“God damn it!”
I was taking a hard-earned morning nap in the storeroom next to my Fortress of Solitude when that godawful bell ruined everything, announcing the conclusion of the day’s midterm exams. 12:15. I slumped grumpily to the window and watched the students escaping, free for the rest of their Friday.
My Friday was free only of classes. I still had to turn up, to sit in the empty room with its broken computer for eight hours. I had seen no other teachers all morning. I flicked through a book — one of those paper ones they used to make last century — and stared out the window, itching for my own escape.
And then I scratched. “Screw this,” I said to the empty room as I packed up my stuff. I fled the grounds of Hell Skool and made my way through the rice paddies…
..without looking back.
What are they gonna do, fire me? Sometimes — well, every Thursday and Friday without exception — my thoughts would return to the remote possibility of being redundified like the gaze of a film noir fugitive returning to the revolver on his bedside table. Just good to know it’s there, that’s all.
It was warm and windy on the embankment road. Across the creek, earthmovers prowled and pecked at the wastelands in clouds of dust. Grit blew into my eyes. I felt so gloriously free, but what to do with my unexpected liberty? We get such a small allocation of days, really, and it’s a crying shame to have to endure a single one, especially a windfall like this one…
My phone rang; I ignored it. Against all the rules of survival, when it rang again I answered. It was the English department head, and her voice always gets whinier, less decipherable, more Korean on the phone. Then again, I sound pretty bitchy too when my back is up.
It was up.
“I-aaaaa-nnn! Where are you now?”
“I’m walking. I’m going to the…bank! [Half true]. It was payday yesterday — I have to send money home and it takes a long time [all true].”
“But I-aaaa-nnn! You should be heeeeeere…”
“So I can sit alone in a room all day? No classes, no students, no computer?! There is NO POINT in my being there! I am not going back!”
“But we have some problemmm with a kestion! I will send you the kestionnn and pleeease, you choose the correct answer, number 1 or 4, OK?
Damn, that was easy — it was almost a letdown.
I was on the concreted banks of the dismal Daecheong now. My phone soon blipped; I dug out my glasses. Mrs Koo had sent a photo of the offending question, about a conversation between two friends, and the four answer choices, numbers 1 (“He had a good time learning taekwondo,”) and 4 (“They met before the vacation,”) circled.
I sat on a bench and texted my response. Number 4 was clearly right, number 1 only if you considered “met” to mean “met for the first time”, and not “saw each other”. Students seldom use the word in the first sense — that would be a lucky guess.
“They could both be right. Just say number 4.”
Just as I got moving again, another bleep. On with the bloody glasses again.
“But number 1 is also right?”
“Possible, but don’t tell them that.” You can’t allow any ambiguity: when it comes to test scores, Korean students — and their parents — will fight like starving dogs for the last bone. And then to head off another round of an increasing boring conversation: “If they don’t choose number 4, they’re stupid.”
That did the job. Koreans, in my encounters anyway (I’ve been teaching them for a decade), neither appreciate nor employ subtlety. Almost immediately, a cheerful response blipped through.
“Thank you! Enjoy your weekend!”
I walked on with the jaunty step of a prison escapee sporting a freshly purchased identity.
All I needed was a mission.
I did my banking, almost painlessly, wrote a postcard to my gal, and returned to the creek.
I’d decided to wander upstream, into the hills above my apartment where the Jangyu Cascades frolic like frisky ponies and concrete banks and earthmover orgies are just an engineer’s wet dream.
I was soon down on a real stream bank — adorned with plastic flotsam, but abounding with grass, and reeds, and natural boulders and tweeting (140 characters max) birds as well.
The white noise of the rapids was immediately soothing.
You could feel the tension spill out to tumble downstream.
Rock-hopping, I set up my tiny tripod on boulder and bank, played with shutter speeds, apertures, filter and timer. Photographing the rapids is an ongoing project; this was my fourth or fifth attempt but the first this far below the Cascades.
Hounded (get it?) back to the road by the relentless harassment of a white farm mutt (if I should ever disappear in darkest Korea, just follow the barking), I walked the temple road up to the main cascades.
It’s tricky, but absorbing, and this time I was racing against darkness as well.
I’m lucky to have this beautiful spot 30 minutes from home. On sunny summer weekends, though, forget it — I could cry for the place at those times.
I spent an hour or two there in diminishing light, running back and forth between the rocks and ledges I’ve learned offer the best vantage points.
I walked home when the last useful light slipped from the little gorge — at ease, enjoying the feeling (so rare in my line of work) of having done something useful with my day.
That night when I turned off the light I could still hear that white water churning…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote