Korea, Urban Walking
Comments 24

The Truant in the Azalea Forest

On Thursday he was uncharacteristically buoyant as he walked to school. The sun and birds and flowers and coffee were doing what they’re supposed to in early Spring. He texted his girlfriend in America and declared his love for her, the planet, its coffee, its blooms. He got to school early, ready to prep. He was characteristically un-prepped.

The door to his room was locked — third lock in as many weeks. Some idiot kept losing it. Some other idiot.


Saturday Sunrise

He paced the corridor for 20 minutes, ran down to a deserted staff room. He called the new and pregnant department head. Someone else answered: “She…is…not… here.” Increasingly edgy, he called A___, her predecessor. No answer. He watched the clock through the door glass tick closer to 9:00.

He texted his girlfriend again. “Can you call me?” he said.

Sleeping Persimmons

Sleeping Persimmons

“Sorry, babe, gotta unload before I fucking explode. These people…  Some dummy lost the first lock, then they put a padlock on and immediately lost the key, now it’s a combination lock, but nobody considered that — just maybe — the one person who uses the room for every single damned lesson might need the combination.” He paced back and forth. “Nobody communicates, nobody tells me anything. I don’t know how the hell anything gets done!”


Dark Plantation Forest

“I’m sorry, hon,” she said. Still on the phone, he strode round the corner, found the pregnant lady counselling some kid. She rose apprehensively. He unleashed a furious tirade; she fled downstairs. “Did you hear that?” he asked his girlfriend. “I just shouted at a pregnant lady.”

“It’s okay, hon,” she replied. “Shouting doesn’t hurt a fetus.”


First Sunbeam

At last the pregnant woman reappeared, this time with A___, who clicked through the combination without apology. “I wrote it on the lock,” she said. “But people’s hands rubbed it off.”

She wrote it on the fucking lock,” he told her after they’d gone. “She wrote it in PEN on the fucking LOCK…”

He had five minutes. Girls drifted in silently as he tried to prepare. The bell, that insane, inane chime, sounded. The co-teacher came in, stood silently at the back. He started his lesson. His own speaking was excellent indeed, but the students were mute, frozen, exhibiting few of the internationally recognised signs of life.

“Um, Ian,” the co-teacher said eventually, “This is a writing lesson.”

“What? And nobody thought to inform me of this?”

“I’m sorry.”


A Well-Worn Path

He recovered, dying inside, steered the lesson into writing (Praise Your Best Friend was the title on page 20) and did it again, more smoothly, for the following class — more silent, depressed girls for whom the challenge of naming their best friend was evidently a cruel imposition on their day.

“What’s wrong with these girls?” he asked the co-teacher, without bothering to lower his voice. Plainly unnecessary.

“I don’t know! They’re so passive.”

“Elementary school boys could do this.”

That morning he’d calculated the number of days remaining in his teaching year. 285.


Azalea Sunrise

Friday. He clicked through the combination. Another flock of miserable girls slumped in. He started this lesson differently, talking about his own friend, painfully “eliciting” the questions What’s his/her name?How long have you known him/her?; and What’s he/she like?. Outside, another beautiful morning.

Their turn. “Write your answers and share with your partner.” The room was silent, still. Girls stared at books, laps, bunny-rabbit pencil cases. The co-teacher circulated, attempting in Korean to spark an outbreak of communication. He tamped down his frustration while most of the girls sat there contracted, as though in pain, over the clean white paper of page 20.


Dead Wood

When the fury escaped, his voice took on a terrifying life of its own. Girls looked up, wide-eyed, from their shoes and bunnies. He knew they didn’t understand the words but their meaning was unambiguous. The last word before he stormed out was shit.


Red Boy

He wrenched the door open and strolled out of the building. Girls doing P.E. shouted out, “Nice to meet you!” giggling as he walked to the street. He sat on a rock in the sun and waited, while cherry-blossom petals blew over the cigarette butts. A hearty hack-and-spit, the sound of Korea at work, from a nearby gardener. He imagined a drift of cigarette butts blowing down the road.


Red Woman

The bell chimed. He went up to the empty room, grabbed his stuff, and walked out. Unplanned long weekends are the best kind. He spoke to his girlfriend. “I just walked out. I’m not going back. Can’t do this anymore.”

“Good for you,” she said.


Trailside Boulder

His phone rang while he photographed cherries and magnolias; rang out. Then again: the pregnant teacher, begging him to return. “That class, 2-5, is the worst in the school! All the teachers hate them!”

“I’m not coming back,” he said. “Life’s too short.”


Light in the Shadows

She pleaded; he walked. “Okay, take the day off and we’ll see you next Thursday!”

Later, his co-teacher: “Teaching is very difficult. A teacher must be patient and encourage the students.”

“That’s why I can’t be a teacher anymore. 12 years is enough. I’m tired of entertaining babies. I’m not paid enough for this. It’s killing me.”

“Oh, Ian…”


From the Boulders

He came to the brilliant pink-white blaze of a cherry-covered hillside, climbed up beneath the flowers onto a wooded ridge. Sunlit patches warm and soothing, shadows enlivened by the hot-pink sparkle of hundreds of azalea bushes. Insects crawled across the path, bumble-bees careened drunkenly around the blooms. He meandered after them on his own lazy trajectory, snapping pictures, sinking to his knees, climbing atop boulders, feeling empty and alive.


Toy Town

It had turned into an excellent Friday — but there was almost too much sunlight. Saturday found him back there just after dawn. The blooms glowed brighter and the woods were cool. Locals hiked; a boy said, “Hell-o, Teacher.”


Bamboo Forest

He embraced the emptiness, the stillness, the quiet. He walked two miles before descending for coffee.


Pink Kitty

(All pictures taken in the kinder light of Saturday.)

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. Dave Hirst says

    Love love loved this post. Will have to go down as a favourite for those of us who have taught in Asian high schools. Bravo for doing exactly what I fantasised about so many times.

    • Ah, yes, hopefully I can spark some kind of teacher rebellion! I just really hate the idea that it’s up to the teacher to entertain the poor little dears and keep them “interested in English”. What happens in the traditional student faves like maths, science and history?! Christ, I did German for five years and Latin for two and I never expected even a moment of fun!

      Thank God I only teach the more-motivated “A”s in third year now – and class size is limited to 20. I can actually converse with them, tell jokes and stories, and they actually look like they’re not being tortured!

  2. Darius Russell says

    Take IT to ’em, GOAT!! #GoatOnRampage!!!!! LOL

    (I’m sorry I’m laughing at your situation–LOVE IT! #Hilarious #Sorry! Glad you went back the next day, though! Don’t let the dullards get you down!!)

    You gotta move to the U.S. where American high school students have perfected the art of the “dullard put-upon fog-haze-stare” into blank nothingness. A Land where ingnorance is bliss and they don’t even know it, or care.)

    • It sounds like Paradise! Teaching Nirvana!

      Though on the plus side, Korean students, dull as they can be, don’t usually pack weapons!

  3. It’s uncanny how sublimely beautiful the azalea forest is in the context of your story. I know well the sweet feeling of empty and alive that comes when I make an escape. My dream at age 63 still is to find a job that doesn’t end with me with hightailing it out of there with the feeling that my life depends on it.

    I don’t get a chance to write “hightailing it” very often and wanted to make sure it meant what I thought it meant. Yes, it’s perfect (-:

    high·tail [hahy-teyl]
    verb (used without object) Informal.
    to go away or leave rapidly: Last we saw of him, he was hightailing down the street.
    hightail it, hurry; rush; scamper: Hightail it down to the grocery store and buy some bread for lunch.
    1885–90, Americanism; high + tail1 , in reference to the raised tails of fleeing animals, as deer or rabbits

    • Does such a job exist, Am?! I’ve only had one in my life where I wasn’t miserable as I approached the building and destroyed when I finished! I was a television subtitler: no public, no dress code, cool co-workers, almost-fun and constantly mildly challenging.

      I have made hightailing it a way of life. And I’ve seen countless deer do that in your country so it’s a nice image for me.

  4. Barb says

    Its because you know that the end is near.f… and just cant wait!
    saved the monochrome pic .. I have one o your cherry blossoms up as my screen saver right now…
    Happy next week! remember at least you are making the rest of us happy after reading of your despair, frustration… and being thankful for our small mercies!

    • Glad you’re enjoying the pictures, Barb. I’m aiming to hike over the mountains to another town next weekend for the biggest cherry blossom festival in Korea. That will give me something to live for this Thursday/Friday as I slump back to the scene of the crime for more of the same…

  5. Alice says

    Your blossoms are beautiful indeed–more so with truancy as a guide. Students–sigh. I have walked out a couple of times and turned purple a few. The eye rolling, the stony silences, the please entertain me postures…it’s universal. Then suddenly a sunbeam. Just today I had a visit from a former student who came to the U.S. speaking no English. Within a year she was taking regular college courses in English. Today she received word about passing oral and written comprehensive exams in a Master’s program and is applying for a PhD program. Oh, and she is teaching English to college students–the very program where I first met her. There will be one or two or three somewhere.

    • Nice story, Alice. Yes, I have a lot more pleasant teaching memories from back in Australia: older students, admittedly, much smaller classes, far more motivated people who’d travelled there to study and embrace a new experience…and also, it must be said, usually people from outside northern Asia and the crippling hindrance of social “shyness”, risk-aversion and the group-harmony mentality.

      But honestly, if you hear of any gigs travelling the world’s forests taking shots of flowers or even tree stumps, give me a shout!

      • Alice says

        there might be a teaching gig here in Colorado this fall–4 days a week–pretty intense. But then it would give you 3 days a week to take shots of mountain tree stumps…not in the mountains here–but about an hour away.

      • Alice says

        I made the same pledge. I miss some aspects but not others. Wheeeeeee.

  6. You’ve been there for over a year, so I’m surprised it’s taken you that long before downing tools and taking off! Facing blank faces must be tortuous? Full marks to you for the patience. I’m not sure I could take it? I’d have barricaded the door and started to throw the students out of the window by now!

    Oh yeah, full marks to the toy city. That’s your best miniature shot yet!

    • Thanks, Greg. Yeah, I’ve been playing with two effects a lot lately. Toy Camera gives a cheap but effective look with the vignetting and high-contrast colours etc. Miniature just does that weird effect in a strip down the middle and makes the rest of the picture a blurry, garish mess!

      Throwing students out the window? Thanks for the tip!

  7. nielsenbrownoutdoors says

    Yeah, teaching is one of those occupations that can give you highs and lows. Even with less challenging students it can be frustrating to get towards the exams and realise some of these students have not learnt (or cannot remember) anything. As for administrations in countries where the language spoken is not your first, always leaves me worried about what information I have missed. Getting outside and into the forest is always therapeutic in my view. Nice to see some flowers, they are still considering their arrival in my part of the world.

    • The trees and flowers are keeping me relatively sane, Roger. I don’t know what frustrates me most in the job, the students or the staff. I was hoping things would improve in the communications department this year but my co-teacher told me the staff are always the last to know even among the Korean employees. And then info just trickles haphazardly along and I, apparently, am the last and least important link in the chain.

  8. Very funny… glad that bad day happened to some other character, and love the contrast with the anger and the peace… very clever. “Nice to meet you”… perfect timing girls!

    • I can’t tell you how sick I am of having people I’ve known for a year shout that out to me from a distance as I pass. It’s a form of harassment essentially — they always giggle afterwards. Sad thing that’s still the only English many of them can manage after two or three years of study.

      Do I sound bitter?!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s