The Shadow of the Teacher

teacher's desk

There are enough Aesop tales about flattery that we all know it’s a bad and dangerous thing; crow lost her cheese and grasshopper lost his life (so much worse than lost cheese), but I must admit, I thrive on it.  Tell me I’m smart, witty or charming or compliment my shoes, bag or scent and I will be your BFF&EVA.  I like sweet words so much, I sprinkle them liberally; sales-staff, cable repairers, hair stylists et al.  My largess never fails to bring me terrific service or, at the very least, a pleasant smile in return.

There was a time, I could be won over with words like beautiful or sexy, but now, with deli counter workers calling me ma’am, I don’t hear that kind of praise as often as in the past.  I’m content to live out this phase of my life, grateful no one calls me Granny.  Besides, like most women, I’ve gotten as many disingenuous kudos as honest compliments.  I don’t trust the sincerity of testosterone-induced accolades. Even though Jim and I have been married for about 100 years, if I want to know if I look fat in my jeans, I’ll send a selfie to my Kakao lady friends for an honest answer.

I stopped swooning over compliments from men while still in college; a hottie senior I was totally gaga over had finally asked me out.  Between watching Fellini’s Satyricon (which neither of us understood) and drinks at the local pub, he swept me up in his arms under a street light and murmured, “Has anyone ever told you, you have the most beautiful brown eyes?”

Don’t get me wrong, brown is a wonderful eye color:  I gave both my leading male characters sultry brown eyes, and most important, my beloved mother had brown eyes.  But among my people, (the light eyed folks), having green eyes is akin to owning an Olympic gold medal or Nobel prize.  How dare he not notice the fabulousness of my ocean green eyes with gold flecks---I mean really!

After that, I was determined to shun all tributes as meaningless, I still perked up when I heard whistles behind me, or the cat calls of construction workers above me, but by and large, I wasn’t that interested. 

I graduated and later became a teacher.  After a day on the job, I knew I had made the perfect career choice.  I left for school in the mornings with a smile from ear to ear.  I returned home tired, but sure I had spent the days productively.  It was a dream job.

Sometime in the middle of my sixteen years as a teacher, a young Korean boy named Cary Kim was one of my students.  He was so likeable and winsome, it was hard to chide him for his missed homework and less than stellar grades.  But my job was to make a productive grownup out of him, not be his friend, so I was eager to meet with his dad on Parent Night.

Mr. Kim looked like most of my students’ dads; zipped-up golf jacket over his chinos, a hint of gray in his lustrous Asian-black hair and the aroma of cigarettes on his lips.  After a quick head-bow, he sat opposite me and pointed to Cary’s older brother, Jason-the translator.  I knew Jason from an after-school program; like Cary, he had charm and poise beyond his years.  As I recounted Cary’s shortcomings, Jason listened and agreed.  So did their father.  After a minute, Dad interrupted his oldest son in Korean and turned to me to speak in English.  “I have to work… don’t come home till late.  Jason supposed to make sure Cary do his work, but all he care about is Tae Kwon Do!” 

Jason blushed and meekly corrected his dad.  “Appa, this is about Cary.  Ms. Leslie doesn’t need to hear about me and Tae Kwon Do.” 

Their father jumped to his feet.  I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I was raised not to sit when another adult stood.  I jumped up too.  Mr. Kim glared at his son and pointed a finger at me, “she teacher!  There are no secrets from the teacher!”  Then he sat back down, folded his hands on his lap and nodded for me to continue, as if he hadn’t provided the universal definition of compliments:  they aren't flattery when they're truthful and from the heart.

Post Script:  Up until very recently, Korea’s teachers were afforded honor and unquestioned respect. The common expression, (very loosely) translated is, one shouldn’t even step on the shadow of the teacher.