Perhaps the first mistake I made when traveling to Korea in the summer of 2003 was to have gone at all. I’d only taken the job when, at degree’s end, I had to choose between teaching English in a foreign country and teaching math in Los Angeles. Both jobs had an element of the outlandish for a liberal arts major like me. I hadn’t done math since my freshman year in college; then again, I hadn’t lived in Korea since emigrating at age three. I finally took up the offer to teach at the Hanyoung Foreign Language High School in Seoul partly because I took a missed deadline as a sign; partly because the pay was good; and partly because—well, I thought I’d teach those poetry-stricken sixteen year olds a thing or two about what I loved best.
Anyone “reading” the contents of my luggage would have predicted certain failure. Among other indispensables (four pounds of powdered coffee, Stayfree sanitary pads and a Banana Republic-style wardrobe), they consisted of the collected poems of James Merrill, the complete short stories of John Cheever and volume two of the three volume “Vladimir Nabokov” set published by the Library of America (Novels: 1955-1963). These writers meant something to me. I read and re-read them the way other people apply remedies. During my M.A. year at Stanford, I studied concepts (the book as a material object, the economics of the whaling industry) in class and read “The Country Husband” as an antidote. After all the talk on books, and books on books, it was restorative to just read. It was a homecoming, of sorts. I’d grown up in a household in which the single TV was an object for respect and occasion, like the formal dining room. Instead, we read. We read everything from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, to the Compton’s encyclopedia set to the backs of cereal boxes during mealtimes—when books were specifically barred from the table. We read—to use a phrase that was then cliché—for fun.
The fact that my students never read except out of obligation didn’t mean they weren’t sophisticated, even brilliant, readers of sorts. The Seoul they lived in was like culture on speed, with messages digital, subliminal, animate or otherwise coming at them from every conceivable source. These they were able to process and sort with a kind of adolescent insouciance. Just those adsadsads! Clear skin; American movies; SAT scores, guaranteed! Entire logotopias of Louis Vuitton monogram-laced bags, wallets, key chains and dog collars. Mad Burberry check in polys and acryls. The city entire vibrated with implication and cross-implication. 33,591,800 cell-phones rang and 29.22 million people surfed the net. At banks, malls, subways and buses, electro-cordial voices provided blithe instructions: “Dear guests,” “warning,” “thank you”, and all manners of machines tinkled, chimed and erupted in euphemism or bird song. The very air sang significance.
I had been as isolated as possible from this virtual-revolution, emerging after nearly a decade from the only place where the material book still, well, mattered: academia. Things had changed since my Smith Corona days, but I couldn’t anticipate to what extent. That much was evident in the books I was passing through customs, books that contained lines as modest and measured as this, from Merrill’s “Lost in Translation”:
…In that loss a self-effacing tree
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.
I was convinced that in this modern day blurt and abundance, such lines still needed to be afforded time and space, to be allowed to co-exist, to work their subtle undermining.
The problem of why students don’t read is, I suspect, most perplexing to those entrusted with its solution: their teachers. Many of us decide to teach literature because we were avid readers at an early age. Books were our first love. We learned to take them for granted. Then we stand in front of an unconvinced audience that will suffer the homework but never succumb to the book. Such a burden of articulation takes its toll on any romance. As for the young skeptics, they not only don’t like books but also are scared of them, with a fear that, ironically enough, stems from faith. Non-readers believe in books the way readers don’t. They feel that somewhere in the imperturbable, non-negotiable face of the printed word, there is such a thing as a definitive interpretation.
Nowhere is this peculiar mix of deference and distaste better exemplified than in South Korea, a country that, for its 97.9% literacy rate, blatantly considers education a means to an end. Much of the country still looks to the west as the ultimate measure of their success; as a result, English is capital; the ability to teach it, exceedingly profitable. The fact remains that there are no uniquely Korean words for society’s more modern innovations (kum-pyu-tuh, T.B.), and even the school bells “speak English,” ringing “Oh give me a home” at the end of each class period. In such a culture, certain words take on a marketable magic that, for many, supply their only authentic experience of the poetic: Harvard. Princeton. Yale.
The Hanyoung Foreign Language School, far from being an exception, is one of the most elite vendors of such promises. Located a few subway stops from central Seoul, it consists of an iron-gated stone building flanked by two vaguely Hellenic statutes. Bronze eagles strain from the rooftop on visible wire stays. Classes begin promptly at 7:20 AM and many don’t end until 10:00 PM. There are, on average, forty students per class, studying in rooms with knockabout sliding doors that haven’t yet grown into their grooves, and the florescent lights expose scarred walls on which not a thing is hanging—except, perhaps, a framed, yellowing paper flag. What windows exist mostly look out into the hall: the etc. etc. etc. of more doors like yours, and are so high and narrow as to obscure even that view. Essays are measured by the density of characters on the page and are punitive in nature—as is garbage duty.
The students at Hanyoung are some of the brightest and richest in Seoul, and those in the overseas program (O.S.P.), the brightest and richest among them. Under the O.S.P. mantra, “Make your dreams come true,” these kids take on the challenge of attending an American university with the precocious, grim determination of gymnasts. They sleep on average four or five hours a night. They memorize a hundred vocabulary words a day. They deliberately implement such words in casual conversation. I once had a girl say of another, “Her skirt is not a very pragmatic length,” in an effort to be snide.
On my first day, I walked into a class full of model students sporting irreproachable expressions. In their uniforms (burgundy: girls, navy: boys), they looked younger than their age (sixteen to eighteen), and their arranged look around a central table made them seem credulous, teachable, and somehow complicit. For all their navy and burgundy decorum, I sensed that there was something behind those faces, patient as they were for the duration of the class clock, exposed as they were to the glare and buzz of the light. There was something in that silence of a challenge. It was the same challenge that kept a teacher friend of mine up every night before the first day of class—and this, after fifteen years on the job. It was the same challenge I’d encountered in Europe, when my Swiss B & B host (an engineer) said in response to what I studied: “You mean, novels?” It was the same challenge that goaded the novelist, Jonathan Franzen, to lament the state of reading in a Harper’s article that was read by the only segment of the public that wasn’t part of the problem (“Perchance to Dream,” later reprinted as, “Why Bother?”). That challenge facing every teacher, book vendor, lit major and would-be writer was this: So what?
“So what” is the true test of the teacher. If the students themselves find the question largely rhetorical; if, in their truculence, indifference—or even deference, there really isn’t anything of expectation; if they do what they’re told simply to get where they’re going, it is nonetheless the teacher’s duty to attempt an answer. This only gets more and more difficult as technology outpaces education. My students were of a global information age and fluently spoke a third language that I, the instructor, would never master. They were the real experts at communication. They knew all about I.M.-ing, texting and programming; they spoke in hyper-text and meta-text; they understood representation, sublimation and the loaded term; they were masters of signs and symbols; they were brief and succinct; they spoke in bytes, RAM, c:/ and :-).
For all my Merrill and Nabokov, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what would possibly engage these techno-sophisticates. In the following weeks, I embarked on a spontaneous, haphazard curriculum that should have caused consternation among my supervisors—but didn’t. I tried to teach Waiting for Godot, which the school illegally reprinted using a sky, clouds, meadow motif on the cover, but found that adolescents, especially driven ones, had little interest in existential despair: they were too busy wanting things. When one of the more popular students acted the part of Lucky, using her striped scarf as a leash, all hope was lost and the tragicomedy rapidly turned to farce.
I tried having the students unscramble the following famous set of words by William Carlos Williams:
so depends water glazed rain wheel with much
a red white chickens beside barrow upon the
in an effort to illustrate the aesthetics of economy and objectivism, only to find the kids liked solving the puzzle but didn’t much care for the resulting poem. In their virtual reality, there was little impetus for considering a poem’s materiality. They didn’t find such poems, well, poems.
I tried Herrick and Poe, Blake and Frost. I tried “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which the students found particularly confusing. They spent every waking moment in the disciplined pursuit of a very public ambition. They had no time for secret lives.
Ultimately, there were only two discussions that genuinely captured their attention: one was sex. (“Teacher, have you ever kissed anyone?” asked Geunho who, having moved from England, had retained his accent—and his cheek. “Sexual appeal,” put the class on their list of cultural values. “A most personable sense,” wrote a student when analyzing Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” “like pleasurable sex ;-).” I didn’t know how to control such discussions; rather, I suffered them.) The other was Americana. (“Do the students in America dress hip-hop style?” “Where, exactly, is Swarthmore?” “Do you think Jennifer Aniston is pretty?”) By the way one discussion would bleed into the next, I suspected that my students believed there was some correlation between the two.
In the end, I realized that kids were kids. At class’ end, I’d hardly have time to gather my things before they had dropped the polite form of address (along with matching voice, facial expression) and spontaneously regrouped. Girls went off, arm in arm, giggling. Boys shouted insults (“You, you, you…virgin!” said one, near tears after losing a Harry Potter debate), smacked each other across the back and checked out girls. The shy ones, I realized, were not necessarily shy. Classroom propriety was something just barely erected, and subject to some happy, natural law of collapse.
Editing these essays was something I looked forward to. It gave me the relevance these Western authors couldn’t provide. If ever there was a pertinent subject, if ever there was an interested party, it was you, yourself. What more self-evident topic was there for an essay? And if students about to acquire a diploma’s worth of English language education couldn’t write a five- to six-hundred word piece on “a significant experience” or “a topic of (their) choice,” then what, if anything, had they learned?
My first tutee, Bokki, came into class with a long personal statement about an apple tree: “The greatest creature God created is an apple tree,” the essay began. “(I) want to imitate the tree’s “marvelous fruition, and to harvest off its low exuberant branches charming red apples.” He was the sort of boy you’d call “a good kid.” His cushy face, ready smile and also-smiling eyes made him seem honest, affable and eager to please. When he lightly perspired, his glasses slightly fogged. He always expressed concern for the teacher (“your teacher-ness,” in the idiom): had she eaten, would she take these dumplings. But for all his essay’s didactic lessons on sticking to your goals and maintaining “perspiration,” there was something off about it. It wasn’t that he had chosen to write a personal statement on apples. It was that he hadn’t written it at all.
I regret to this day the way I responded, with my customary tentativeness, tact and what was essentially non-response. The other students took it for granted. They were products of a culture in which 27% of teachers admitted to accepting bribes (according to the Korea Federation of Teachers’ Associations), families spent on average 1000 US dollars a month on tutoring costs, and your future financial success was largely determined by the brand-name of your education. When Bokki stopped by one day to explain, in a courteous and circuitous manner, that he would no longer come to class because of the “boo-dam” (the Korean is hard to translate but has something in it of irksome responsibility and burden), a second tutee expressed envy.
Bokki’s departure left me feeling defeated. For all my amateur but earnest efforts, my students were still saying “so what”—not only to gothic short stories and the objectivist school of poetry, but also to the things that really mattered. So what to self-expression and having your say. So what to personal satisfaction at a job well done. So what to social ethics, to fair play, to right and wrong.
As I prepared to leave Korea for good, I taught a lesson that didn’t strike me as particularly significant at the time. The fact that I taught it at all was then indicative of my mood. It was an old warhorse of a poem, eminently teachable for its didactic irony and rhyme, but rather simple, obvious and one I’d never much liked:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him.
I had the students count the syllables and find where the stresses fell.
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favored and imperially…
I had them anticipate the rhyme:
“Who was this Richard Cory,” I asked. “Who would he be today?”
“Someone rich,” they responded.
“But not rich of his own making.”
“The second son of the Samsung CEO.”
“And why not the first son?”
“Too much responsibility.”
“What would he drive?”
“A yellow volkswagon?” (Groans and protests.)
“A gold Lexus.” (Consensus.)
“Where would he go to school?”
“The University of Pennsylvania.”
And he was always quietly arrayed
And he was always human when he talked
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning” and he glittered when he walked.
“Fluttered pulses” tested the limits of their pronunciation. They made, in true Asian style, syllabic compensation for their f-less-ness. “Pull-uh-tuh-dooh,” they said.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king;
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
“But teacher,” someone observed in a moment of social acuity that devastated for its accuracy, “Richard Cory couldn’t exist in Korea today. He couldn’t be rich and young and human when he talked.”
Such was the Seoul these students inhabited, itself an adolescent in many ways, having experienced precocious economic growth following the 1960’s and now, on the eve of 2004, poised to join the “trillion dollar club” of world economies. In such an environment, young people only saw their own growing pains made manifest. They lived in a city so busy trying to make its way that it forgot to ask: to what end; a city in which the infrastructures of economy and education were so intertwined that the stock-market opened late and closed early on the day of the Korean SAT’s; a city that had already witnessed three student suicides that year, and which, in recent years, had seen as many as 1000 such education-related deaths from students aged 10-19. My own students were talking with avid interest about a girl who had climbed thirteen stories to the top of the school—and dropped: “Teacher, did you know…” Some even claimed to know a friend of a friend who happened to be looking out the window at the very instance the suicide took place. That was why, my students said, they needed so badly to attend school in the States. That was what they had been trying to say all along. Things were different there.
To a certain extent, I didn’t disagree. The still-formative academic ethos in Korea made me turn nostalgic—and patriotic. Whereas my entire higher education had been founded on the aesthetics of non-didacticism, I suddenly saw things as black and white. I found myself anti-plagiarism, anti-censorship, anti-contractual misconduct, anti-grade-doctoring. I found myself for individualism and non-conformism; for taking the high road and the road not taken; for poetry that rhymed, for novels; for writing your own essays, for reading for fun. I found myself thinking that money doesn’t really matter.
Three years since I’ve left Korea, though, I have to ask. Are things in the States all that different? On the other side of the world, has the “moral” of Richard Cory really taken? Has the most sophisticated reader among us truly learned the lesson of not getting what you want? In some venerable American institution, does the fact that some Bokki hadn’t written his own personal statement really matter? A quick scan of the O.S.P. website 2006 reveals continued student success, quantified by acceptances at “Brown univeristy,” “Duke universoty,” “ Hurvey Mudd College” and “the Massachusetts inst. Of Technology,” among others. Such a tally makes me wonder. Perhaps I had made a mistake in coming to Korea. Perhaps the question of “so what” doesn’t have an answer.
As we approached the final stanza of “Richard Cory” that day, our protagonist was a smashing sensation, with all the trappings of modern day success. We had dressed him, professionalized him, and procured a Kang Nam ( North River) address for him. We had made him the perfect age and the perfect height in meters. We had afforded him a girlfriend, a driver, and a world-class education.
And then we read the final stanza, the last line of which I’d purposefully omitted:
So on we worked and waited for the light
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory one calm summer night…
“Using what you know about the syllables, the meter and the rhyme,” I instructed, “write your own ending.”
What I really wanted to tell those eighteen or so kids, whose acne-embarrassed complexions hinted at some furious dreams of love and success, was something altogether different: Use what you’ve learned from current events and the recent news of student deaths. Use what you’ve learned from Korean history, AP world history, and the global cycles of rise and fall. Use what you’ve learned of human nature, of yourselves and your friends. Think of your classmate—the cute one, the one everyone likes—playing Lucky in a metaphysical farce, wearing something so prosaic as a striped scarf for a leash. Review your six thousand SAT words (aggrandizement, rectitude, complicity) and apply their definitions. Consider “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the line about destructive desire in the Frost poem, “Fire and Ice.” Then write your own ending.
The students bent to their tasks. I supplied some additional clues to help them answer what was, in essence, a leading question. As was often the case, Min Young—the prim, smart one, whose indifference to the impression she’s making makes her seem, well, not quite honest—was the first to finish. She looked startled as she slammed her notebook shut. “It is too gruesome,” she said, always the word nerd. I had the rest of the class stop what they were doing and look up. She read in her clear and proper schoolgirl’s voice:
And Richard Cory one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Significant silence. Could I have imagined it? Only moments later, the room exploded in reaction, protestations and accusatory disbelief. Still, there was truth in that silence. It was as though the rhyme on rhyme were lock and key. Something clicked, fell into place, found context, made sense.
Years later, when time has given me space to wonder, I have to ask: as a teacher, could I have asked for anything more—or less?
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