Monday, June 4, 2012

The Janice Avery of Korea

Being a kid was unequivocally awesome. Maybe I didn’t know words like “unequivocally” and maybe I had to go to science class, but now I will never be as cool as I was back then.

Some friends and I were talking about childhood on the bus ride back to Yeongdo and now I’m feeling very nostalgic for the years I spent running around in the woods near our house imagining I was queen of the forest. A fallen tree was proof of a giant invasion; the raccoon tracks were mysterious signs of spies breaching our outer perimeter. Any stick could be the magic sword I was destined to wield as I rescued my people from evil.  I knew every deer trail—every bump every fork, every misleading dead-end—and I ran swiftly and silently in my Keds as I tracked the bad guys. Those were some of the freest times of my life.

Bring a little childhood to Nampo. Reindeer hat boy
seemed confused.
I usually say that the next few years after that—when I was too embarrassed to admit I wanted to grow up and be Robin Hood—were the worst part of life, but even they had their perks. As a middle schooler, I had all the time in the world to read myself silly and no reason not to do it. I couldn’t drive anywhere and the internet wasn’t fast yet, so my evenings were unhindered reading orgies. Even school hours weren’t so bad. Given how easy homework was back then and how much time they gave us to do everything, I might spend fifty percent of my school day reading. I was miffed at those teachers who actually used class time for teaching and expected me to be focused on biology or geography when a good 50% of my mind was helping to defend Redwall from Cluny the Scourge.
Garfield sidled backwards to stand next to me for the pic.

But now I’m an Adult and there’s all these Adult Things I have to do like Taxes and Cooking and Teach the classes I used to read during. If any of my students pulled out a fiction book instead of their smartphone, I’d honestly probably let them read through my class. I don’t even know how little biology and geography I learned in middle school, but I know a lot about how to solve riddles and who to trust and that good always conquers evil when people put others before themselves.

Plastic water sword is wicked sweet.
Soyoung Moon[1], my tutee, and I are reading Bridge to Terebithia together right now. I can’t even describe the way that book tugs at my soul. It’s as if Katherine Patterson looked into my childhood and stole the secret details of my heart and put them into a narrative that is somehow both brighter than life and the essence of it.

This is the kind of stuff I need to be reading every day, even as an adult, to make sure I remember the lessons of childhood. I’m sure I learned a lot in college, reading Foucault and Henry James and, once, my biology book—but it’s not the stuff that matters. And Soyoung tells me that books like Terebithia are rarely if ever part of Korean schools’ curriculums. As we talked about giants and Janice Avery and bullies, we eventually wandered to Korea’s suicide rate and its causes. She said an article she’s read reports 35 suicides every day in Korea, 5-10 of them middle -schoolers. Societal pressures are huge, success at school astronomically important, and, I think worst of all, there is little to no room for Terebithias here.
Yellow shirt boy in the back knew what was up. He yelled
"Batman!" when we showed him what to do.

It’s rare to find a child in Korea acting like a child—most of them dress like adults, carry smartphones, and are already concerned about which college they’ll enter. They skip childhood here and that’s not something you can go back for. As much as I’d like to, I’ll never be able to read the way I did in middle school and I’ll never be as creatively unchecked as I was before that. But at least I have the memory of it and when I read Bridge to Terebithia I feel the connection more strongly than ever. I can’t imagine skipping the most awesome part of my life and I can’t help but wonder if the Koreans realize the coolness they’re giving up by maturing early.

[1] My Korean alter-ego. I guessed her name was Moon Sung a few posts back.  This is her real name.

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