Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thursday: the day that kicked ass

Thursday, February 23, 2006: the final day of our eight-week Intensive English term. Class in the morning, 10AM; ceremony at 2PM.

I doubt I could have had a better day, as a teacher, than the one I had at Smoo this past Thursday.

It started early, yet late: I'd gone to sleep around 8:30PM the previous evening, and didn't wake up until 7AM-- something I regretted as soon as I opened my eyes, because I had hoped to get some tasks accomplished Wednesday evening. I'd stayed up all night from Tuesday to Wednesday, crafting a tiger mask to wear for our "Tiger and Dried Persimmon" skit. From 7 to 8:30AM on Thursday, I finalized the body armor for our second skit, which was called "What to Do with a Dead Kevin." (The incomplete version of the armor was pictured in an earlier post; the final version included folded towels around the edge to soften the outline of the rectangular plastic tray.)

I packed up the props I had-- tee shirts, tape, scissors, and other sundries-- then headed over to Smoo campus. Got there around 9AM, and was invited by my colleague V to come downstairs to Room 101 to watch her students do PowerPoint presentations. I thought about declining at first, because I was hoping to continue studying my lines before my 10AM class began, but decided I could risk going down.

V's students, who were Intro-level (i.e., before Level 1), did a great job-- easily performing several levels higher than Intro. One student spoke about her experience at an international youth "work camp" held in a small French town. The students at the camp, who came from all over the world but especially from France and Spain, spent 20 days repairing roofs and learning about life in the Avignon region of France. The second student talked about her long trip through India-- her displeasure at eating with her fingers, her fear of the dangerous, bombed-out towns near the border with Pakistan, and her newfound love and respect for the Indian people themselves, who were the highlight of her trip.

I left the presentation with 20 minutes to spare (thanks, V, for feeding us while we watched!), went back upstairs and began poring over my script. I had memorized my lines, but some of them were still a bit fuzzy in my brain. Thursday was both the final day of class and the day of the end-of-term ceremony; because I had been hoping to do a dress rehearsal with the class, it would have been bad form for me, the teacher, to be totally unprepared.

My students trickled in; some were late for the 10AM start, which was, unfortunately, par for the course. But I should also note that my group had the highest attendance rates of all four Intensive English classes: 75% attendance or better on a near-constant basis over eight weeks: 9 out of 12 students. This might not mean much to Westerners unfamiliar with how things are at Korean universities, but it's significant here. College students here tend to slack off; very few actually take their studies that seriously, compared to Western students (let me qualify that: many students are serious about courses directly related to their majors).

I was impressed by the costumes I saw for the dress rehearsal: the student playing "The Ox" in the "Tiger and Persimmon" skit had made a great 3-D ox mask out of paper (I'd drawn her the paper cut-out pattern on the chalkboard the other day; her final design was an improvement over my drawing); another student, playing the role of "the mother" in the "Tiger and Persimmon" skit, had put on her hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and crafted two walls of a house-- the place where she would be sitting while trying to stop her baby-- a large, freaky-looking doll provided by yet another student-- from crying.

Once everyone was assembled, we sat down and rehearsed our lines together, most of us without the script. There were a couple flubs, including some by me, but nothing serious. We then rehearsed both skits in full dress (except for the bag of blood), and it was a good thing we did so: the girl who was supposed to stab me in the second skit was very hesitant at first to drive the knife deep into my "stomach." When she finally succeeded at landing the blow, we made an interesting discovery: the knife went into the foam, but the tee shirt covering the body armor was undamaged: when the knife was pulled out, the resultant hole looked a hell of a lot like... well, a navel. We had a good chuckle at that.

We rehearsed from 10AM to about 12:3o; each rehearsal contained flubs-- most of them by yours truly, as I kept missing or "jumping" my cues. We didn't get everything right until the final rehearsal before we stopped for lunch. At that point, I wasn't sure whether we'd have a mistake-free performance. In fact, it seemed I was the weakest link in the chain. Lunch was at a Korean restaurant; my 40-year old student, Soon-shil, decided to treat us all, which was awfully nice of her. I left the table early to go back to class and make final prep, and then, all too soon, it was 2PM and time for the actual end-of-term ceremony.

Unfortunately, our weonjang-nim couldn't stay for the performances, which was highly disappointing to all concerned. That didn't stop the rest of us from having a good time, though. Our supervisor (not the weonjang) suddenly told us that our skits were part of a competition, and that the grand prize involved money. That didn't faze our group; we were nervous, but ready, undistracted by filthy lucre. (Or so I'd like to think.)

The first group up was Level One-- V's students. They did a fantastic job with their presentation, which was a mix of speeches and jokes. V had done a good job of researching the jokes (she chose clean ones) for her students to recite; the speeches, however, were original works by the students, who performed so well that we teachers commented that they didn't sound like Level One students at all. I get the impression that V sets her standards pretty high.

Our group went next, but I want to save the telling of our performance for last.

After us came the Level Threes, taught by D the intrepid Brit. Apparently, D's group had planned-- for seven weeks-- to do a skit based on The Little Prince, then they nixed the plan. At the last moment they changed their skit to a story about a foul-mouthed, irascible parrot. The girl in the parrot costume, flitting about the stage and cawing insults, was a former student of mine who had been in one of my regular Level 2 conversation classes the previous term.

The story was this:

The parrot is a troublemaker-- unruly and vulgar-- from the moment its owner brings it home. Finally, in disgust, the owner grabs the parrot and crams it into the fridge. The parrot squawks and kicks and pounds on the fridge walls, then suddenly goes quiet. The owner, curious, opens the fridge up and the parrot flies into its owner's arms, screaming, "Forgive me! I love you! I love you!" The owner asks, "Why the sudden change of heart?" ...and the parrot indicates the half-eaten turkey it saw inside the fridge.


The final group, Level Fours taught by A the Aussie, did a very clever newscast-- news from the future, no less. Their skit was set in Korea circa 2020, and the presentation included a TV and video camera, with a live feed to "Pyongyang" at one point. A the Aussie was the cameraman.

In 2020, most of the world's birds are dead, and a single bird has been sighted in a forest on the peninsula. The sea level has risen and several more coastal villages have been submerged. George W. Bush has just been released from prison, and he still denies any wrongdoing. During the weather segment, we also learn that Korea is in for another scorching winter. Funniest of all is the interview with President Kim in Pyongyang. President Kim, a woman, gets interviewed live on camera (we in the audience watch this happen on TV). It turns out she has two husbands, and has just given birth to a genetically designed baby. She doesn't know and doesn't care who the father is. We in the audience had a lot of fun watching this.

My own group, the Level Twos, went second, and everyone performed beautifully. As far as I could tell, no one made a mistake. The audience enjoyed the story and costumes in the first skit-- the one about the tiger and the dried persimmon. But the second skit was the one that had everyone rolling, and I was glad we pulled it off without a hitch.

That skit, "What to Do with a Dead Kevin," presented two major difficulties: (1) Would my student be able to stab me with enough conviction to penetrate the sandwich bag containing the fake blood (in reality, tomato V-8 from a can)? And (2), would I be able to hold still while dead?

I'm getting ahead of myself. The plot of "Dead Kevin" went like this:

Kevin is already in front of the class. His 90 minutes of teaching are up, and he says, "Okay, we're done, and Z's up next." A student informs Kevin that today is Z's birthday, so the class has bought a cake. Kevin asks who will be cutting the cake. An excitable student jumps up, knife in hand, and says she's going to do the honors. Kevin chuckles and cautions her to "be careful with that knife." The student claims she's a "knife expert," then shows off some bad martial arts moves, finishing up with three flourishing stabbing motions. The final stab accidentally plunges the knife into Kevin's gut. Kevin is startled; the class screams in horror; blood is gushing. Kevin sits down in a nearby chair (stage center), reassures the class he's going to be all right, then dies.

The class freaks. Z is coming to teach them soon-- what to do with the body? Kevin proves far too heavy to lift, so the students stick sunglasses on him and gingerly place a hat over the knife to disguise its presence. Another student suggests that Kevin be puppeteered by somebody to fool Z into thinking he's alive. Two students hide behind Kevin and prepare to execute voice and gesture.

Z walks into class, greets Kevin, talks to the students. The class does what it can to divert Z's attention from the corpse; "Kevin" reassures Z that he is merely a bit under the weather and thinking about taking a nap, right there in the chair. Z, who's delighted to see the birthday cake, asks Kevin whether he'd like some. The students manning Kevin make the mistake of saying "yes," which makes the other students silently scream, "No! No!" Because of the puppeteers' mistake, people are now obliged to feed the corpse and somehow make the act look real.

Z realizes that a knife is needed to cut the cake; two students distract Z while Kevin's murderer sneaks over to the corpse, removes the knife, replaces the hat, and offers the bloody knife to Z, who remarks that it looks as though someone has been cutting meat with it. Yet another student gamely offers to clean the knife; she takes the knife, cleans it very thoroughly, then gingerly hands it to Z.

Z asks Kevin how big a piece of cake he'd like. "Kevin," unfortunately committed to eating the cake, replies, "A biiiiiig piece!" Z cuts a monstrous slice of cake and sticks it on a plate. Another student walks over to Kevin, but has no clue how Kevin is supposed to feed himself. Kevin's puppeteers solve this by making Kevin command, "Feed me!" The student with the cake lifts the piece up and crams as much of the cake as she can into Kevin's mouth. The puppeteers do their best to make the corpse appear to be chewing.

One student, who had quietly left the class, rushes back in and informs Z that Z's best friend is in the hospital. It's a lie, of course, but it's enough to make Z rush out of the classroom. The students sigh in relief after Z leaves. One suggests calling the police, but the murderer objects: she doesn't want to be arrested. The other student says, "Don't you remember how thoroughly I cleaned the knife? It's got Z's fingerprints all over it now! Let's call the police and get out of here!"

The students head en masse for the exit, but the murderer says, "Wait! There's one more thing we need to do!" She wraps the knife in a napkin, careful not to get her own fingerprints on the handle, then re-stabs Kevin, leaving the knife in his gut. More blood. The students cheer and get the hell out of Dodge. Kevin's corpse, bloody from the stomach down, wearing sunglasses, face smeared with chunks of chocolate cake and icing, just... sits there.

The audience is left confused: is this the end of the skit? The rest of the cast waits outside for 15 seconds, then they all barge back in and take their bows. Lots of clapping and cheering. Kevin's corpse still doesn't move. Finally, when we can take it no longer, Kevin "wakes up" and bows along with the students.

The end.

The play happened pretty much as I described above. My student did drive the knife home (both times), but she stabbed the sandwich bag too high, forcing me to grip my stomach and push in order to get a decent bleeding effect. That wasn't a big issue at all; we'd discussed that contingency during rehearsal. The other potential problem-- my ability to hold still, especially with a bloody stomach and cake stuffed in my mouth, turned out not to be a problem during the actual performance. It was during the first dress rehearsal that I burst out laughing, probably because it was the first time that we'd used real cake.

The prizes were announced, and I'm happy to report that our group got the grand prize-- W70,000, which we immediately blew on food-- fried chicken, Chinese delivery, fruit, drinks, and other victuals. I was euphoric almost all day; things couldn't have gone better, and I was thankful to have fallen in with such a good group of students. Hell-- even two of the failing students continued to come to class just to help with the play.

So: February 23, 2006 marks a high point in my brief career at Smoo. It's going to be hard to top this.

And now, the cool thing is... I've got ten days' vacation, interrupted by only three things: (1) some test rating that'll take a chunk of my Saturday; (2) a test rating workshop this coming Tuesday; and (3) lesson plans to draft for the spring term.

I've still got a ticklish throat, but that's nothing. It's time to get back into hiking. I'm hitting the temple on Sunday again, which is a good thing. Life feels like it's coming together.

The picture below shows the silly tiger mask I'd made for the first skit; the damn thing took my clumsy fingers and brain all night to craft. That's right: I pulled an all-nighter for a five-minute skit. But I think the effort was worth the plaudits.

Congrats to all the other students for doing a great job, too. Funny... while we were chowing down on our victory meal Thursday afternoon, I told my students that I thought the other classes had done a great job. "But we were the best!" some replied. Yes-- they were. Am I wrong to be proud of what we'd accomplished? I hope not. This was our brief moment in the spotlight. Why not relish it, yes?

I'm hoping that some of the students, whose friends were taking digicam and phone cam pictures during the performances, will remember to email me their photos. I'd like to slap them up on the blog for you.

Ah, life can be shweet.


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