At work, there is a wall next to the reception desk where, over the last few days, someone (I assume Curt or Helen?) has been putting up these little post-it notes, upon which are written spontaneous student feedback to the prompt “What do you think of Karma?” There is no explanation for this – there are only the post-its. I had to ask someone to explain what they were about, and it was far from obvious, even reading the notes, because all the post-its are of that variety that are free because they contain advertising (promotional) material, from a discount store chain called E-Mart (Korean Wal-Mart). So it looks, at first glance, like the students are expressing their opinion of E-Mart, which would be a silly thing to put up next to the reception desk at Karma.
Once I learned what the notes were about, however, I studied them carefully. I’m deeply curious what the students think of Karma, and there is not enough of this kind of information that, at least that I have ready access to, given my linguistic handicaps.
A few of the notes are entertainingly negative. One student wrote a very laconic: 없다 – “there’s nothing.” I assume that the question-prompt had been something like “what do you think of when you think of Karma?” or “what’s the first thing that pops into your head on the subject of Karma?”
Another note said the single word, “Stay” (in English), which refers to when we make students stay late to finish homework or re-take a quiz.
The largest number of notes said something to the effect of “재미있다,” which is, roughly, “it’s fun.”
Another bunch of notes expressed ideas related to, “쌤 친절해요,” which is something like “the teachers are kind.” This can give a nice feeling. Many of this class of note got more specific, naming individual teachers, including Grace, Helen, and Kay.
It was in observing this that my heart fell. Among all the notes, several dozen at least, not one mentioned my name. It was a wall of unfame, at least with respect to me.
I’m not actually interested in fame. But I’m interested in trying to be memorable to my students.
A few weeks ago, I had a really bad week. It was one of those weeks where, as a means of coping, I begin to compose a resignation letter to my boss.
I have done this many times in my life – it’s not something that I allow to come to fruition – at least, not in recent decades. It’s a way of coping, I guess, and a way of documenting various frustrations.
There had been ongoing problems at work, and one class, in particular, had kind of reached a crisis. I wrote about that, already. The mistake I made, after that crisis, was calling on my bosses to help me deal with it. That was a mistake, because it left me feeling weak and ineffective about my job, and, in the Korean context, I lost a lot of “face” with my coworkers. Mostly, my coworkers claim not to care about this issue, but it does leave subtle tells in their behavior and interactions with me, and thus the last several weeks have felt a little bit “frosty.”
Anyway, I have subsequently felt better about that particular class. The reformation and resolution was probably a combination of some stern talking-to by the other teachers and my own effort to swallow my anger and remember they’re just kids, and don’t have a clue how to behave.
That week from hell had other lasting consequences for my general state of mind.
On Tuesday, somehow I managed to stub my toe. That may sound innocuous enough – but it was a bad toe-stubbing. I bled all over the floor of my apartment, and almost thought I should go to the hospital before it finally stopped. Somehow, the toe-stubbing aggravated my old broken metatarsil bone from my bicycle accident (1993), where I had a metal pin inserted. Now I’m limping around, and in pain in my foot. Even several weeks later, I still feel tender down there – clearly I reactivated the old injury. It is a kind of special supplement to the permanent low-grade post-surgery pain I experience in my mouth and neck.
With tensions high at work, I ended up yelling with my boss on Wednesday – and as I said, things have felt a little bit frosty.
On Thursday of that week, I accidentally deleted an online draft document where I keep my kind of personal journal supplement to my blog – it’s like a place to brainstorm ideas, and record thoughts that I decide not to record in the public record of the blog. Let’s just say, I managed to delete about 6 months of personal journaling.
I haven’t had a computer disaster of that level for quite a while. It’s ironic because I had just been telling a coworker a few days before that I was confident I was backing up everything I wrote really effectively. That document managed to slip through a kind of crack I allowed to develop in my backup system. It’s my own fault of course. Anyway, I lost quite a bit of writing.
I was struggling with anger. I spent a lot of energy on “watching” myself as I dealt with it. I was particularly struck by what might be termed an “ascetic” response. When I’m angry, it’s almost always combined with a severe self-condemnation, as I generally blame myself for things that have gone wrong. In fact, with things that are genuinely out of my own control, my anger tends to be more ephemeral. Thus the kind of anger that is hardest for me to cope with is anger at myself.
That kind of anger is insidious.
Anger is dangerous. It insinuates, reproduces, perpetuates, like a virus in the body or an ideology in a culture, anger is immanent at the level of a single mind. It can cloud your mind, because it’s seeking to stay in charge and reproduce. It is not a single voice, but a tribe of voices and assertions and emotionalized perceptions, which reach out an hijack other voices and perceptions. It’s a demonic possession, it’s a contamination, it’s an error.
My psychological response has been to seek out deadness, numbness. I remember many years ago, I coined a term for it. I called it “ascetic narcotism.” I’m not sure it’s completely accurate, but I was trying to capture the way that the impulse to purify takes over and becomes an obsession, like a kind of addiction.
I kept trying to be more ascetic. Restricting my diet. Restricting my “fun activities,” like surfing blogs or drawing maps.
In fact, I don’t like purity narratives. I’ve tried to write about that, before, but I think eventually I should make a book about it.
So now, it’s several weeks later.
Gradually, I had been feeling better, and more positive, although work is feeling desperate, still. And then I stood and studied the wall of unfame, and all my insecurities and frustrations came back to me.
As I walked home on Friday night, I found myself thinking a lot about what it is I’m trying to get out of being a teacher. I do hope to have some impact on kids’ lives, I guess. But I also view it a relatively low-stress career – it was my own personal rejection of the rat-race careerism that had absorbed me during my years working with databases and IT. So my frustration isn’t just with the frustrating aspects of the job, but with the very fact that it is frustrating, because the point is to get away from things that are frustrating. If my low-stress career is stressful, I’m doing it wrong.
Here is the “resignation letter” that I’d started, before. I suppose this is a kind of passive-aggressive way of publishing it, to the extent that this blog is public. But I’m not actually resigining – I’m just trying to work out my feelings.
Until now, the reason that I do this job is because I enjoy it.
If I cannot enjoy the job, I should quit. I can get other jobs that I don’t enjoy. I can get jobs that pay much better. I have a lot of skills.
I have a huge amount of gratitude to my current place of work for the kindness people have shown me. But gratitude alone cannot nourish my soul.
I really don’t think I’m that great of a teacher. I am a bit lazy, definitely, and I rely on my in-class enthusiasm and rhetorical skills to scrape by. I have a pretty good grounding in and awareness of pedagogical theory and the issues around it, but I often take shortcuts that disregard my knowledge. In teaching, in any event, perfectionism is dangerous, as it can be paralyzing, because a class never goes perfectly.
It’s weird, because the teachers from my own past that I think about most frequently and remember most vividly are not, likely, the “best” teachers. In some cases, they are not even the teachers whom I liked the most at the time. The teachers I tend to think about are the ones who constructed narratives – ongoing narratives and consistent patterns through many classes.
I try to be that kind of teacher, but I’m not feeling very successful. The wall of unfame feels like a confirmation that I’m not.
[daily log: walking, 1km]