As I sit, relegated to the back of the class, while my co-teacher helms the hour I am being paid to teach, I have nothing to do but stifle my yawns and observe the behaviours of teenagers.
This relegation, for reasons I’m not certain of, apart from a knowledge that my co-teacher lives in constant fear that without that one extra hour the students will fail at their tests and lives, only happens in my first grade classes, at my main school. It bothers me a huge amount, not least because it has introduced me to the first-grade student as a non-entity who inexplicably sits at the back being foreign, and doesn’t allow me to get into the business of putting the frighteners on them that I will so clearly need when they come around to second grade and become my responsibility.
I resent the fact that my co-teacher has not given me this opportunity. I know all too well how important first impressions are. I would prefer they didn’t see me as a benign lump, void of a point.
While I sit and watch the classes, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a documentary, I half expect Attenborough to turn up and do his thing. I am also disappointed that this is the human race in growth and action: we are literally shaved monkeys slinging poo and clammering to get to the top.
The boys, whose behavioural patterns I used to find squeamish, are at least entertaining. The other day I entered a classroom that sounded like it was full of a marauding herd of antelope, to witness a boy backing another into a corner with a chair, held aloft like a ringmaster. It’s this kind of slapstick idiocy that I don’t think ever leaves the male of the species. Not a fuck is given that one might impale their friend in over zealous chair-jabbing. Stanley knives, kept in pencil cases are tossed jovially around, sharpened, for a laugh, on friends’ legs. Fingers are poked experimentally into crusty eyes of those with conjunctivitis. It’s a loving, sharing, exhausting exercise in expressing camaraderie through physical danger.
The girls are something different altogether and it saddens me to my core.
In the girls’ classes, you can immediately identify the top dogs. They are the white-skinned slender ones, usually sporting freakish eye-enlarging contact lenses; faces thick with ghostly pale BB cream. They are the loudest; shrieking at everything whether it’s amusing or not, particularly if it’s at the expense of another girl. these are the girls who rush up to you and tell you how pretty you are, and poke at your mascara and and tell you ‘Teacher! MinJi is ugly! har har har!’
Then there is the second tier. These girls have to try very hard to avoid the cataclysmic event of incurring the top dogs’ hyena laugh. They have a desk covered in hello kitty Propoganda, or some other sickly cute brand-name stationary. Their books are never open because they spend the entire lesson gazing fretfully into the long-handled mirrors they are mouth-gapingly allowed to have on their desks, compulsively combing their identikit straight black fringes and peering sycophantically at the girls they aspire to be.
Next down the food-chain, what I like to call the Defiant Geeks. Righteous in the knowledge they are smart and devil-may-care as to who knows it. They spend the whole hour battling against the hyena girls for air-time, their eyes blazing with pride when you acknowledge them, fiercely disappointed when you pretend to overlook them in an attempt to offer the less skilled a chance to answer. They zealously refute allegiance to any K-Pop star and attempt to engage you before, during and after class in dull, American accented conversations in ways that seem suspiciously controlled by parental demand.
Then there are the meek or feeble. It’s hard to tell at first whether they are silent because their English skills are weak or because they are threatened by the potential humiliation their peers might wreak upon them should they dare to breathe. They gaze downwards, blushing uncomfortably if asked to do anything remotely interactive, and attempt to hide their numerous self-perceived flaws.
Then there are sleepers. You never see anything of them except their flung-out limbs and mop of black hair. A prod will return you a scowl from a hint of acne ridden jaw followed by a flurry of guilt on your part; they must have been up at all hours in the after school academy.
I don’t hate any of these girls, but I do despair of them. Barely a single one of them, regardless of the heierarchy, posesses, or outwardly flaunts, a sense of humour. Unless you count mocking each other for skirt-length.
Teenage boys might be unhygenic and bolshy, but you can reach them on common ground by laughing about something together. These girls seem almost conditioned out of having a capacity for humour. They are tense; even the ones at the top of the pecking order, anxious underneath it all that someone will laugh at them. The ‘funny ones’ are the bitchy ones. Let the boys choose a video at the end of term for a fun class and they will happily watch Mr Bean, or the Simpsons. The girls resolutely choose horrible movies about horrible high school girls being disgustingly vapid and self obsessed. Their favourite movie is a stinker called ‘Wild Child’ about a spoilt American brat who gets sent to a school in England with lots of English spoilt brats, who get drunk and attempt to win the affection of some mop-haired fop of indistinguishable gender.
So that’s their idea of entertainment. The cinematic equivalent of having a bucket of hot excrement rubbed violently into their faces.
When I have shown my girls The Simpsons as a treat at the end of the semester they have sat there in stony silence as if I’m making them watch Schindler’s List.
And I don’t accept that it’s a cultural difference. You have to be made of stone not to find something amusing in the Greatest TV Show Ever Made. And that’s not just because I’m a SuperFan, it’s just plain science. They blink, uncertain. Was that a joke? Hard to tell. Harder than looking in this mirror for the thirtieth time.
I spoke to some of my friends who teach younger kids at Elementary School and they agree, in fact they say they can see the transition period, as girls go from running about like loons and giggling along with the boys, to starting to cover their mouths carefully when they laugh, turning their backs on silliness, losing their joie de vivre. Appearance, once meaning having cute ankle socks and hair clips, takes on a serious importance; carrying a mirror eeverywhere. The ever-present comb. The only English some of my girls ever speak to me is ‘Teacher, don’t I look pretty??’ Their time is consumed by the soul-destroying cultivation of attempting to appeal to the opposite sex, or survive the scrutiny of their peers.
VOM. And I speak as someone who likes to ‘practice’ doing makeup when I’m bored.
Just as bad for the Defiant Geeks; the role of laughter in their life becomes diminished by the quest for always being bloody right about everything. The average Korean middle school girl of 14 spends 12 hours a day on school and academy work. How much of that time is spent laughing at a fart joke, or something Roald Dahl wrote, or even a cat getting stuck in a jar on youtube? Fuck all time indeed.
The boys have basically the same study schedules but they’re encouraged to engage in activities which require the jokey companionship of larking around. In PE classes at my school the boys have a hoot playing football while the girls sit on the sidelines cheering on the ones they fancy and dissecting Girls Issues. The PE teacher’s only encouragement to them to disband and do some exercise is that they might get fat if they don’t.
I know there are just some biological differences, but lets not make a sense of humour one of them.