I’m at a meeting two hours before work starts. Pockets of teachers form around the room like conspirators in a bar in a Russian novel. Each academy--private English academy that is, an after school program--huddles together as if to prepare for a barrage. We become factions in the room--each one whispering at a level appropriate to their fear. Our little group--RTG--talks as if we’re having mimosas at a Sunday brunch. It’s no secret that our academy is the only one gaining and keeping students. The rest are gashed for students and their phones ring constantly with complaints.
A Korean woman, Elaine is her English name, smiles as she walks in. Her catfish smile and tornado style of speaking are much larger than her small height. She’s elastic and constantly moving as if she could die if she stopped. She sits down at a desk and the tips of her toes touch the linoleum floor.
“Good morning, teachers,” our boss, Mr. Kim, smiles as he enters the room and steps onto the raised platform at the front of the room. He glitters in his silver suit, and his jacket comes to a diamond point at his belt buckle from his angled shoulders as if it was still on a hanger. A grumbled greeting runs through he room like a growl.
“Anyeong hasayeo,” Mr. Kim says. He moves into a 1-2 blast beat of Korean, as if he was trying to talk out a Ramones’ song. The language itself is often disjointedly musical like a free jazz song, Miles Davis playing the saxophone out of tune and accompanied by a sitar.
“Ahh,” Elaine says preparing to translate, “he says, ‘What are the three most important things in life?’”
Everyone looks at each other. Usually there are notes like scripts giving the answers to all of his questions, the notes are usually sent out in memos and emails that are given to us by the head teachers. Everyone is trying to find the script.
“He says, ‘The three most important things in life are long term goals, short term goals, and how to achieve them,’” Elaine translates. From here Mr. Kim moves onto our mission: giving Korean children a brighter future.
There are framed pictures of Barrack Obama and Bill Gates on the wall. They look strange with Hangul scrawled next to them like embroidered graffiti, a code no one can crack. Mr. Kim continues describing our core values, “Innovation and student success.” He claims students success and progress are our goals and not money. But he begins each meeting by talking about how we can increase our student numbers--education is a business. He gives the example of a banquet made for one hundred people where only fifty show up.
“What do we do with the remaining food?” he asks.
“Sell it at half price,” I joke. He laughs and slaps his knee. Everyone from my academy--RTG--laughs. Some of the teachers from the other academies grumble in the corners. Mr. Kim writes numbers in the collected grime of a thousand lessons. Smudged shadows of black marker run across the white board like smog covering snow. He writes the number 91 and circles it and then points at the RTG teachers.
“They kept ninety one percent of their students,” Elaine translates.
Mr. Kim begins explaining the importance of the parent surveys that ask the parents what they like about the academies. He paces while he explains that these surveys tell us what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. “RTG was the best,” Elaine says. “They were the only academy to get more students and keep them.”
“We’re number one,” I shout and pump my fist. The other teachers shoot sniper’s glances at me and Mr. Kim laughs at the front of the room. His eyes peak out like two assholes from gossamers of wrinkles as he chuckles.
“He says, ‘We have to look at the parent feedback, the feedback is important…’” Elaine translates twirling her hands as if she was reeling in the words from some great lake out in front of her. I think about the stacks of books on my desk that I can never finish grading, and the constant conversation in my classroom while he talks about our success.
A revolt erupts from a large, effeminate Mexican-American named Jay.
“It’s no fair that we’re judged by the parents when most of our students hate us and they don’t pay attention and…” he says conjoining his complaints with a sighing, gasping and. His girlfriend sighs and rolls her eyes a lot and probably considers most Democrats to be too far too the right. She has a mop of red hair and a friend of mine says she looks like Miss Moppet who sat on a tuffet; maybe she’s grumpy because she forgot her curds and whey.
Mr. Kim nods holding his pointed chin; his face is always wrinkled in the cheeks from smiling as if he just heard a joke. Most people call him a crook or a thief or a maniac, but I just think he genuinely cares about teaching Korean children English. I often see him putting books away, conducting meetings or staying late. He probably, in the Korean fashion, expects all the Americans and foreigners to believe they’re just as much a part of the company as he is.
“But it’s…it’s not fair,” Jay’s voice quivers through his giant frame. His black-framed glasses twitter on his nose.
“Man, he sounds like he’s going to cry,” Carlos whispers to me.
Mr. Kim continues talking about feedback, and the surveys that the parents filled out showing how much they liked the school. He holds the marker like a microphone as he begins pacing the stage. He brings up national hero, and champion figure skater Kim Yuna.
“After she won the championship and spoke so well, all Korean parents wanted their children to give presentations. Now, it is important that all Korean children learn to debate,” he explains. I imagine my students debating the Berenstein Bears. Chairs groan, vitriol runs like breaths through the room, and Mr. Kim returns to the board to draw a diagram of values in the formation of a T. “All students must debate and present,” Mr. Kim says.
“Yeah, but, we can’t do all these things they do, and we have to give tests, and the other campuses downstairs have younger students and, and, and…” Jay cuts in and the room shakes with nods from the Athens campuses upstairs. They all sit at students’ desks now, crying and moaning the way the students do when they have too much homework or have to work with someone that annoys them.
“Yeah, I mean, we bust our asses…” Elton, the American head teacher of Learning Village, jumps in. He goes on to talk about late nights, deadlines, troublesome kids, and the lack of any hindrances at my campus. I lean back in my chair and listen to the dissention trailing through the other side of the room. The students were fleeing for some reason. Maybe it was the constant influx of new teachers--most signed a one-year contract and didn’t resign. Maybe, it was the constant change or the new students with new mothers and new ideas about what their children should learn. Maybe it was the academy’s flexibility and inability to have any solid philosophy, any mission statement: if one mother claimed the class was too hard, the curriculum was changed for all of the students; if another mother claimed it was too easy, the class was again changed. From week to week a class that began as a history class might become a journalism class or a presentation class, or it might have tests everyday and or tests once a month. The fulcrum, the hinge of it all, is English, and those of us that understand this spent most of our days reclined and jotting down notes and jokes and activities to get the students to talk. Those of us that do not understand this spent their days rushing through the office, typing and reading and printing and photocopying and stuffing abandoned projects in the trash and asking anyone for an idea about what they should do to teach Ancient Egypt to children who had never heard of King Tut.
Mr. Kim begins asking more questions. “What is the key to innovation?”
“Creativity,” someone calls out.
“No, speed,” he says as if it was a math problem.
He begins scrawling numbers through the shadows of ancient lessons on the grimed whiteboard. He writes and erases, and then rewrites. He draws diagrams of edification and writes philosophies with no plan--no way to connect the divine with the earthly.
“How can we get better?” Elaine translates. The jokes and catcalls have diluted into silence; everyone twists and looks for someone to answer the questions, to finish the meeting. I have drawn mazes inside of mazes, and Carlos draws pictures and graffiti tags in his notebook. I watch the clock and grow angry thinking about the lack of pay that we’ll receive for showing up early.
“Now, you will all give presentations,” Elaine says. I’d heard about this, our head teacher at RTG Mike had told us we’d be giving presentations. My response was quick, “Fuck that.”
Mike said it was about team building, and we all need to talk about something that we do at our campus. The academies huddle together and talk in whispers and spurts. We talk about our weekends, Shelly’s new shoes, a movie I want to see, and then we decide to talk about homework or test scores or something else. As the meeting ends, Mr. Kim tells us his dream for all the Korean children we teach. I am only half listening at first until I hear, “I wish, one day, that our students are in the Korean government, and hopefully, they can become senators and congressman in America, England and Canada.”
I sit up and look around the room. I need to check if this is possible. I’m not up to date on the rules and regulations to become a senator or a congressman.
With the meeting adjourned, Elton charges at Mr. Kim. His slight pouch of a stomach pushed back by his bull-like rush towards the CEO. He looks like a midnight manager at Radioshack more than an English teacher. I descend the stairs back to the office wondering if the students I teach might one day beat my own children in an election.