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Impressing Heaven by Barbara Waldern - HTML preview

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II.Nursing Dreams

             Freshmen enter their first day of conversation class full of trepidation and excitement leaving the clamor of the lively hallway to penetrate the cold silent chamber. Some students have had few encounters with foreigners but a foreigner will teach this class. That is as much a cause for nervousness as is the prospect of having to speak English aloud in public.

             Outside the room, it is bedlam in the hallways and around the campus buildings. Hormones are galloping and the mating dances, pursuit of talent, the will of dreams, and heedless whim of serendipity proceed following the natural rhythms of the heavens that pursue their own course, regardless of the imposition of human design.

             The young people shuffle one by one out of the buzzing life beyond into the cold and unfamiliar classroom, murmuring nervously or excitedly. Students who enter the classroom without a friend feel especially nervous. They worry about the classroom dynamics. Will classmates be nice? Will there be new friends? Will I understand the teacher? Will the teacher be nice? Will the student feel embarrassed? Will she or he succeed to calm the nerves and loosen the carefully stored yet atrophied English concepts and linguistic forms so as to utter the language competently enough to get a decent grade?

Well trained to find order, they quickly examine the room with its lack of décor and inspiration then chose their seats among the abused desks, scraping hollow metal legs along the floor and carefully sneaking glimpses of each other. They plant their oversized handbags and tightly packed cases and backpacks around them, and stack of books on the metal framed desktops, cell phone ever in hand as a reassuring support that demonstrates associations and belonging, and can serve as an aid in social emergencies. A seating pattern soon emerges.

             Despite the worries, the prospect of entering the English as a foreign language conversation class is thrilling. Meeting strangers from many other lands full of celebrated wonders and intriguing mysteries is the next step to unlocking the secret treasures and sharing the joys of faraway cultures  so as to—eventually, hopefully—traverse the vast waters to distant shores and explore unknown territories and live new experiences. Therefore, students generally eagerly anticipate the experience of being in a conversation class at last, especially with a foreigner at the helm.

             For the most part, regular school lessons in English are dry and unexciting. It is puzzling how one could spend so many hours year after year supposedly learning a language without learning much about the cultures in which the language is based. Students sweat over memorizing lines, completing grammatical exercises, being quizzed on vocabulary, and finding strategies by which to match, choose and fill in words and phrases correctly, week after week, exam after exam, and get through all the hoops and log jams without actually using the language.

             There are merits to this way of life. In this system, for example, the roles and power relations are clear. Here is how it is supposed to go. The teacher, while subjugated to the commanders of the institution, has the power in the classroom and takes the floor while the students listen expressionless. Ideally, students obey with humility and without question or comment, while competing furiously against their own shortcomings and the aims of classmates to get top marks and demonstrate achievement. The teacher supervises and guides the students through the lessons, then makes corrections and decides fates and lifestyles in deciding scores.

             The brightest and the most self-disciplined sit upright at the front of the class. The shirkers, the timid and the less able resign themselves to the back rows, hoping that, by effacing themselves, their deficiencies or lack of interest are effaced. Aside, the teacher may sigh at the thought of the effort it might take to tow the latter group along, but is actually relieved by the presence of obvious “more advanced” students of English at the front and preoccupies herself mostly with them, the prescribed classroom geography that places the teacher at the front of the room her excuse.

The students, if they are bent on academic achievement, which is usually the case, are expected to spend hours at home or at school every day and many evenings, from six to seven days a week, memorizing material or completing assignments for the dreaded government exams that mean everything. Good scores on the government exams are the tickets to more opportunities and financial and social success. The teacher must stick to the material for the exam and there is not much time to get creative or try new tricks as long as the clock is ticking on the examination cycle. That being the constrained situation of teaching a foreign language in the Korean public education system, the teacher has little opportunity to try out new methods and venture into practice activities, no matter the training and conscientiousness of any teacher.

             Hanging over the students are the stress of this competition, their duty to family and society, and the weight of past failures and heavy hopes. The atmosphere has become somber after having dragged baggage into the classroom. The students face the teacher with a combination of aching anxiety and burning curiosity.

             Today, their new teacher, a middle aged woman from Western Canada, surveys the gathering before him trying to get a sense of the group. She smiles and introduces herself.

             The students are mesmerized by the open body language, expressive face and the flying hands. It is most distracting. They cannot understand much at first. Then, they realize that it is time for students to introduce themselves.

The teacher writes the questions and responses on the white board with a black marker. “What is your name?” “My name is ~.” “How old are you?” “I’m 20 years old.” “Where is your hometown?” “My hometown is in blah-blah.” “What is your major?” “My major is blah-blah.” The students chuckle a little at hearing the expression, blah-blah. Seeing these sentences, a remembrance surfaces. As the teacher reads them, they begin to sound familiar. A waving arm gives a signal and the students realize that they are being asked to repeat the sentences after the teacher.

Then it is up to the most daring in the group to volunteer to be the first one to utter an English sentence in class, and ask one of the questions to a fellow student. Someone in the front row leans forward and smiles when the teacher looks his way and singles him out to do the job. He turns to the student beside him and begins the drill. The conversation is repeated working its way from the front rows to the back, so that the shier people at the back have a chance to hear the lines over and over before it is there turn to speak them. The exercise becomes less scary as the students laugh to hear themselves speak the strange words while the teacher coaxes and cheers them on. The room is starting to warm up and look friendly.

“Do you have any questions for me?” asks the teacher after the last pair has done the introductions. “What do you want to ask me?” she says, rephrasing the question. They already know her name. They had heard her say it and can see it written on the board ahead of them. The boldest student in the front row grins widely and ventures the question they all want to ask: “How old are you?” He and the rest of the class are fully aware that that is a naughty question to ask of a Westerner, especially a woman, but they want to see the reaction.

“Older than you,” comes the measured reply. Everyone laughs. The teacher smiles back.

The teacher urges the students to stand up and introduce themselves to more classmates with a new question: “Why do you want to study English?” First she writes some possible answers on the board, soliciting the reasons for studying English from the boldest of the group and noting them in correct English. Finally, she gets all the students to rise and stand beside their desks. Then she has them follow her lead to repeat all the phrases about studying English aloud. Once again modeling an activity, she approaches a student and asks her, “Why do you want to study English?” Hesitatingly, the young woman glances at the board and takes a minute of modesty before uttering the chosen answer quietly. The teacher repeats her answer loudly for the benefit of the class. She approaches a second student with the same question and then waves both her arms to get them all to turn to the strangers in the room and converse. After a few minutes, the students lose their doubt about speaking in class, having accepted the permission to speak and subsequently given themselves to the pleasure of some sociable discourse. The voices rise, bubble and sparkle. The teacher looks around, an expression of satisfaction on her face.

The teacher soon discerns the more able speakers from the rest and takes note so that one may be called upon to translate or demonstrate a task. The students find buddies and the teacher creates working groups.

It will take a few weeks for the Canadian teacher to learn half their names. She teaches five classes this term and four of them have enrolments of more than 25 students each. Some students want to use English names, which can help as long as the teacher can keep track of the Korean names that accompany the English ones. The teacher uses tricks to help her remember Korean names. For instance, Kim Ji Eun is filed in her memory as “the kimchi girl.” Then there are the names that sound close to English or European names, such as “Yu Nik” because the teacher recalls the name as “the unique girl” or “Han Sang” that quickly becomes “Hansen” in the teacher’s mind or “Jeon Sang” that may be recalled as “Johnson.” She remembers the student named “Yo Heong” that made her smile because she thought of it as “Johanne.” Gradually, the names become more familiar and a rapport builds.  

Hence, the atmosphere warms up over the weeks and increased spoken English proficiency simmers as each day’s recipe is given in various media and the continuous practice cooks up results. The teacher takes pleasure on witnessing the production of the goods in her kitchen. She constantly encourages them, reminding them that the activity is the key for better application in the real world. Through the dialogs about hopes, dreams and careers that continue to stew, she hears the bubbling excitement of their prospects for the future. She knows that some of her students will have fine and interesting lives with many kinds of success. She is glad for them and she is glad to have a role in assisting them to proceed. That is her best compensation.

However, there are always some students who do not keep up. Out of that batch, a few may give up altogether and quit accepting an F due to incomplete work, while others may adjust their academic goals, perhaps changing their major subject or program of study, but resolving to complete the course nevertheless and receive a B grade or less. Often, these are very practical decisions, perhaps through consultation with friends, family members and academic advisors. For the benefit of the latter type, the teacher often provides enough support and makes enough adjustments to ensure a passing grade of at least a C, if the student indicates a sincere effort. There are those who simply switch gears and abandon their work in English, not showing up much for a few weeks perhaps, or skipping tests and assignments as they make a transition. Some top students may drop a course, especially when that golden opportunity of a good job or prestigious training comes up.

There are some, though, who might not make much effort but choose to stay. Perhaps they are young men intent on postponing their time in military service by prolonging their studies. Perhaps they have other goals but cannot appease their parents wish that they continue academic study. Perhaps they play a waiting game to see if another program accepts them, or to have somewhere to be until the start date of some other program or project.

In this particular class, there are two struggling students out of a class of 28 who quit. As they are registrants of her class, the teacher has no choice but to assign an F to their records. However, there are three struggling students who work hard and steadily to improve their work and the teacher is happy to assist them achieve greater progress so that they may attain a solid B grade for their efforts. Actually, one of this threesome receives a B+ in the end. There is also one well performing student whose work suddenly declines and he explains that he has made alternative plans and thereby made his study of English a lower priority. He sticks around enough to complete the main assignments and the final exam but sacrifices an A grade. This is a conscious decision made according to well weighed considerations of all available options, and the teacher appreciates and respects this thinking.

Yet one good student gradually withdraws, first attending intermittently but showing up for the two main assignments and the midterm examinations before disappearing altogether. She remains a mystery until the teacher receives a note attached to a final assignment near the end of the course. The note says, in brief yet correct script, “I am sorry I missed your class. You are a very good teacher but I decided to become a nurse. Thank you for teaching me. I hope you understand.”

On the day of the final exam, this student enters the classroom and submits to the written and oral conversation tests. When she hands in the test paper, she reiterates, “I want to be a nurse now. I will not study English anymore.”

This particular student has remained loyal to her class partner too. Therefore, one reason for showing up at the final examination is to fulfill her role as class partner. Her former partner in the class has patiently awaited her presence in order to perform the oral test tasks. They have corresponded and practiced outside the class, apparently.

The teacher smiles at them, pleased that the pair have maintained respect and made arrangements for the school work to be completed. Clearly, the one who left is no longer concerned about English, but she has decided to complete the work in order to get a respectable grade, even though she has lost points due to absence. The teacher feels satisfied and thinks that the decision to change course and train to become a nurse may be a very wise decision. Too many students and families pin their hopes on obtaining academic degrees for the sake of status and conformity when there are opportunities in well paying trades and professions.

Too many students and families believe that studying English will resolve their problems and guarantee success and respect. The teacher naturally thinks that study of foreign languages is worthwhile and likes to see her keenest students learn and benefit from foreign language studies. Regardless, she still knows that the obsession with learning English is not productive in many cases. It is therefore a relief to hear that a student doubts the hype of English education and especially that certain students apparently ill suited to foreign language studies overcome the social pressure and find some other path.