Friday, December 14, 2012


There are at least two sides to every situation.

My college prep kids. My poor college prep kids. They are suffering from an intense collective Senioritis. They don't have to study anymore, and even though they have final exams next week, their grades no longer matter, so they're not trying. And unfortunately, this week, all of the second-year students had their speaking tests: three-minute speeches on their opinion on one of a number of social, political, or philosophical issues. When I administered the speaking tests for the first-years, I basically held their hands through the entire month we spent perfecting the drafts before the dreaded test day. With the second-years, I was less of a "helicopter teacher", because I figured they didn't need as much guidance.

As it turns out, dozens of students failed to memorize their speeches and instead read sheepishly from their scripts, still riddled with grammatical mistakes, in front of the entire class, with only the slightest hint of remorse. These students all got terrible scores. Even worse, three students didn't even prepare anything at all. They got zeros. It hurt me to give one out the first time, but by the third, I was so over it.

I become pretty upset at one of my two college prep classes after one too many students started their speech with, "I'm sorry, Teacher, I didn't remember [memorize] my speech." I made it very clear that I was disappointed in them and that I expected the rest of the speeches (later on in the week) to be better.

Two students from this class came to me personally to apologize and explain the situation. One claimed that the college-bound students wanted to help out their peers who will move on to the third grade by doing poorly on their tests, the idea being that the two third-year-bound classes would get relatively better scores.

No, kids, that's not how it works. If you don't prepare for your test, the only person it affects is you. You're only shooting yourself in the foot, and nobody else will benefit from it, because I don't curve. I told YG, who was very sweet in her attempt to justify her classmates' mindset, that I knew the grades didn't matter, but that the inevitable low scores weren't what bothered me. What bothered me was their attitude, the irresponsible notion that when the goal (college) has been met and the stakes (grades) no longer exist, effort can also just be tossed out the window with no repercussions. It's the transgression of resting on one's laurels -- well-earned, but, well, they're being worn on the wrong end.

I thought I made it so easy for them to do well. I gave them an outline and twenty topics to choose from. I told them I'd correct a hundred additional drafts if they gave me a hundred additional drafts, but only a handful of students took advantage of my office hours, and many didn't write a single draft at all. Remember that my college prep students have no classes besides English and haven't had anything to do besides self-study for the past three weeks. But their work ethic has simply vanished. And they're sleeping in class. And it's discouraging.

But... But!

But on the other hand, as I've realized, these lamentable students are, in fact, the students who are going to college. And that, my friends, is awesome! They have slaved away in the grueling high-test-scores machine that is the Korean Educational System for their entire lives, and now, finally, they're free (basically). I'm very happy for them.

I'd have to say that it really hit me today, when I realized two things: depending on my schedule, which has changed about every other week for the past six weeks, today may have been the last time I see my graduating second-years. And they are really not high schoolers anymore; they're college students. College students. Heck, I was a college student six months ago. This is ridiculous.

I saw WJ after lunch today in a hallway by the lockers. She was jumping up and down, looking like she'd just won a Golden Ticket. It turns out that she had just found out that she had been accepted off the waitlist into Ewha Womans University (not a typo) for their biology program. Score! Up until today, WJ thought that she was going to have to go into her third year of high school, another poor "leftover" student that everyone involved in Korean secondary science education seems to pity. But now, she gets to graduate and go to Seoul.

Upon hearing WJ's wonderful news, I gave her many high-fives. What I really wanted to do was give her a huge, congratulatory bear hug, but I don't think that it would have been appropriate. I just wanted to express how incredibly happy I was for her. I'm so happy for and proud of my students -- all of them, but especially the ones who have been accepted into college early -- and I almost forgive them for having lost their work ethic completely in my class and driving me nuts.

I tried to make it up to the college prep class I had scolded earlier in the week by teaching them a lighthearted lesson about Senioritis after they had finished their speech tests today. I am happy to report that they understood the concept instantly and that they laughed when I told them that when I was in high school, I also suffered from acute Senioritis. (AP Calculus was a hot mess.) Then, we watched YouTube videos on the theme of Christmas and mistletoe.

Yet there are still more sides to this. I remember telling WJ, "I'm really happy for you! But this means that I will not teach you next year, or ever again." I can say without reservation that WJ is one of my favorite students. (She works hard and it shows: her essay was probably the best in her class of nearly ninety.) Many of my favorite students -- the friendly, inspiring, and hardworking ones -- are the ones who are leaving. Cue the big sigh...

This afternoon, I ran into another student, MC, and made him stop to talk to me.

"What's up?" I asked.
"So-so," he replied.
"What's wrong," I asked.
"Oh, uh... it's garbage day..." (In an instant I remembered that this is the student that I embarrassed a few weeks ago when I misheard his heavily-accented English as Korean during a game.) "... My friend is cleaning."

I thought for a moment. Right, today is cleaning day, when the entire student body is split up into groups and assigned different classrooms and areas of the school to sweep and tidy up. In addition, I had also seen some second-year students cleaning out their lockers. And then I made the connection: the students who have been accepted into university are cleaning their lockers of all their books and work from the past two years. A lot of it will be taken home. The rest will be gal-bi-ji: thrown away or perhaps given to the underclassmen. They're cleaning things out because their time at Changwon Science High School is very nearly over.

"Your friend is going to university, then?" I asked.
"Yes," MC replied. MC is not in my college-prep class.
"Well, you can be happy for him! Are you sad?" I asked.
"A little," he replied.

Hey, buddy... me too. 섭섭해...

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