It's the coldest part of the Korean winter, yet the academy where I work is determined to save energy strictly for teaching hours. Energy in Korea is expensive, a fact all too obvious as I rub my arms through a thick cardigan in a desperate attempt to stay warm.
My sigh echoes and bounces off cool walls, breath frosty as the heater kicks in. The classroom is not empty, but it may as well be.
The topic for today is space. Not just space but space-time and expanding universes and multiple dimensions and, well, pretty much the coolest parts of science condensed into a 60-minute lesson. I totally geek out over this stuff and had hoped that my excitement would finally get one of my quieter classes to speak up. No dice.
This is an advanced class. Their English is better than many Twitter-speaking high school graduates. It's not as if they are incapable of answering.
They are just terrified of being wrong.
* * * * *
"So, all right, convince me."
Here we go. I had hoped that my time in D.C. working on the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) would go unnoticed while I took time off to teach in Korea. Google is my enemy, however, and my co-workers had a decent idea of who I am before I even stepped off the plane. I take a quick swallow of Cass before answering. "Pardon?"
"I don't agree with you that gays should be serving in the military. Convince me that I'm wrong."
"First, you mean 'openly' serving, as it is impossible to keep gays and lesbians out of the military when they are recruited at such a young age." My friend nods a quick eye-rolling acknowledgement as I tick the next finger on my right hand.
"Second, it's irrelevant whether or not you agree. The law's repealed. It's not coming back. Finished. Done-zo. Stop being a dick and drink your beer."
He drinks his beer, but he's not done. "Fine, it's repealed. I still want to hear why."
"With an open mind?"
"Sure, with an open mind." Bullshit.
It's easy to tell when having this sort of discussion whether someone wants to exchange information or demonstrate how resistant they are to being convinced, how unwilling they are to be wrong.
Still, I learned long ago to give every conversation a chance. "Let's begin by looking at the main arguments of unit cohesion and combat readiness..."
* * * * *
The Korean education system is not one that rewards curiosity. Students who answer often and correctly are celebrated as ahead of their peers, true, but simply asking questions is not rewarded.
In fact, simply trying is not encouraged, and often, if a lesson is too complex, I'll encounter students who simply shut down instead of tepidly touching their toes to the water. The classroom is treated more as a test of how much knowledge the student brings into class than as a means to expand upon that knowledge.
If a student is wrong, she did not study nearly hard enough. Homework, not classwork, is king.
In a classroom full of kids who can't ever be wrong, it's hard to see how they ever learn anything.
* * * * *
"So... are you?" My evangelical roommate at the Army's Defense Language Institute had finally caught up with the barracks rumor train. This was the first time he'd spoken to me in two days. I had as much time to consider my answer. All I could provide was a quiet, "I am," which in those days was about as horrifying an answer as it was possible to give.
My roommate stared agape at being answered so directly. "Are you... I... I need to... Man, I'm not sure how to deal with this."
"Neither am I," I muttered.
"So... huh." He struggled for words. "So... so, what do we do now?"
"We can talk? Maybe? Is that OK?"
"Yeah, sure, I guess. I just... You know I disagree with your preference, right?" He said "preference" in the same well-meaning, clinical tone normally reserved for words like "homosexual" or "morally challenged." He was distancing himself.
"I do." I could see him pulling away further, so I threw a suggestion I had only recently derived in my days of preparation for this conversation. "Why don't we do this: We talk, candidly, with the agreement that neither one of us becomes offended."
"OK, but how? You're talking about some pretty deep, consequential stuff here, man. I don't know if I can promise that."
He was right. We sat in thought for a few minutes.
"We accept the fact that we both could be wrong," I finally offered. "Not that either one of us is wrong, but that, no matter what, there will always be at least a teeny, tiny, .0001-percent chance that you are, or I am, wrong."
My roommate paused. "OK. But only if you promise to come to church with me at least once."
Fair enough. "Sure."
We sat down and nervously began our first lesson. Learning became easier over time.
* * * * *
We're 30 minutes into class, and the kids are more despondent. I'm bored, which is pretty tough to do when the universe is involved. I shut my book.
"OK, guys, what's going on?"
One student hesitates to answer. "Going on, Teacher?"
"Yes. Going on. No one's talking. You guys are usually quiet -- I get it, that's your thing -- but today? Nothing."
"Teacher, we don't know about space," another student inserts.
"OK," I shrug. "So what?"
"How can we talk about something we don't know?"
I wave my hands incredulously. "How do you think you learn about something you don't know?" Blank stares. Sigh. I try another tactic. "Guys, why am I here?"
"To teach English."
"Yup. But why me? Why am I teaching English?"
"Because you speak English, Teacher." The blank stares now twist in confusion.
"Better than you."
"Yes, better than us." The kids now share expressions that shout, Duh, Teacher.
I roll my fingers. "Which means I have information to share."
"How do I give you that information? How am I different from that book?"
The kids think for a minute, then, "The book can't talk to us."
"And talking means that you have to also talk, right?"
"So if you don't speak, I can't teach you, right? And if you're wrong, I can't help you get better unless you show me you're wrong."
"So, you want us to be wrong?" a student laughs.
"Absolutely!" I shout. "Please, yes, be wrong! I love it when you're wrong!"
The kids are now in a full giggle fit. One finally breathes, "Why do you love us when we're wrong, Teacher?"
"Because it lets me know you want to be right."
* * * * *
It takes three beers and a few tangents to exhaust years of heavily researched talking points. I give my buddy a few moments to let everything sink in.
Finally, "All that sounds good. You can tell you've spent time in Washington."
Whoa. "That's it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You have no comment on the substance of the conversation. Nothing." I stare at my co-worker, aghast.
"Well, you did this for a living, right?"
"It wasn't much of a 'living,' but yes, I did work on this issue."
"So you know more about this than I do. I can't respond." He shrugs as if that's the end of it.
"Sure you can respond. You can say, 'Wow, I've never thought of that before. Let me use this new information to reconsider my position.'"
"But that's not fair."
"Why? Because I'm asking you to do reevaluate your position?" Because I'm asking you to learn?
"Yes. No. I don't know, man. I just feel... I don't know."
"It's all right, man." He needed a break. Class was done for the day. "Let me get the next round."
* * * * *
The next day I tell the kids to turn to the last page of their book. Through rippling pages the request is met with deep confusion.
"Teacher, this space is empty."
"It won't be in a few seconds."
After explaining the concept, I have the kids copy their first mantra: "Make mistakes. You are not an expert. No one is. Embrace being wrong. Learn."