When Kenny and I arrived back in Korea from my sister's wedding in the States, he started working part-time as an English teacher in a hagwon 3 days a week. This schedule is lovely for us and he gets home before I do most days and he actually told me last week he enjoys it. When he first started work the school was in the middle of huge preparations for a school-wide English presentation. All the students were to either tell a story, have a dialogue, sing a song, or give a presentation on a foreign country, all in English. It was perhaps two weeks into the job (this is where you pretend I wrote this over a month ago and totally ignore the fact that I've had this lying around on the couch of my brain for weeks) and he invited me to attend the presentation.
It was a special night for the kids because the school had rented a room in the local library to make it more official. I showed up and skipped straight to annoyed because I was surrounded by elementary age children that do not come equipped with pinch-able cheeks or patt-able bellies, but rather had greasy hair and talked too loudly and were already sporting some attitude. (Also, adolescent attitude transcends all language barriers). They would, in groups of two or three, approach me with a fawning shyness and utter as many syllables as possible before the entire group dissolved into a tangle of giggling and shrieking. They asked me my name, where I was from, if I was teacher's girlfriend. I finally answered my way into the room where most of the parents were already sitting. I took a chair in the very back row, perhaps feeling a big toe's worth of what real celebrities deal with every time they walk out their door.
The principal came and sat down next to me. She introduced herself and said, "We are so honored to have you here."
"Oh, thanks so much. It's nice to be here. I'm excited to see the kids."
"Well, we are so lucky to have Kenny as a teacher."
"Yes, he is wonderful, isn't he? I think he's definitely a better teacher than I am."
At this statement, she raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth halfway before snapping it shut. Then she smiled big again and said, "I better get back. Please excuse me."
So she went back to doing absolutely nothing worthwhile that I could see. She did not tell the kids to be quiet, to find a seat and stay there, to stop running up and down the stairs, to quit screaming right now or I'm GOING TO GO CRAZY AND EAT YOU. Nope, none of that. She pretty much stood at the door and handed out canned coffees and programs to a number of equally useless parents.
The show finally began and my celebrity status slowly waned as the students became more nervous about when their turn would be than skipping by, shouting or whispering hurried questions at the white girl in the back without waiting for an answer.
It seemed interminable. Children were constantly moving, walking up and down the aisles, in and out the doors, during their classmates presentations. Screaming, laughing, talking. And the parents, all the time, craning their necks and squinting at the stage in hopes that decreasing the visual would increase the auditory.
I finally placed myself in the doorway and began telling children to shut it. Kenny corralled some of the crazies into a room across the hall and shut the door. It didn't seem to make a dent in the noise or the number of monsters constantly moving about.
During a break between acts the principal came to me and said, "I hope you won't mind saying a few words after the presentations. We would love to hear what you think about our students."
"Um, okay? What should I say?"
"Oh, just anything! Whatever you think about the students. We'll have Kenny translate!"
She rushed back to her new post at the front of the makeshift auditorium with too few chairs and resumed being rather good for nothing, simply supervising the production by watching the emcee and leaning against the wall.
When the presentations were over, all the parents voted and the best of each category was awarded a prize. And then they called my name and Kenny followed me up the middle aisle. He said to my back, "You should have some critique. Don't say everything was great or they won't believe you."
I took the microphone. I looked out at the parents' faces. They had no idea who I was, had never even heard of me before and yet they were so eager to hear what I had to say. Because I was going to say it in English. It grew incredibly quiet. I introduced myself in Korean, which earned me another round of applause. And then I began slowly and deliberately, one sentence at a time so Kenny could translate.
"The kids did a good job and I can tell they worked hard to prepare. (Awkward pause, wondering what one's face should do while their words are being translated). Their pronunciation sounds natural and easy. (Awkward pause, reflecting that this was in fact the truth). They seem to be able to communicate at appropriate levels. (Awkward pause, this is a lie this is a lie this is a lie. Okay, umm.... critique!). But more important than learning English, (let him translate this bit looking serious) is being kind and listening to others (Wow, glad that came into my head at the right moment). From what I've seen here, your children have kind down. (Lies, more lies.) But they could really work on the listening part."
This last sentence was met with laughter, delayed only by the few seconds it took Kenny to turn my words into sounds the audience could understand. They all clapped again.
Once more, it felt so weird. I was asked to speak not because I was qualified to do so, not because I could actually offer any constructive criticism after not-hearing too many presentations to count, but because I happened to be born in the States to parents who happened to speak the open sesame of languages. Sometimes I just want to tell the parents, "It's not worth it. Pushing your kids like this, pressure becoming the defining aspect of their brief youth, it's not worth it." But what do I know? All I have to do is open my mouth, speak my native language, and it seems that the universe bends to meet me.
And really, why shouldn't it? I do, after all, have anonymous celebrity status...