Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Want to know a secret?

I've always wanted to be called "쌤". Pronounced ssaem (like the first syllable of "semaphore"), it's an abbreviation of the word "선생님" (seonsaengnim), which means "teacher".

In Korea, teachers can be addressed by the simple title "Teacher", just like American college professors can be called "Professor" by their students. But if a student uses 쌤 instead of 선생님, it implies a closer relationship between the two. If a student is joking around with their teacher outside of class, or greets them excitedly upon seeing them, it's likely that they'll use the abbreviation as a term of endearment.

Now, my students have never called me 쌤. They call me "Teacher" or "Andrew Teacher", and some of my older students, who feel more comfortable with me, just call me "Andrew". That's what I told them all to call me, anyway, as I insist on their using only English. But I can't deny that I'd love for some of them to use 쌤 instead. It would mean a lot of different things, among them the affirmation that I am actually a legitimate teacher here, not just a visitor who's here to train them in practical usage of the English language. It would mean that they consider me if not a friend, then at least friendly and comfortable enough to be around to use a bit of Korean slang.

But today, it happened! Somewhat. Just like last week's basketball tournament that all my students were obsessing over, this week's lunchtime soccer tournament captures everyone's attention during that short thirty minutes before fifth period. EJ and CY, two likable students from one of my second-year classes, were watching their peers play from the window of our English classroom on the third floor. The game underway on the dirt field outside was very intense: two to one, and very little time left on the clock. As I entered the classroom to prepare for the next period, I heard a roar come from outside.

"Who scored?" I asked, although I already knew from the groans and frustrated yells from my second-years.

"Third grade!" said EJ, angrily. She was totally into the game, now tied and almost over. With the bell for fifth period about to ring, they had to go into a shootout tiebreaker. With every goal by the third-years, I gave a little cheer (full disclosure: I like my third-year students a lot). I told EJ and CY very plainly that I support all of my students, but I was secretly enjoying getting a rise out of EJ because she was going so crazy over the outcome of the game, literally pulling her hair and jumping up and down and all that.

So I kept cheering on the third-years and pleasantly clapping for the second-years, and finally, the third-years scored a goal, and I said, "Hooray!" and EJ turned to me and said "쌤!!!" with this hilarious how-could-you look on her face. As soon as that word left her mouth, she corrected herself and said, "Teacher!!!" still just as incredulously. But I was smiling inside, and not just because my third-years had won the game.

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