authority and american usage
September 15, 2008
One thing I can’t seem to teach my Korean ESL students is that “suicide” is not a verb. It’s kind of a popular word, some of them use it all the time, but they don’t understand its proper American usage, that it’s not a verb but a noun that takes the verb “commit.” They just can’t get it into their heads; it’s never “he committed suicide,” but “he suicided,” “she suicide(s),” “they will suicide.”
It’s mostly the young boys who use it. They have the cavalier attitude toward death and dismemberment that has characterized young boys since they could play war with wooden swords, since they could play cowboys and Indians with capguns that popped and smoked, and which still characterizes them now, when they play with virtual swords and bows guns on their cell phones before and after and during my class. I understand them because I was them; my mom told me that when I started second grade, my teacher was worried because even though I had skipped the first grade and was a great reader, all I would write about in class were Sonic the Hedgehog’s adventures and GI Joe missions. My students are no different, although perhaps a touch more extreme. In their short, eraser-burned compositions, my boys will write about how they blew up an apartment building with a bazooka or cut off a classmate’s head and used it as a soccer ball. I will read these sentences and grin and correct their subject-verb disagreements and improper conjugations.
“Jun suicided ” one eleven year old wrote in response to the prompt, “What happened last weekend?” Jun was his rival in the class, who at the time was sitting a few desks to his left, by the window. I looked at the writer and raised my eyebrows high, as if he might understand this gesture of disapproval better than words, but he just looked at me blankly. “You know that’s not what you’re supposed to do,” I finally said. I penciled in “because” after the word “suicide” and asked him to complete the sentence. My problem wasn’t with the morality of his response, it was with its inadequacy of expression. “You have to give a reason,” I said. “Why did Jun suicide, for what reason?” He gave me the wordless squawk and rapid fire nods that signified recognition and finished the sentence by writing, “because I hate him.” “Good,” I said, and moved on to the next student.
Those are the young kids, though. Most of my classes are with older students, the time spent helping them to prepare for the TOEFL, the most important English proficiency test that they have to take, the one that in a sense can decide their future in a way that makes the stressing that American high school students do over the SAT and ACT seem completely trivial and ridiculous. At my academy and the probably thousands like it, we take “teaching to the test” to the outer limits of meaning; we’re like Kaplan or the Princeton Review on ‘roids. The TOEFL has sections in Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing – I teach Speaking and Writing. In those sections, my specialization is teaching Independent Speaking and Writing. Those are the two parts of the test in which there is some pretense of “creativity,” of “independent’ thought. These are also the two areas in which even brightest students have trouble.
In the Independent Speaking section, students read a one or two sentence prompt and then are given fifteen seconds to prepare a response to it. After that fifteen seconds, a tone sounds and they have to speak extemporaneously on this topic for exactly forty five seconds: no more, no less. My lessons for them are less about creativity and more about helping them craft their nervous, halting “um” and “and” ridden fragments into a smooth, rhythmic, grammatical whole. They’re about teaching the students to memorize the skeletal forms they will follow in their responses and to internalize that forty five second timer like basketball players getting a feel for the shot clock.
As a writer, though, I can’t help but try to interject some creativity into the exercise. There are hundreds of possible questions that the students could be faced with on the test, questions like “Describe a person you admire and say why you admire them” or “What are the most important characteristics of a house or apartment?” or “What is an important celebration in your country and why?”. “No one person,” I tell them, “has an immediate response for every one of these questions.” I tell them that instead of worrying about authentically answering the questions, they should lie, that they should feel free create fictions. “The TOEFL graders don’t know anything about you,” I say, “so you can be whoever you want to be.” I make great hay of this lying thing as a way to make the test fun. It works, too. I mean, when you’re a kid, all you ever hear from parents and teachers is about how you have to tell the truth and so I think to give them this license to lie is freeing and fun. Some of the students don’t feel comfortable doing it but the ones that do seem to get a real thrill from fabricating their responses.
One of the most common questions in Independent Speaking has to do with talking about an important possession, like, “What is the most important gift you have ever received?” As part of the cookie-cutter form of their response, students have to give two reasons for their choice and details to support those reasons. I always make the cynical joke that if they can’t come up with a reason, they should say that someone gave them the gift and then that person died and they never saw them again, so the gift is important as a remembrance. My jokes about grandfathers and uncles dying of cancer and imbuing a watch or iPod with transcendent importance always get huge, howling, desk-smacking laughs. I think in part it’s because this utter disrespect for the elderly seems, in this Confucian society, to be gloriously irreverent and evil, as camp and thrilling as Heath Ledger in The Dark Night, whom students draw inky caricatures of in their textbooks.
One time, though, it was the beginning of a semester and I had some new students I didn’t know in my class. We were doing the gift question and I did my usual schpiel which got its usual laughs. Then the students started giving their responses. One boy gave a fairly standard response about his new cell phone. Another girl discussed her Prada backpack. Then a new student, Kevin, began to speak. He told us how this t-shirt his mother had bought for him was really important to him because she had died in a car accident and he missed her very much. Usually when students are making up stories, they do this tonal thing with their voice to exaggerate or they look at me to make sure i’m in on the joke, to give it away. Kevin wasn’t doing that, though, he was just staring at his paper and quietly, nervously talking about this blue t-shirt. He was on the edge of puberty so his voice had this kind of Kermit the Frog honk. Sometimes, after a response I think has been fabricated, I ask my students, “real or fake?” and they all say “fake” and we all laugh. After Kevin’s response, he looked up from his paper at me and even though he had made myriad grammar and usage errors that I should really help correct, even though as a teacher I should have taught him something, I just said, “Very good job,” and then called on the next student. Kevin remained my student and now that we have a rapport, I know that he was making it up, that his mother is alive and well, but I’ve stopped making death jokes all the same.
In the Independent Writing section, students have thirty minutes to write a standard five paragraph essay. They write these essays in response to prompts like, “It has been said, ‘Not everything that is learned is contained in books.’ Compare and contrast knowledge gained from experience with knowledge gained from books. In your opinion, which source is more important? Why?” and “Some people prefer to work for a large company. Others prefer to work for a small company. Which would you prefer? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.” It’s pretty terrible. They’re the most impersonal personal essays you could ever hope to write (or read). The graders aren’t reading for any sense of creative expression or insight or true emotion; it’s about grammatical sentences, transitions, idioms and usage, adequate development of ideas, the presence of a clear thesis, the deployment of specific, concrete examples. The questions are mostly boring and trite and as a result, the students mostly write boring and trite responses. I try to make it fun (we recently wrote, in response to the question, “What is the most important invention of the twentieth century?” a passionate discourse on the refrigerator) but the students know that it isn’t their job to express themselves or to be original or creative. Mostly, it’s an exercise in boredom and torture.
One of the Independent Writing questions that I do enjoy goes something like, “In recent years, the media has made a habit of reporting the personal lives of celebrities. Do you agree or disagree with this trend?” I like the question because, well, obviously, I love celebrity culture and it’s always interesting to try to get my students’ views on it. When I try to talk to them about celebrities in open conversation, it’s hard to get much out of them beyond generalities and platitudes, but this prompt basically forces them to talk to me about this thing that I love and think about all the time in more concrete terms. In writing class, after I read a prompt, I give the students a couple of minutes to individually brainstorm reasons and details and then we put them all up on the whiteboard and decide which ones are best. Most of the reasons are good, if basic: the media should report the personal lives of celebrities because it is a business and has to make money, the media shouldn’t report the personal lives of celebrities because they should cover more important news like war and the economy.
One of the reasons that’s always given in response to this question is that the news reported about celebrities’ personal lives is inaccurate and can be damaging to them, both economically and emotionally. In a perfect TOEFL body paragraph, you start with the reasons and then explain them with some details and then insert a specific example illustrating the reason and then write an analysis sentence showing how that example relates back to the reason at the beginning of the paragraph. The specific example that the students always give to illustrate the reason above is U;Nee. U;Nee was a Korean pop star who committed suicide at the beginning of last year, a depressive driven to kill herself by horrible things people wrote about her on the Internet.
The first time I taught the question, a student brought up U;Nee as an example. I had, of course, never heard of her. “She was a pop star and she suicided,” the girl explained, and then abruptly stopped talking. The thing with Korean students is that you can almost never get them to talk enough; Korean is a very economical language, brevity is the soul of it. I kill myself trying to get them to expand and expound, to say more, give more details, give more reasons, explain why. “That’s not enough,” I say to their two and three word sentences, almost as an existential imperative, “I need more.” So I asked this girl, who I think was fifteen or sixteen, I asked her, “Tell me more about it. How did it make you feel?” She thought about it for a second and then said, “It’s sad.” That wasn’t enough and it was the end of the day and my coffee was wearing off and I was getting frustrated with these little responses and I said, not thinking, “Well why is it sad? Tell me more.” She looked at me like she couldn’t decide whether I was crazy or stupid or weird or all of the above and said, simply, “Because I liked her. It’s sad because I liked her.”
“Oh,” I said.
David Foster Wallace is dead. He suicided. I liked him. It’s sad. It’s sad because I liked him.