Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hwe-shik and Possible Wisdom

I attended a hwe-shik tonight. Not one held by my current elementary school, God forbid the faculty there should have any fun! No, my old high school. I go back and forth occasionally with the messaging to a couple of the folks there, and got invited to the end-of-year English department dinner. I shared the best possible table, with Mr Right, Mr Hwang, and Oh Byung-hee, the three gregarious, more or less, men of a certain age, though I am the hyeongnim (literally, and officially, even).

Mr Oh confessed to me, after noting how young I am looking, that he is starting to feel old these days. He has dyed his hair black this year. I asked why he did not want to look distinguished. Like me. I investigated a little more, and it wasn't even creaky bones, or popping knees--granted, I have ten years on him, but it should at least include that!

No, his problem was to do with his relationship to the students. Let me back up a bit: Korean high school teachers have a kind of reputation for corporal punishment; my co-teachers regularly smacked bad'uns with their "teaching stick" or made them perform stress positions in the hall, despite my concerns. It was Mr Oh who explained to me once that students enter into this relationship with teachers willingly, because they see them as friends, really caring friends, who only want the best for them.

Mr Oh told me tonight about the many years he was a great friend to his students (his new class each year), how he joshed and palled around with them, grew close. That changed this year. He just didn't care for it much--they were immature and silly and stupid, and he didn't enjoy their company. I remember when that happened to me, but that's not the point of my story.

I explained to him (and here's the possible wisdom part) that that isn't really getting old, it's becoming mature. I said that I think what happens is that when little girls grow up, they become women. When little boys grow up, they become big little boys. But hopefully at some point, never before thirty (and sometimes not even after that), those big little boys actually mature into men. And that's what was happening to him.

I didn't go quoting at him, but I've always loved a line George Bernard Shaw gave to Prof. Henry Higgins: "I've never been able to feel really grown up and tremendous, like other chaps." I love that line, because for much of my so-called adulthood, it worked for me. Even today, it sometimes does--it is useful to retain certain childish enthusiasms.

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