Friday, May 13, 2005

the Estrogen Files

Some students of mine who are worthy of note:

1. X is a private tutoree. We had our last class today at a Burger King in an undisclosed location; she's planning to take full-time coursework at a hagwon to prepare for a national teaching examination in December, and she's also going to be involved with her own private tutoring gigs, so she can't continue with me. Although she doesn't seem 100% sure of what she wants to do with her life (not that I blame her), she believes she'd be a good teacher for elementary and middle school kids. Having taught her for a month, I think so, too. Our parting was somewhat somber; she turned out to be a very good student. I told her to keep in touch if she wants; she wondered about teaching me go-stop, a popular Korean card game. I left myself open to the possibility.

2. Y is one of my morning beginner-level students at Smoo. Always smiling, always upbeat, and serious about trying to learn English. She's got a long, long way to go, but I expect her to achieve her goals. The other day, during the one-on-one "free clinic" I've been hosting for the students, she started talking about the North Korean "nuclear problem." She personally sees North Korea as an enormous threat, so out of curiosity I had to ask her what newspaper she reads. "The Chosun Ilbo," she said. Folks in Korea know that the Chosun is the conservative rag, while papers like the Hangyeoryae (variously nicknamed "Hani" and "Hanky" by Westerners) and OhMyNews lean leftward. Y told me she also reads those papers, but favors the Chosun. "It's amazing!" she said about the disparity in coverage. "Same event, totally different interpretations!" That's journalism for ya'. A good scriptural hermeneutics course will quickly disabuse you of the idea that anyone writes news (or history, or scripture) objectively. I mention Y because it was quite surprising to meet a young, right-leaning Korean university student.

3. Z is someone I've mentioned before. She's in my drama class. I'm beginning to think she's not all there, and I have serious questions about how she got into the #2 women's university in South Korea. Powerful parents? Or maybe she's some sort of twisted genius. At first, I thought she was painfully shy. I still think she might be that. But now I suspect she's got some sort of cognitive disorder-- the kind Oliver Sacks would have a field day with. Z operates on a time delay. Tell the students a joke, and she's the one laughing thirty seconds after everyone else. Tell her to "sit down," and she'll dreamily mutter "sit down?" and remain standing, ignoring the import of your command, which you have to repeat several times before she gets the message.

On Tuesday, I'd given my students some homework to do: take the character ideas we'd brainstormed in class and write up a monologue. Email a draft of the monologue to me either Tuesday night or Wednesday, so I'd have a chance to look it over and clean up the prose. That way, we could spend our time blocking and rehearsing on Thursday.

Two of my three regular students (there's a fourth student, but she seems to show up only when she wants to) sent me their emails on time. Nothing from Z. Thursday arrived; drama class started at 1:10PM... Z didn't show up. So I decided to call her since I, like everyone in South Korea, keep a cell phone inside a genetically engineered marsupial pouch on my person. I called the number.

Z (in Korean): Hello?
ME (in Korean, sounding like an old woman): This is your grandmother!
Z (in Korean): Who?
ME (in English): This is Kevin, your drama teacher! Come to class!
Z: [click]

She hung up on me. Holy shit.

Z doesn't behave like a typical Korean student. A typical Korean student, even if she had no intention of showing up to class, would have the good grace to sound contrite and at least lie that yes, she'd be there. That, or she'd actually show up. Perhaps Z had spent time in America. Her response was about as undiplomatic as you can get.

My other students were in the classroom, giggling when they saw the look on my face after Z had hung up on me. I just stood there, shaking my head in amazement.

Z showed up eventually-- 40 minutes late. She hadn't done jack shit about her monologue. She'd emailed nothing. She'd written nothing. We were supposed to be blocking and rehearsing, but she wasn't ready.

Alas, the other students hadn't checked their emails early enough to print out the revisions I'd emailed back to them. Anticipating this, I gave them my own printed copies of those emails. I asked them to look over some of the suggestions I'd made, then told them to take a few minutes to redraft their monologues, incorporating some information that would flesh out their characters for the audience. I asked Z to start from scratch, basing her monologue on the character she'd created on Tuesday.

The character Z created on Tuesday was actually quite interesting: a New York City postal worker who's happy with her job, but constantly tired (a bit like Z herself; she yawns at the most inappropriate times) and bitter about men. But there's a wrinkle: Z's character, Sora, secretly misses her boyfriend, with whom she'd had a bitter breakup. I thought this was fantastic when she explained all this on Tuesday, and I expected to see an interesting-- albeit error-filled-- monologue.

I paced around the room while the students redid their drafts. But after five minutes, I noticed that Z had written about three words on her page, and those three words were vocabulary items I'd explained to another student. Z's mind too easily goes on tangents, and it's not obvious that she follows what we're doing in class. She'd obviously chosen to focus on something completely irrelevant to her assigned task; the vocab explanation hadn't been for her benefit. I'm tempted to blame all this on her lack of English skills, but (1) she was able to conceive of a damn good character on Tuesday-- in English, and (2) there's the Table Incident to consider.

Yes, the Table Incident. Strong evidence that the girl is wired strangely.

The incident happened the week before. Every time I come into Room 105 for drama class, I have to move the little square tables in the room off to one side so we can have some performance space. The students have been very helpful in moving the tables back into place at the end of class. On the day in question, class had ended and we were busy moving tables back.

Z, in her inimitable, slow-motion way, was also trying to help. Unlike the other students, who shuttled back and forth quickly and efficiently, Z grabbed her table and began a sort of drag/shuffle that lasted maybe two meters before the table somehow caught in her legs and began to tilt out of control.

From across the room, I watched what happened next. Z pulled a tarantula and basically stood there, doing nothing, while the table leaned... leaned... then toppled over. Even a piss-drunk Irishman (or a sloth with Parkinson's?) would have had the time and coordination to stick a foot out to keep the table from smacking hard into the floor.

But Z is a different entity altogether. She seemed fascinated by the table's plummet. When the table hit the ground, its heavy wooden top popped off the spindly metal legs. Little screws went flying around the class. The sound was tremendous. We all stood there as dumbly as Z for a moment, then I went over and collected the table pieces, muttering, "It's OK, don't worry about it" or some such.

We finished squaring away the room and the students, all except Z, left. Z, apparently unaffected by what she'd just done, gave me her standard, delayed-reaction, 15-second-long good-bye when she reached the door. No apologies, no nothing. The girl lacks even elementary social graces. I collected the scattered screws, took out my trusty pocketknife, and repaired the table in blessed silence.

Could Z be a Korean version of Forrest Gump? I don't think so. The appeal of Forrest Gump was twofold: (1) his amazing blind luck, and (2) his Zen-masterly perceptiveness despite the low IQ. Forrest knew when and how to act when it came to the important things. When the love of his life was being assaulted, he jumped in and did what any man would do. He didn't stand there, mesmerized and unaware of the significance of what he was watching.

Some people are wired this way: somehow emotionally unconnected to what they're seeing and experiencing. Philosopher David Hume tells us that we can't logically derive "ought" from "is," but most human beings are hard-wired to do the derivation by instinct. Social graces are taught, then they become second nature, and are susceptible to that same hard-wired instinct. In the unwired, though, this isn't the case.

If any of my readers are psych majors or experts in cognition, neurophysiology, etc., I'd be happy to have you try to attach a name to the condition (or at least the behaviors) I've described here.

To be frank, I find Z morbidly fascinating. An impish part of me also finds her funny. And don't get me wrong: her behavior is exasperating, but I don't dislike her because of it. I do, however, wonder how the hell she ever made it into Smoo.

Bribery...? I keep suspecting her parents of pulling strings.

The monologue Z finally churned out was creepy. It also had nothing to do with the character she'd created on Tuesday. Parts of it read like a killer's diary:

I hate my friends because they ignore me. Only my mother doesn't ignore me, so I love my mother. I'm so angry at the other people, etc., etc...

Good Lord. Makes me think I'd better not get on the wrong side of her, or I'll end up beheaded and with my balls stuffed into my exposed trachea.

I'm writing a little one-act play for my students this weekend, incorporating their characters. One student is playing a six-year-old child superstar (singer). Another is a 45-year-old Beverly Hills housewife who's planning to kill her husband because he's been cheating on her. I love both of these characters, and those students seem to dig the class.

Then there's Z, whose Thursday monologue involved a Smoo student who sounded a lot like Z herself, instead of the NYC postal worker from Tuesday. Fuck that. I'm writing in the original postal worker character; no way in hell am I letting Z play herself. Besides, that character was well-conceived.

The trick now is to write a part that Z will find fairly easy to play. Wish me luck. And if I like the play enough, perhaps I'll stick it on the blog. Or maybe I'll just keep tweaking it, like George Lucas is doing with his films.


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