I Respect

Today, a non-rant about students who’ve brightened up my week.

It’s rare in my work these days that students routinely visit me in my office. Most of my office hours are spent either in class preparation, grading, or revising fiction and checking up fiction markets for the purposes of submitting my own stories to them. But there are a couple of students who’ve taken advantage of that time to come to my office, either for help with their schoolwork, or else just to chat. This is nice, I like it: it breaks up the monotony of the office hours.

One of my students, one of the ones I get along with quite well, came and dropped by my office this afternoon. We’d been talking recently about her plans for the future, and she informed me that she’d thought over our previous talk about careers and work, and she’d come to a decision and wanted to let me know. So we talked about that, and about some of her writing samples, but then just chatted until it was almost time for class to start.

Leaving my office, she said, “You’re different outside of class. In class, you’re sillier, funnier, always joking. Outside class, you’re more… cynical, sacrastic, and quieter.”

“Students prefer that, don’t they? Sillier and funnier in class?” She agreed. And in the course of our chat, she mentioned that the other Composition class offered at the same level right now is indeed easier than mine — much less work involved — but that the ongoing Form Mastery Project I’ve assigned for the semester is, she finds, useful. (Students essentially write different examples of the same kind of document over and over — movie reviews of different movies, book reviews, business letters, short-stories, whatever they like.) This makes up for the fact that they’re writing several drafts of just one essay during the semester — a first draft (serving as the midterm exam), a revision which is ungraded, and then a final expanded revision which is the final exam. For all her complaints, she told me that she finds the Form Project is very useful.

Anyway, this woman is someone I respect because she very knowingly acknowledges her differences from the people around her, accepts them, and goes on with her life. She told me some very interesting things about what it’s like to go shopping for womens’ clothing in Korea when you’re not a tiny-built woman, and about what it’s like to go to Stewardess Courses on the weekend. Very interesting stuff, especially the “Charm” classes. I am not kidding. She’s doing it because she needs to in order to get what she wants, but still raising an eyebrow about it, and that’s cool.

Another student who came to me for help with her monologue (which was the midterm exam in the drama classes I’m teaching) had a very interesting talk with me about her monologue character. What was fascinating was how she used parts of her own experience to make the character come to life. She bombed the exam somewhat, but in class, she’s always the first to put up her hand or answer a question. Today, the students split up into groups to start preparing the dramas they’re going to write and perform for their final exam, and you should have seen her — she was talking up a storm, and I suspect she’s become the de facto leader of the group. While she probably needs to cool it a little and listen to the others, let them contribute, she’s surely going to inject so much energy into the group that I think they’re going to do well. No arguing about nitpicky details with them, let me tell you.

There’s one last young lady in the department where I teach who is basically hopeless when it comes to English. She can sort-of speak, but her writing is mostly just baffling. (Though it is slowly getting better and more comprehensible, maybe because over the last semester and a half I’ve been pushing her to simplify everything she writes for the sake of clarity, and to focus on structure and communication. But I can’t take so much credit… it’s work on her part that’s allowed her to ascend to the point of being almost-comprehensible now.)

Anyway, the thing that’s remarkable about her is that something happened over the summer. I don’t know if she just kind of woke up into being this socially-conscious, civic-minded, compassionate person, or what, but everything she writes these days stirs up my respect. The sentences still come out sometimes as gobbledegook, but she has something to say. She related the experience of realizing, after watching the Korean film Oasis, how rude and hurtful she’d been staring at a mentally-handicapped couple walking down the street, or at people in wheelchairs glimpsed in years past. She’s written about the reasons why she wants to be a social worker. She’s written what I am willing to wager will remain the most passionate essay in the pile, about how important it is that social programs are established to help Korean families attain stability in this time of rapid social change.

I can’t say I always agree with some of what she says, but she’s saying things she really believes in, that she believes because of apparent sustained thought. She’s one of those people who, starting out with a good heart, proceeds to apply the imperatives of a good heart to everything she looks at. She doesn’t rant about Japan, or the price of school bus tickets. She’s angry about things that it makes sense to be angry about, worried about things that one only wishes more people worried about, but all the while she’s still got a smile on her face and hope in her heart. She’s a really good kid, a person who is decent in the way that very few people in the world are — decent to the point where you stop and ask yourself, “When did I stop being that decent-hearted and hopeful and demanding of the world?”

So, even if, in the end, I’m stuck pointing out all the messed-up grammar and trying to get her to remember to simplify as much as possible, I still am happy and even feel privileged to have crossed paths with this young person. For all the complaining I do, teaching this person is one of those things that makes it worthwhile.

There are more students like this — many more than I ever met in Jeonju — among the bodies in my classrooms. On other days, I might have written about them: the guy who plays jazz piano, the easygoing plagiarst from last semester who finally kicked himself in the butt and is really trying hard now to get his stuff together, the mature student in one of my writing classes who is so patient, understanding, and courteous not only to me, but to everyone, or the guy who, though he really probably shouldn’t be an English major, still works like a dog on steroids, and finally, a young lady I’ve taught for two semesters now who should just be hired as a CEO somewhere, because she’s not only brilliant but more straightforward and organized than most well-trained platoons, and, when she sets her mind to it, more convincing than a ziploc bag full of hard evidence. When I’m faced with a pile of essays, or the task of preparing a lecture on a subject about which I’ll need first to educate myself, it’s people like these that make me really give it a good solid effort.

And I’m not sure that they ever know that it’s them that inspires me to do it. Hmmm.

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