“Don’t pick flowers,” was the immediate response when my first grade students were asked recently to imagine that our class had been whisked away from our room in Ilsan, South Korea and plopped down on an isolated island with the challenge of governing ourselves. “Don’t pick flowers,” was among the first must-have laws. Our white board was soon overflowing with edicts like, “Don’t catch whales or animals, except cows,” “Pick a president, then be nice to them,” and “Love the nature.” How simple it is to bring law and order to a society. Others included:
Don’t pollute nature or the sea.
Stay away from strangers.
Don’t go to dangerous places.
Don’t go too far from the group.
Don’t say bad words.
Don’t kill animals. Eat rice, fruit, or vegetables.
Hearing amusing thoughts in the classroom is standard practice when you spend each day hanging out with kids. There’s rarely a week that goes by without hearing something that makes me scramble for a pen so I can recount it later. Maybe the heaps of holiday candy went to their heads, maybe all their witty English thoughts piled up in their young brains without an outlet, but this week, the first back since Christmas, the priceless snippets numbered too many to count. There was the first grader who curiously queried, “Teacher, does your mother have any children?” and met the giggles that followed with a look of confusion, and I can hardly leave out that this student’s name just happens to be Macqueen.
Even though all our kids obviously have Korean names, I couldn’t tell you what they are. They adopt names that are friendly to the English speaker, like Alice and John, at school. While parents or older siblings pick out names for some of the students, many choose their own. When a five year old gets to christen himself, it should come as no surprise that some interesting choices appear on the attendance sheet. While the names Eagle and Bright make me smile, the name Macqueen has to be my favorite. If you were wondering where a child would ever get the inspiration to name themselves Maqueen, you obviously haven’t seen the 2006 Pixar movie, Cars, with the lovable main character aptly named after Steve Mcqueen, an actor whose name and its accurate spelling are at least 50 years off this kid’s radar.
Then there was the third grade student who explained that she was previously absent from overindulging in rice cakes while mimicking vomit noises. That was followed by a conversation about the practicality of dispersing a message in a bottle by throwing it in a body of water when you could save yourself some time and just flush it down the toilet. And how could I forget the third grade student who innocently raised her hand to announce that she searched my name on the Internet and found a picture of me behind bars in prison (a claim I was confident was not true, but checked nonetheless, just to be sure).
All of these were drops in the bucket of pithy witticisms compared to the resounding kerplunk of a conversation I had with a fourth grade student about a teacher’s absence. A co-worker came down with a case of the flu and had to end the day early. Two fourth grade classes were combined to accommodate. When I explained to the class why, one of the students crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a skeptical glance, as if to say, “You really expect us to buy that?”
“Um, Teacher,” he said, “I don’t believe you.”
“Oh?” I said.
“No, I think really he ate too many soju.”
I tried to expertly sweep in and put this subversion to rest, but to no avail. Truth be told, I may have inadvertently threw an ample amount of fuel on the growing fire, as the whole class was now jumping on board the soju conspiracy theory train. When the student persistently continued, “Really, he ate too many alcohol,” the grammar stickler inside me couldn’t be restrained. I had to reply, “It’s drink too much alcohol, not too many.” Perhaps this would have been a good time to forgo the grammar lesson as the student promptly took this as confirmation that in fact his theory was right all along.
“So, not soju, then what was it? Beer? Makgeoli? Wine? What kind of alcohol does he drink? Huh?” he insisted, throwing a barrage of heated questions my way like a good detective in a bad movie. You have to give the kid credit for a sturdy commitment to the truth. I admit my grammar correction lacked timing and foresight, but as Mr. Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”