Saturday, October 20, 2012

Deepest Darkest Fears (Conference pt. 5)

Part 5 of 5 from last week's Fulbright Fall Conference.
The problem boarding wall. Write out your problems, write out advice for others.
A neat portion of Fall Conference that ran continuously throughout last weekend was the problem boarding wall. All of the ETAs were asked to respond to two questions on a folded sheet of paper. On the outside, "What do you wish you knew about teaching?" On the inside, "What is one unresolved fear or worry you have about being in Korea?" Our questions and problems were then posted on a literal wall, and during any free moment we could write an answer on a Post-It to help one another out. As you can tell from the photo, we had a lot of problems.

Anthony, our Program Coordinator and conference MC, tried to lighten the mood a bit by joking about how we should be writing our "deepest, darkest fears" on the insides of our problem boarding sheets. Regardless, I took it seriously. Some things have been weighing on my mind a bit more heavily than I'd like to admit. They're not really fears, to be fair, but simply vague clouds of dissatisfaction. And they don't actually have anything to do with my placement or how life has been for me these few months. It's hard to explain, but I'll try my best.

On my "I wish I knew..." section, I wrote that I wish I knew how to engage the students in my classes who are at a lower level of English than all the rest. I can tell they don't understand sometimes, but what student is willing to raise his hand and ask the teacher (read: announce to the entire class) that they're confused? As a result, they keep quiet and zone out. I wish I knew exactly what my students want or need out of my class, too. Most of them will need English to attend the top science universities, but if they're not aiming that high, or if they fall short of their goal, what then? What's the point of my class? Can I offer them a different motivation? And I wish I knew all of my students' names and their stories. As for this last one, I think I'm getting there. It just takes time and patience.

Those were my teaching questions. My fears, on the other hand, are much more broad and substantial. The first (of two) was a fear that I've already fallen too far behind in my goal to reach basic conversational fluency by the end of the year.

One optimistic stranger wrote to me on a Post-It: "It's really not too late!! Take advantage of winter break and take a class! Ask a co-teacher or faculty member to do a language exchange. Go to a university area -- or ask around -- and find a college student who wants a language exchange. NOT TOO LATE!"

The rational part of me already knows all of these things. It's not that I don't know what I should be doing -- in fact, I am taking a class, sort of. But the worry is an ambiguous projection into the future. The goal I set was not concrete enough, so I won't really know if I've reached it. That is to say, what is "basic conversational fluency", anyway? From one perspective, I've already reached basic conversational fluency, because I can hold a conversation with my host parents completely in Korean about my weekend plans or what I did today. I've also had lots of practice at the Korean class held at the community center. But because I still run into communication problems on occasion, I get frustrated about the simple things that I don't know, and that's why I am doubtful of my progress. In fact, it's pretty irrational, when you think about it.

The second fear I wrote is that I'm having trouble figuring out what to do after year one. Should I renew my grant and stay for one more year? Should I apply to graduate school? If so, in what field? If I don't apply now and I don't renew, should I just go home and become a sad sack?

The Post-It reply I got read, "Sounds cheesy, but where is your heart calling you? I'm going home at the end of the year."

It's not cheesy, Post-It peer. I understand exactly what you mean, and then some. It's the same irrationality that has brought about my lack of confidence in Korean. See, I know that I should be following my heart -- or to put it in spiritual terms, placing my trust in God and trying to discern His will -- but actually doing so is a different matter entirely.

And this is where things get depressing. I have no idea what God wants me to do after my grant year. I'm still trying to determine if coming to Korea in the first place was a part of His will, or if my coming here was really just me running away from something else, like Jonah trying to go to Joppa in order to avoid Nineveh. The analogy isn't perfect, of course. If Korea were truly my Joppa then God would never have actually let me come, and I'm sure Megashark would have leapt out of the Pacific to swallow my plane before I'd arrived.
Joking aside, I'm starting to feel the creeping pressure to get myself a concrete plan. For starters, although I'm fairly comfortable and happy in Korea, I don't want to give off the impression that I'm drifting. Deadlines for graduate school applications are coming up... and I don't even know what I want to study in graduate school. Linguistics? Religion? Education? Should I switch to law? Do a post-bac in medicine? I had so many ideas before graduation but never settled on any of them. I never sat down and considered any of them seriously; now I'm afraid that if I choose one, I'll second-guess the decision and spend the next five to seven years wondering if I should have done something else.

Thus, in the meantime, it's like I'm just stalling for time by teaching during the week and exploring Korea on weekends. Not that teaching is just a meaningless method of killing time -- far from it! I love teaching (see yesterday's post for proof); it's been nothing but a pleasure so far. And anyone would agree that traveling is a neat way to spend a year after college. But like my dad says, I can't do this forever.

And that's the next source of pressure: parents. My future is nowhere near the path that they envisioned for it. I was supposed to go to Berkeley, study medicine, and become a doctor like my two older brothers. Instead, I went to Swarthmore, studied Linguistics (what is Linguistics, anyway?), and didn't even take a single course in organic chemistry. But that was okay, they reasoned, because with my quarter-of-a-million-dollar education, I could do something else just as amazing, right? Right.

Then, I became an English teacher in Korea. Nope, that was definitely not on their radar.

These days, our Skype dates have become a weekly episode of Where in the World is Your Future Headed? and it's just as disappointing for myself to have to answer that I don't have a clue as I feel it must be for them. Dear Swatties, remember The Graduate?

Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?
Benjamin: Well, I would say that I'm just drifting. Here in the pool.
Mr. Braddock: Why?
Benjamin: Well, it's very comfortable just to drift here.
Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?
Benjamin: No.
Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
Benjamin: You got me.
Sigh...

Its not all bad, though. I've registered for the GRE; I'll be taking it in late November. I'll study hard so that I only have to take it once, and then the scores will last for five years. That should be enough time to figure out what I want to do. One doesn't decide overnight that they want to commit to years in some graduate program or other. I can still patiently think and pray and discern.

I'm not drifting. It's not that I don't have any plans; I just have many options on the table, and I'm being non-committal. Oh, and you know what? One of my main goals for the Fulbright grant from the very beginning was to see if I had what it takes to be a good teacher. So this is a year of prospective job training, isn't it?

Well, there's a fine line between looking on the bright side of things and sugarcoating the truth.

"Don't settle. You can do better. You're smart, you have a good education. You should aim to be the best in your field. Don't you think your skills are being wasted if you spend more than one year in Korea? Hey Andrew, didn't you once say you wanted to be a doctor, a professor, a missionary? You need to wait for God to tell you what to do -- oh, and also, you need to decide now. Dear Andrew, I hope South Korea's treating you well. What are you planning to do afterward?"

Mr. Braddock: What is it, Ben?
Benjamin: I'm just...
Mr. Braddock: Worried?
Benjamin: Well...
Mr. Braddock: About what?
Benjamin: I guess about my future.
Let That Be Enough (Model Behavior) - Switchfoot by Jars of Clay on Grooveshark

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