Saturday, October 31, 2009
It's only been two weeks, but I'm having a hard time thinking about doing this over and over and over for an entire year. The classes I teach are incredibly structured, everyday I do the exact same thing. It kind of reminds me of the pizza places I used to work at, in that I can still remember 16 ounces of cheese on a large, 14 on a medium, 12 on a small, and now I don't think I'll ever forget Day 1 starts with a review test followed by words in context, vocabulary, vocabulary chunks, so on and so on every single day, exactly the same structure, slightly different material. I mean, the structure is absolutely identical every single class period. I think about it and it scares me that they seem to be preparing the students to be taught by robots who can follow the timing to a T.
Some days are bad, some days are good. I count myself extremely lucky when a 3 hour block finishes without any major problems, me threatening to send one of my students to the principal, or having to repeatedly tell one or two kids to be quiet. Last night, I was really lucky.
Everyday I come into the school log on to my computer and am greeted with an attendance page of my next class. The page contains pictures and an update on whether or not students will be attending class. Lately, because of Swine Flu* it's been a fun game seeing how many of my students, and which one's, will be out. Up until last night the sick ones had all been my really good, quiet students who got sick, leaving me with the monsters. Plus, when it's just the monster's they seem to realize that no one in the class cares, and they tuck away whatever bit of respect they normally have for the good quiet kids who want to learn and just go totally ape-shit.
But last night in my class of 9, three of my kids were gone, including two of the most obnoxious students I have. One of these students is an instigator and a bully. He's actually pretty smart and good at the classwork, but he stands about a foot taller than everybody else and seems to like threatening these young kids every chance he gets. I've never worked with kids before, and I'm working with a strange age. I have this odd mix where about one-third have hit puberty and are growing like crazy, starting to get a little fuzz of facial hair, are obviously wildly hormonal, and two-thirds who haven't hit puberty and our just these tiny angels who still enjoy school and life in general.
So with the kids gone with SI, my 7 p.m. Friday night class was actually a good time, and one of those moments where I felt like a teacher and not a babysitter. Also, this class goes until 10 on Friday night. I feel bad for these kids. If I'd have been going to school until 10 on Friday, I never would have seen an episode of Boy Meets World or Family Matters. What kind of a childhood would that have been? Not one I would have cared to live.
Anyway, every class I do a critical thinking project. It's a 30 minute project where the students try to be creative and answer some topic. Some of them are really simple, like come up with a wish, something you want, and give the reasons. It sounds easy and in an American classroom, maybe it would be. But here, it's like I'm asking them to decide between their mother and father. One will live, one will die. As soon as they have to think entirely on their own, they clam up and shut down, switch into Korean and kind of check out. I generally end up giving them most of the answers. “Ok, you want infinite money, what would you buy with it?” “Ummm.... Nintendo DS!” “Ok, good what else” “PSP!” And this goes on in every single group of students. Always Nintendo DS and PSP.
But last night's CTP was different. Last night's CTP was ridiculous. These kids are 7,8,9, maybe 10. The unit was on detective's and forensic science. Everyone knows forensic science is the study of dead people – everyone except 7, 8, and 9 year olds. Most people I know, know who Ted Bundy is. Now my students do too! Also they know he left bite marks on his victims. They now know about Helen and Olga, two women who murdered homeless people for life insurance policies. They also know that Scott Peterson murdered his wife and unborn child. What a fun Friday night for my 7 year old! But the CTP really takes the creepy cake. My students get to play detective's. Sounds fun. Find the missing treasure or something. But of course, no. This curriculum seems designed to teach the students English and at the same time introduce them to the real world, well the real world of America, where everyone is constantly doing drugs and killing each other, considering all the serial killers and murderers we discussed were American. So the CTP is not about finding stolen goods, it's about solving a murder.
The students are given information on three people. Heather, Lauren and Julian are all suspected of killing their friend Melanie. Melanie had cocaine in her blood. “Teacher what's...coke-ine?” “Um...it's a drug.” And this is a culture whose money is not covered in cocaine, drugs are highly illegal, and most of these kids won't ever see a joint let alone “coke-ine.” Next up “Teacher, what's anti-depressants?” It appears one of our suspects was on anti-depressants. Great. I'm not really sure what the policy on anti-depressants is here, maybe there as easy to get in the states, but I doubt it. If you break a bone, they give you Tylenol, regular Tylenol. No pain killers, and I bet very few anti-depressants.
So great, I've introduced my students to murder and drugs. The best part was that I got to sit through 3 presentations of the CTP in which they outlined why they think Heather killed Melanie and how she did it, and most of them say the word “Coke-ine” like ten times, including my tiny 7 year old and it's all I can do from rolling on the floor and laughing until I puke. Last night was a good night for me, I've dealt with being afraid of serial killers and murderers, and I slept last night knowing I'd done a decent job for the day. But my bet is that at least one of my students went home, Googled Ted Bundy, and won't sleep for weeks.
Side note: Swine flu is running rampant through all the schools here, something like 5 billion cases of school children. That might be exaggerated, but I've seen the way all the kids take their paper masks off and swing them around, leave them on desks, let other kids touch them, and then put them right back onto their little faces, breathing all those wonderful germs. And it's not just the kids, no one here seems to have any concept of germs and how they are transferred from one human being to another. For example, hacking a huge lugee in the middle of the street – totally acceptable. I'll never forget the time Sara and I were walking to get some food and heard this person behind us hacking, I mean really digging deep, scraping the snot off the brain pan type snorting, and of course the spitting and the eventual thud against the pavement. And I'm thinking, oh, there's like a dying homeless man suffering from emphysema and he's got to get that shit out of his lungs. Meanwhile Sara looks like she's going to vomit. The person's footsteps get closer behind us and we kind of move over to one side expecting this emphysemic homeless man, but no, a little old Korean woman in a tracksuit with a huge perm and an even larger visor. But, that's Korea. Totally acceptable to hack up your lungs on the street, no paper towels in the bathroom, no natural impulse to cover your mouth when you sneeze, incredible paranoia about swine flu.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Today I was teaching away, singing and giving my students acting tips when there is a knock at the door. I answer it to find my Korean teaching partner, Ray, standing there looking....
She asks if she can speak to me for a second, and I step outside. “Sara, you're supposed to...” to make a long complicated mistake short, I have been teaching the wrong thing to half of my students for the past two days.
Ray is very patient with me, she walks me through the array of Type A or Type B teaching days, Seed, Sprout, or Sapling. When to teach only speaking, or reading and speaking (but only speaking butterfly). She reminds me that I do not teach writing, but I do the homework check for writing. She also tells me all about the e-learning on the computer, the magic screen, how to grade revision tests, enter them in the computer, update the classes, and grade participation. So I have to get there early tomorrow because all of the lesson planning I did in order to get ahead was based on my own personal level of ignorance. Luckily, the Faculty manager (my boss) doesn't know the curriculum for April very well either, so when he watches me on CCTV (that's right, we have live cameras in our classrooms where our boss watches us and gives us feedback) all he sees is a vibrant, confident teacher who asks leading questions, elicits answers and helps her students.
I'm figuring it out, slowly but surely. On Thursday and Friday I have to record videos of the kids acting projects and upload them so their parents can see them. And I have been warned, when the mothers don't get to see the videos, an uproar ensues.
Be advised, the Korean mothers are watching.
Hopefully, I succeed, record the videos and upload them properly. I still need to get my Alien registration card, a phone, a gym membership and fully function internet. I am confident that I can do these things. It's fall here and the leaves are turning beautiful shades of red, yellow and gold. Now, if only I can figure out how to turn the heat on in the apartment, I'll be all set.
Anyway, quick update. Sara and I have moved to Korea. We split 10 days in a couple of love motels, which actually turned out to be some of the nicest hotels we've ever stayed in; big tv's, clean accomadation's, quiet hallways and lobbies, decent lighting in the rooms, hardwood floors. All in all, these two love motels, The Hotel Noblesse and the Hotel Major come highly recommended. Still, as nice as they were, we're happy to be in our own place. We've got a decent amount of space, and it helps that our sleeping area is lofted above the kitchen, although the somewhat low ceiling makes it impossible to stand up in our "bedroom." That's fine. We can live with crouching every time we want to get into or out of bed.
We were also excited to see that the previous occupant of our apartment had left us a monster 40" television. One of those big grey, old, boxy behemoths, the bigscreen tv equivalent of the Zach Morris monster cell phone. Great. A big tv. But, we turned it on, and the picture kind of sucked. We tried for a couple of days to watch it, but quickly gave up and decided to buy a new tv. Now, we don't speak any Korean, and this being a Korean speaking country, we knew we might be in for some trouble. Add to that the fact we don't have a car, don't have a phone, don't know our address, weren't sure our American credit cards would even work here in Korea, you've got a recipe for TV buying disaster.
But we wanted that TV. We started by looking on Craigslist, but could only find Televisions much like the one we currently had, old gigantic three hundred pounders. No thanks. So we decided to try to find a store. Last Saturday we went to six places trying to find a TV. No one really even tried to help us, which was fine as we were kind of going through something trying to decide what size and whether or not a plasma or lcd would be best. Plus, you get into the tv showroom, and there's a bunch of 40 and 42 inch televisions that look beautiful and perfect, and they're pretty reasonably priced. But then there's that giant 60" hanging there, dwarfing the 40", ruining the perspective of everything. It's not that much more in money, (ok, it's double), but it's so much bigger and the people look like they could walk right out of the screen and into the showroom and dance around with their weird purple hair and yellow spandex shorts. So Saturday, we went home. We couldn't afford the 60" and the 40's no longer looked adequate. Shamed by their bigger, brighter, better cousin the 60, we were defeated.
But we came home, turned on the old tv and went, oh screw this, tomorrow, new tv. So Sunday, we wake up and head to the LG store, about two blocks from where we live. Again, we don't know our address or how we're going to get our tv home, but we're also kind of stupid and just do what we want regardless of little problems like not speaking the language and not having any idea where the tv should be delivered, if that's even an option. But, while we may be kind of stupid, we're also extremely lucky. The first guy that approached us at the LG store spoke decent enough English. So he kind of points at the TV's and repeats the major capabilities of all the Tv's, 50", 1080p, Plasma, LCD, that kind of thing. There's some kind of wonderful sale happening, complete with a giant dancing clown out front and The Black Eyed Peas blaring from speakers, and most of the tv's are marked down 600,000 won, which is close to 600 dollars. Great for us. We point at a tv and the guy goes and checks the price and tells us it's a display model. We're like great, sold. He's very happy, we're very happy.
Now, delivery. We try to tell the guy we live close, in the building with the Pizza school. He kind of looks at us like, great... this Pizza school reference is sort of the equivalent of telling someone you live near a Starbucks and therefore not very helpful. So we tell the guy we're going to leave, go to the apartment, find the address and come back. Ok, good. He walks us to the door and asks us where we live. We point down the street, you can almost see our apartment from the store. So we're pointing at our apartment, and he starts pointing at his car. "My car, I'll take you." We look at each other, look at the guy, sort of figure he's just a serious salesmen and cross our fingers that he's not some kind of Korean serial killer and get it. So then this guy drives us to our apartment, hops out of the car, gets the address from the security guard, gets back in the car and drives us back to the LG store. Awesome. What a great country.
Good, now we know what TV we want and we know our address. We fill out some paper work, all in Korean, so maybe we signed our organs away to this guy I don't know, and hand over our credit cards. He swipes them once, twice, three times... no go. Thwarted by our foreigness. And us, from the country where easy dirt cheap credit allowing young, barely employed, broke people to buy fancy televisions. Noooooo! So what can we do? Get cash? Sure, but we're confident we have limits on how much we can take out and we want this TV today. So we leave, promising to find a way to get this much cash. Lot's of ways flash through my head. The Koreans are a pretty trusting people and with any half-way decent pick-pocketing skills, you could clean up on the subway or any kind of crowd really. But I like it here and don't want to go to Korean jail, although I bet there would still be Kim-chi. So, while Sara and I are standing around trying to decide whether or not we should rob a bank, the salesmen comes running down the street, waving. "Hey" he communicates. "I got it." Something about a phone call to the credit company, I don't know. What I do know is that we go back in, he makes a phone call, punches our numbers into the phone, and boom, receipts start popping out. TV purchased. So now this guy has driven us to our apartment, chased us down in the street and sold us a 50" plasma, to be delivered on Monday.
We walk out of the store, all high on spending massive amounts of money, and I start to put the receipt in my pocket, and I look and it's all in Korean, and I start to wonder, what if this is all some big scam? What if we just dropped a thousand bucks on nothing? What are we going to do if they don't ever bring our TV? What can we do?
Of course, there's nothing we can do. It's done. The TV will come or the TV won't come. That's it.
Happily, it wasn't some rip off the foreigner scam and on Monday morning the largest, most beautiful tv in the world arrived. The delivery guys even set the whole thing up and changed the menu to English. All included in the price of the TV.
Now, I'm sitting here in my new apartment, watching the NLCS on my new tv and feeling pretty good about this whole Korea thing.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
When Zach and I got to Pilsen we immediately searched for a watering hole close to the dorms. We found one. It was hard to see, the entrance was somewhat confusing, and when we went inside we saw a room of about 30 square feet, with some tables, a few booths and a small bar. At first it felt awkward, quiet and uncomfortable. At this point we spoke no Czech, and babbled something we thought might bring us beer, which worked. As Zach and I sat in the corner, pondering this new bar, I noticed the eclectic decor and a few choice posters made my affection for this new establishment grow. It was not long after this that a man from a small group of people nearby began speaking to us in accented, but pretty decent, English. They invited us to join them and we spent the next several hours speaking a variety of Czech, English and French to each other having a marvelous time with our new-found Friends. Later, Zach and I told some of our colleagues who had been to Pilsen before that we went to this particular bar. In disgust, one American replied "the workers bar?" Little by little we have pieced together the American perspective of this bar that Zach and I found to be grossly mistaken. We were told things must have changed, that before the people in that "workers bar" were impolite and cold to foreigners. Maybe. But the night that Zach and I were there I met some of the warmest people I ever have in my life. I know that when we came back again our English speaking friend shouted to everyone in the bar "Sara is here!" And I know that each subsequent visit, we have been met with warm smiles, and the occasional drink invitation.
For the past two years I've been focused on one goal: Get to an MFA program. It was, I thought, a simple, reasonable goal that would kick open the doors of opportunity and change my life for the better and forever. Book deals, big money, movies with my words coming out of some other guys mouth. The works.
Now, reality. MFA programs are spectacularly diffiult to get in to. I should know, I got in to some. Out of the fifteen programs I applied to, I got into the University of Memphis, New Mexico State University, and Colorado State University. I was also wait-listed at Vanderbilt University. Not a bad final tally, especially when considering Vandy. Vandy's acceptance rate was 1.5 percent. Over 400 applicants, 6 acceptances. Percentage-wise, it was the most selective program in America. Granted, I was the last person on the 7 person wait-list, but still, I'll take it.
Things were looking good. The University of Memphis wanted me and they were willing to offer a T.A. position. My road to riches was paved. The U of M would pay for 4 classes a semester and I would get 7500 dollars a year and teach 2 classes a semester for three years. Wow. Two big problems here, at least. I know that many people in the world live on less than $7,500 dollars a year. In many places, that's a king's salary. In America, that's a lousy income for a quarter of the year, even for a guy with a degree in English lit. The nice people at Memphis let me know that many of their MFA students have second jobs, either as cashiers/over-educated experts at bookstores, or baristas at Starbucks. Hm... maybe if Sara got an awesome job we could make it work.
The second problem with the above. Take 4 classes, teach 2. Every semester. At Kansas State I took at most 3 and taught at most 2. There was no semester where my work load was more than 4 classes. That being said I constantly felt like I was drowning in homework and papers at KSU. It was torture, it was hell. And I was going to add 2 classes to it. What was the point of an MFA again? (To be fair to U of M, a lot of this is a state problem and a university problem, which trickles down to the English dept. The MFA faculty and administration were all excellent people who were extremely helpful throughout the process)
The point of an MFA, as I understand it, is to write. To finish with a book in hand ready to be sent to the publishers. Maybe it's not the greatest book in the world, maybe it's not even publishable, but at least you've got it. I know for a fact that with that school load, plus a relationship I'm deeply invested in, plus eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom, I wouldn't have time for all of it. Something would lose out. At KSU the time and energy crunch was the same and the losers were my students. Fine, I'm willing to moderately shaft the future of America for my own personal gains. Who isn't? (In my defense I'm not talking about not showing up to teach or not grading papers or anything like that, I'm just saying my priorities started with my writing, my school work, and my life. Teaching was a close fourth, but still fourth.) Eventually I figured I could work it all out; everybody would be happy. I'd be busy, but I'd get it all done: reading, writing, teaching, living. So I told the U of M Yes, I'd love to join your MFA program.
Flash forward about a month. I'm going over finances and looking for apartments. A modest one bedroom in a part of town that will give you a 50/50 chance of being home invaded costs $600 a month. Bills, another $100-200, depending on cell phones, car insurance, cable, internet, heating, electricity, water, garbage, blah blah blah. So that's conservatively $700. That would leave me $50 dollars a month for food. $1.67 a day. Now, granted everything would be split, but I'm pretty sure that it doesn't make solid financial sense, or relationship sense, to move somewhere, thereby depleting your savings to nothing, and then proceed to spend 93% of monthly income on rent until your girlfriend gets a job and bails your ass out. So that got me thinking. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
Also, I have to admit, I'm pretty bent out of shape about not getting funding at New Mexico State and Colorado State and not getting into Vanderbilt or any of my top 8 choices. Yeah, that sucked and I've got a moderately large chip on my shoulder about MFA's in general. What's that called by the way? I'm not jealous or envious, I'm upset about not being included or not being wanted. Is there a word for that? "Being bent out of shape?" "Feeling left out?" Those don't really include the desire to get back at those people who have not included you, and hoping that the teachers they did give funding to are freaks who make the university look bad in some gambling/cheating/prostituion scandal in the near future, so I'm not sure they apply. But yeah, maybe my being bent out of shape got into my decision making process and made those whispers about finances a little bit louder, I don't know.
The final nail in the MFA coffin was when my brother got to Korea. I have friends going to MFA programs next fall. I'm very happy for them and I'm sure that they will do amazing work, but I'm not jealous. I don't want to kidnap them, steal their identities, and switch places with them. I want them to have a great time without any of that. But my brother, and all the other teachers in Korea, I'm jealous of. I want to be those people. I want to go to work every day knowing that I'm doing what I love, getting paid a reasonable amount for it, and I'm not stressed out about school every free minute of every day.
(A very quick note on "Reasonable pay." The pay in Korea amounts to about $1800 a month. Plus health insurance and inclusion in a national pension plan. Not bad. Oh yeah, did I mention they pay my rent and for my plane ticket to Korea? Or that when I finish my one year contract they give me a bonus of one month's salary? Pretty reasonable for 6.5 hours a day.)
It took Sara and me about a week to decide that Korea would be a very good place for us. Within one week we had jobs and by October 15th we'll be teaching our very own classes. Not bad.
But that's not really a life plan, that's more like a short-term solution to what is hopefully a short-term money problem. So the question is, do I want an MFA? Eh... I don't know. I think what I've decided is that I want the atmosphere of an MFA: The time to write, the workshops, the access to professors. All that stuff. I don't care about the letters after my name. The chances of them ever getting me a job are slim to none. About the same as me getting into Vanderbilt if I apply again. Do I have to teach creative writing to be happy? No. I loved teaching freshman comp, and although the sample size is low, I'm loving teaching EFL in the Czech Republic. I love teaching in general and have no desire to exclusively teach creative writing. Instead, I think I want to teach English abroad. I love travelling, I love teaching, and I'm pretty good at both.
How can you be good at travelling? I'm not sure exactly, but I do know that you can be really really bad at it, so there must be an opposite - a space for people like me who love new places, new people, and new things. A place for people who don't curl up into the fetal position when they can't order a water, or find a bathroom where they don't have to pay.
The goal now has changed. A PhD in Applied Linguistics will kick open a lot of doors down the road. In seven years, I'll be Dr. Thomas and you'll be asking me if I can take a look at the weird growth on your back.
So that's it. A long-winded, self-indulgent rant, ready to float in the nothingness of the internet. Hopefully someone made it all the way to the end. Also, hopefully Sara posts again soon, otherwise I'm looking for someone else's initials to put on this blog. ZTAND... Or I'll just start calling it ZTANDME.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Over the last year I've spent a lot of time in Spain. More than I ever would have thought 2 or 3 or 4 years ago, and I'm happy and I'm grateful for the chance, for the experience. My Spanish is getting better and I've had the opportunity to see a lot of this great country. Spain isn't a very big country, maybe the size of Texas, probably a little bit bigger, but it's surprisingly diverse. One of the reasons Californian's love California so much is because there's so much to see and do, literally all different types of climate; beaches, forests, desert, mountains, lakes, farms, national parks, major cities. California has it all. But the thing about California, and the United States in general, is that from coast to coast, top to bottom, San Diego to Sacramento, San Francisco to L.A., most of California feels the same. Homogenous. Starbucks, In and Out, the ever present Wal-Mart and McDonalds. Driving five hours in California guarantees visual changes, changes of landscape and scenery, topography and vegetation. Anytime you cross the state, say from San Francisco to Reno, you're in for a lot of changes, some good, some not so good. But you're not in for an uprooting. You're not going to feel lost or confused. You might get lost, but you aren't, really. Drive far enough in the direction your car is pointing and you'll find something to spark your memory, to help you find your way.
Monday, June 8, 2009
At the last minute we are taking a trip to Muniellos and a bed and breakfast run by a wonderful lady named Mari. Muniellos is a natural reserve in Asturias (northern Spain) that you have to have a reservation to visit. We've been trying for three years to go, and finally we've made it work. Mari lives in a small town nearby and cooks the most delicious food, most of which is fresh from her garden and the nearby farms. The best cheese, eggs, butter and anything else you can think of is there. Naturally, I'm very excited because I love all of those things.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
We were inspired recently to write this blog and consequently, here it is. As I write this first post I am watching a bullfight in El Escorial, Spain. I hope that my friends and family will enjoy this blog and I hope that Zach and I will continue to post our personal current events, or our thoughts on whatever random minutiae floats into our minds. To date our plans are as follows: we are now in El Escorial staying with my mom (Sofia) enjoying her hospitality, particularly the food. In July we will go to the Czech Republic to obtain our TEFL certifications in a three week program. We are returning to Spain for several weeks and will be flying to San Francisco on August 17th to get the Kia (my car) with all of our stuff inside, as well as the Sebring to drive to Memphis. We will stop with friends and family along the way, provided they don't mind :-). While in Memphis, I will hopefully have an awesome, well-paying job while I pursue my secondary-education license and Zach will pursue his m.f.a.. Whoa, and that's the short short version. More later, besos!