Friday, December 7, 2012

Why I Got Angry Today, and How the Problem Fixed Itself (Kind Of)

It was supposed to be a mini-lesson on the slang prefix "super-" and its use in modifying adjectives. While compiling my list of American slang to teach in class, I'd noticed that "super-" is used more often in front of positive adjectives than in front of negative ones. (Compare super-cool, super-smart, super-cute, and super-close to super-lame, super-dumb, super-ugly, and super-far.) It's not a hard and fast rule, but I figured that most people tended to associate the prefix with ideas of greatness and attractiveness.

With that in mind, I combined the lesson on this bit of slang with an exercise in compliments. I told my classes that "super-" is most often use with positive adjectives, describing people that one likes, such as friends or family. So, my classes brainstormed as many positive adjectives as they could: brilliant, glamorous, sexy, tall, warm-hearted, awesome, nice. A few jokesters called out adjectives that wouldn't necessarily be considered positive, at least in my opinion. And that's where the problem arose.

When I had my students read their compliments out loud to each other, the "MJ is super-pretty!" and "YH is super-good at math!" were just fine, but then DR -- of all people, the class captain -- had to get up and, with a smirk on his face, read out three compliments he had written. "US is super-short, because he is only 1.5 meters. KI is super-gay, because he likes men. UH is super-dark, because..." and by that time I was so angry that I didn't even hear how that one ended.

"DR. Are those compliments?" I tried to ask it neutrally, but I bet whatever expression I was wearing made it really obvious that I was nowhere near neutral.

He looked at me guiltily, said no, and sat down again.

I tried to continue the exercise and had more people give their compliments, but inside I felt like I'd just been completely deflated. Hindsight told me to make DR apologize in front of the class, or to explain why I was upset, anything but just go on and pretend that nothing had happened. But as I was scrambling to think about what I should've done as well as what I was going to do in the last three minutes of class, it happened again. A female student said another female student was "super-cute", and some boys in the back of the classroom called out, "Gayyy."

I stopped everything and addressed the class, two minutes before the bell was to ring.

"Okay, maybe this isn't the best time to talk about this, but... I will. Please do not use the word 'gay' as an insult. It's very, very offensive." Damn, that didn't come out the way I had intended to. I could've said more, but the class laughed when I wrote 'gay' on the board to make it clear what I was referring to. Screw this, I thought. Just end class already.

Convinced I'd just botched that moral lesson, I figured I'd just save the real lecture for another day, even though I only have one class left with the first-years. I went back to my office, pretty dejected. When my co-teacher asked what was wrong, I explained that I was offended by the students who tried to be funny in class by putting down other students: short, gay, and dark-skinned are all negative stereotypes in Korea, and the "complimented" students could have been hurt by the comments.

Co-teacher responded by saying that the students were just in the habit of making fun of each other by insulting each other in a way that actually showed their solidarity and friendship. "Not that it makes it okay," she added, "but I don't think they had bad intentions."

I told her that I think it's important that students learn about how words can harm others even if they don't intend them to and about how jokes cracked at the expense of someone's feelings can be dangerous. I mused about whether I'd administer some sort of retroactive punishment or just find DR later to talk to him in person. I was scolding myself for not having a better plan of action ready, because let's be serious: this is high school, and my students are still kids. I should have expected this to happen sooner or later.

Fortunately, I didn't actually have to do anything. In the last few minutes of passing period, DR himself stepped into my office, looking meek. He came to apologize. He said, "Teacher, I'm sorry." I had him sit down, and then I explained that his words could have hurt and that while it is usually good to be funny, it is not good to be funny by making fun of other people. I told him to apologize to the three students he had insulted and also to give them real "super" compliments this time. Lastly, I asked him if he understood everything I said and if we would need my co-teacher to translate. He said no, and then I let him go.

Now, I don't know if DR actually did do what I told him to. I hope he did apologize to his peers. But if he didn't, I can at least be sure that he actually did feel remorse for his actions. How? I didn't ever tell him to come to my office or stay after class, but he came on his own initiative. I guess it was a bit of his feeling of responsibility as class captain coupled with my extremely visible disappointment in him and the rest of the class that got to him. And I was super-impressed.

In any case, after DR left, I felt significantly better about the situation. But if (when) it happens again, I'm going to be better prepared. There's no reason I can't teach respect and citizenship on top of English grammar and slang.

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