still fondly resonates.
I playfully raise the ‘love stick’ as to strike, and the animated boys relax in the hilarity.
This is my first time in Asia, and I have been in Kangnung only two days, and this is the first class I have ever taught.