The tragedy of Oh Mi-Oh and Ju Ri-Hyeon
Last summer vacation I taught middle school kids during my university’s English Camp. There were a couple of firsts in this for me. It was my first time teaching middle-schoolers, and my first experience with a “real” English camp.
What I mean by a “real” English camp is this: the English camps I had taught previously in Korea were fraudulent. They were fraudulent because there was no camp. When I first came here, the phrase “English camp” brought many things to my mind. I imagined cabins, overnight stays, playing English language games by a lake, perhaps by the light of a bonfire. But what “camp” turned out to mean was this: extra English classes during vacation. I thought this was a mistranslation thing – one of those Konglish words that end up meaning something else in Korean, like “fighting”. But actually, it wasn’t. I found this out when I taught the second graders, who were attending their first ever English camp.
They were good sports for the first few hours. Then, around lunch time, they questioned my co-teacher.
“They want to know, where is the camp?” my co-teacher said, and laughed. Apparently the second graders, too, had been expecting horseback riding and frolicking in the woods, and weren’t too thrilled to discover that English camp was just more classes in the English room. Poor bastards. They thought they’d been suckered, and I didn’t disagree.
That was my experience of English camps in Korean elementary schools. A mostly deserted school, a nice group of kids who liked me and my classes, and a bunch of activities with a vague English language justification. For I quickly learned that at English camp it was best to just practice “task based language instruction” – which is a fancy phrase to justify making sock puppets and Rube Goldberg machines and pretending it is an English language class. I’ve had some good times at English camp: making snowmen (winter), playing with water balloons (summer), rampaging through the empty halls and getting to know the kids with nobody else around (always).
This university camp, though, was a real camp – or at least, more real than those school camps. The students stayed in the university dorms for three weeks, ate lousy cafeteria food, made new friends and missed their families. It was also intensive, for them and for me. For me it was 10 or 12 hour days, six days a week. Beforehand, I wasn’t sure how well I would cope with that.
It was also my first time with middle-schoolers; all my previous experience had been with elementary kids. The standard witticism amongst Korean teachers about middle school students goes like this: “We don’t need to fear North Korea. We have middle school students.” Perhaps it’s funnier in Korean. But I’d heard this repeated from three or four teachers, so I was a little intimidated to work with them.
The final thing necessary to tell this story is that the centerpiece of the camp was to be a series of plays, one from each class. The camp director sent around a list of plays to choose from. It was the usual stuff – Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson. And two plays for “advanced learners” – Beowolf and Romeo and Juliet. “Anyone game to try Beowolf?” she asked.
I replied, “No. But I’ll take a swing at Romeo and Juliet.”
Why? Because fuck that talking animals Aesop shit. I wasn’t going to try to sell that to middle schoolers. But Romeo and Juliet were middle schoolers. I mean, they were that age; plus Romeo and Juliet has love and sex and death and one of the greatest fight scenes ever written. All that good stuff.
And I had a vision. People are always finding new ways to stage Shakespeare, and my vision was this: Romeo and Juliet in a Korean middle school.
I thought that was cool. I was excited by that idea. I wanted to turn it into a Korean middle school drama; Romeo and Juliet by way of Dream High. I knew it was going to be something – either a spectacular success, or spectacular failure. I really couldn’t predict which way it would go.
One of the reasons I was uncertain is that in my experience, doing plays in a kids’ EFL class sucks. I’d twice before been talked into putting on English language plays for school festivals, and both times the plays were taken away from me before the end by the home room teachers, who drilled the kids into presentable shape. And I gave them up willingly, because plays are really, really hard to teach without a shared language.
You can do the basics: you can get them to read through the play and help them with their pronunciation. You can put them on a mock stage and tell them where to stand – but even this is difficult, and not the best environment for learning a language immersively. So it becomes, “Min Ho, you here. Su Jin, you there. There! And talk. Go.”
What you can’t do is have that sort of brainstorming discussion where everyone generates ideas and you make something cool out of the chaos. So it becomes very teacher-centered, and not much fun for anybody. As for talking about things like motivation, forget it. “Min Ho, you are very angry, OK? Angry! Angry talking!”
The other problem is that there are always going to be kids who end up with only two lines. What do you do with them? Sure, you can give them a bunch of makework – you tell them to prepare costumes, posters, check the other students’ lines. But regardless, those kids are soon going to be wandering the classroom, trying to stab each other with the props out of boredom.
Fortunately, we had co-teachers for the camp. I’ve written before about the mixed blessings of co-teachers. Generally they’re as likely to make things worse as they are to help, and I’d just as soon teach without them. In this case, they were university students, and their job was mostly to act as surrogate parents to the kids, although they would be in the classroom with us, too.
We met our co-teachers for about twenty minutes on the day before camp started. Mine was an intelligent girl from one of our neighbouring, better universities (my university is crap). She was an English major, and told me one of her favourite authors was Shakespeare. She also liked acting, and had recently performed in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Usually when I meet a co-teacher, I spend some time going over all the things I would prefer them not to do. I explain that I’m an experienced teacher, that I don’t need help teaching, that I would prefer they didn’t translate for me unless I specifically ask them to, and emphasize, as much as possible, that we should always act together, and never show any disagreement in front of the kids.
I said all that, but I also told her that we were going to be doing this play. And for that, she was welcome to help as much as she wanted. Because it would be impossible for me to lead those sorts of group discussions that we would need to have.
I told her about my Romeo and Juliet in a Korean middle school idea. She liked it, but had a different idea to me. I’d imagined the typical K-drama back-story of Romeo as wealthy flower boy and Juliet as hardworking poor girl.
“Maybe they’re two middle school classes,” my co-teacher said. “A class and B class. The parents are teachers. The king is the principal…”
It was great! As it turned out, she was one of the best co-teachers I’ve ever worked with.
When I first met my students they didn’t seem like the monsters I’d been led to expect. I was teaching the higher level middle school kids, but they weren’t very verbal on that first day. They were quiet and scared and seemed to have no idea where they had found themselves.
I ran through my standard introductory material to a polite but muted response. Next, I tried to get them to make a class chant. Every class was supposed to be represented by a mythical character – we were Medusa – and have a chant and some posters ready to demonstrate by the evening.
The other teachers had written their own chants, but I was determined to make everything as student-centered as possible. I tried to get them to come up with their own chants, and it was brutal – like it always is when you introduce the possibility of creative freedom to Korean kids for the first time. After an hour, we finally arrived at a very lame chant: “We are best class / Medusa / Medusa.” I decided that the grammar was technically correct, if you considered “best class” as a compound adjective like “first rate” or “top shelf,” and let it be. When it came time to demonstrate the chant, our class was the worst by far. The other teachers had taught their kids pre-written chants to the rhythm of “Pattycake” or “We Will Rock You”.
“Teacher, our chant is terrible!” my kids said. They wanted to rewrite it.
I didn’t care. It was their chant. The next day I assigned a kid to lead the chant. I was determined to make everything student-centered.
The chant got better. A few days later, we were judged to be the best chant, and got to eat lunch first. It didn’t mean much, but it made the kids happy. They started to come together as a class.
The camp had a sticker reward system. I put my stickers in a drawer and never took them out. One of the things I took with me from my time at the Korean innovation school was a belief in intrinsic motivation and the idea that rewards systems are, if not actually harmful, at least a little cheap; like depending on Mr Bean movies. If you teach well, you can get the kids motivated to learn for the pleasure of discovering something new and understanding something they didn’t understand before. That’s a much better reason to study English than the promise of a sticker.
We had our first run through of Romeo and Juliet. The bowdlerized “young learners” version of the play we’d been given was pretty bad; it seemed to have been cribbed from the plot summary on Wikipedia. It also had mysteriously impossible stage directions. After the balcony scene, according to the script, “Romeo climbs into Juliet’s bedroom and spends the night.” How was I supposed to stage that with middle school students? Also, at one point, “The Friar arrives and tells everyone of everything that has happened up to this point.” Everything…?
The kids weren’t crazy about the play, but after my co-teacher and I explained our idea for adapting it they got interested in changing the names. Oh Mi-Oh and Ju Ri-Hyeon were quickly agreed upon. Benvolio was divided into two characters: Bae Bo-Hyeon and Bak Bo-Yong. Some other characters ended up with the names of K-pop stars. The city of Verona became Merona Middle School. Merona is a type of Korean melon ice cream. The kids thought that was hilarious.
Like the fictional Merona Middle School of Oh Mi Oh and Ju Ri Hyeon, our camp had two middle school classes. A sweet, goofy kid in the other middle school class developed a crush on our Juliet. Jin Hyeok, the boy who was playing Romeo, told me about this while we walked to the cafeteria. Apparently the boy in the other middle school class had set himself a deadline: he would declare his love to Juliet before Tuesday.
Jin Hyeok, who himself seemed to have overlooked Juliet in favour of the girl who was playing Tybalt, was on this kid’s side. “We must cheer for him!” he told me.
I was amused by the parallels to our play. “It’s just like Oh Mi-Oh and Ju Ri-Hyeon!” I said.
“But our classes do not hate each other,” Jin Hyeok told me solemnly.
Unfortunately, there was a flaw in the plan of the hopeful Class B Romeo. That even I, the foreign teacher, knew of his crush was an indication of just how badly his secret plan had leaked. Everyone knew about it – including Juliet and the alpha girl of our class, who seemed to have a secret crush herself on this goofy kid (his appeal was mysterious to all the foreign teachers who knew about it; he was a nice kid, but seriously geeky.) So the alpha girl and her followers were ganging up on Juliet and giving her the side-eye. Then the alpha girl confronted the hopeful Romeo during the inter-class pigu tournament, and was later seen crying in a corner, her head hidden in her hoodie, her supporters surrounding her and patting her on the shoulder.
My co-teacher took care of it. First, she asked Juliet if she liked this boy. Juliet confessed that she did, but it was causing her stress because the other girls were isolating her. So, like the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, my co-teacher acted as go-between. She conveyed the message of love, and the problem, to the goofy kid in class B.
His heart full of romance and teenage chivalry, he agreed to keep their love secret and admire her only from afar for the duration of the camp. And that solved that problem.
Middle school kids! They were so much fun. I wished I’d started teaching them long ago.
The student centered teaching worked. The class started to come together.
I found that I could give them simple instructions, and rely on them to work together to make progress. I told them to find partners to practice learning their lines, and that those with few lines should help those with many. And they did that.
The camp director sent around a list of awards for the plays. Apparently there was to be an award for “Best Dance” and “Best Song”. We didn’t have a dance, and I know nothing about dancing. But we did have a party scene, so I told them to find a dance to do. They came up with some Korean viral thing called “Disco Monster”. I gave them time to practice it.
I made two more contributions to the dance: I suggested, once, that the good students help the poor students learn, and later suggested that they stage it in two lines, the good students at the front and the bad students at the back. That was my entire teaching for the dance. Later, a lot of other teachers congratulated me on the dance, and I told them, truthfully, that my contribution to it had been three sentences. But it was more than that; by that point I had the class motivated, working well together and independently from me.
I was more involved in the song. The play came with a song CD. I listened to it once; it was predictably horrible. For some reason the songs that come with those sorts of ESL books always have horribly awkward scansion, cramming and stretching syllables into melodies in an ear-grating way.
I was going to need something else. There aren’t a lot of Romeo and Juliet themed pop songs, but there are a few. I decided to urge “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits on them, because it was that or Taylor Swift, and I couldn’t spend three weeks with Taylor Swift. Then I had to sell it to the kids. They were surprisingly enthusiastic at first – it is a catchy song. Later, they bogged down with it. They had trouble with the rhythm and Mark Knopfler’s Dylanesque, hinting-vaguely-at-a-melody delivery.
Then one of the kids discovered the Taylor Swift song. A movement sprung up to change it. I didn’t want to, but it was supposed to be a student-centric process, after all. I drew a list of pros and cons on the board and got them to suggest reasons for and against each song. For Dire Straits they listed easy melody, difficult rhythm, and the fact that we’d spent a week practising it. For Taylor Swift, the argument was that it was an easier rhythm (though more difficult melody) and, according to some students, a good song. Other students insisted that Dire Straits was better than Taylor Swift, and I was proud of them. Finally, as I pointed out, the Taylor Swift ditty only made sense as sung by Juliet, while the Dire Straits song could be divided amongst the cast. And poor Juliet had enough going on, what with all the dialogue and the mean girls and the goofy love interest in the other class.
We took a vote, and Dire Straits beat Taylor Swift by one vote. I only manipulated them a little to make that happen.
We were told we had one hundred dollars for props. We made a list of things we needed. T-shirts to distinuguish A and B class. Fake blood and a prop knife with a retractable blade.
The girl playing Juliet came to me with a problem. She was, she pointed out, much taller than the boy playing Romeo. She was a very sweet, very pretty and – it must be said – very tall girl and it was obvious that she saw none of her own good qualities and instead only thought of herself as too tall. So I said we would add “platform shoes for Romeo” to the list of props.
We handed in our requests. Eventually we were given a bag containing one white and one black T-shirt. There was no blood or knives, and no platform shoes for Romeo.
I ordered some fake blood and a prop knife myself on G-market. Romeo never got his platform shoes, but the girl playing Juliet shrugged and said it was OK.
Our class, along with the best elementary class, was chosen to be on Gwangju Public Radio. The kids were to participate in a couple of quizzes and read their play. I told them to get their scripts.
“Teacher, we know!” they said. They claimed they had the play perfectly memorized and didn’t need their scripts.
We went off to the third floor to do the radio show. Five minutes to air, all the kids panicked that they couldn’t remember their lines. My co-teacher had to rush back to the classroom and fetch all their scripts.
It went… OK. It wasn’t great. The kid playing the principal, who only had three lines, was mangling them into a hopeless jumble of random English-sounding syllables. The girl playing the narrator was also having trouble. She was a smart girl, and didn’t end up with many lines, so I gave her a little bit of the real stuff to close out the play:
A gloomy peace this morning with it brings.
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punish-ed.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of 주리현 and her 오미오.
She was doing her best with it, but it was a lot to ask.
There were two days to go. We were getting there, but we still had problems. The kids had done an amazing job of remembering their lines – far better than an Australian or American class could do, based on my own memory of doing plays in school – and in a foreign language, no less.**Before anyone says “Rote memorizing robots”, I want to say this about their memories. They have trained memories and handle memorization much better than Western kids, but there was nothing robotic about it. The types of errors they made were revealing. Generally, they knew the sense of the words, but made typical errors of Korean learners, dropping articles and the like. The narrator was having trouble because the words conflicted with her internal grammar of English: she wanted to change “For never was” to “There was never”, for instance. The only one who was trying to memorize sounds, rather than internalise menaings, was the kid playing the principal, which was why he couldn’t remember three lines, and why his dialogue was turning into a mashup of random syllables. Romeo had all his lines down, but he couldn’t get into the fight scene. We’d choreographed it well and the other kids were throwing wild air punches and kicks, but he was swatting at Tybalt like a love-struck puppy.
Before the final performance, I made a blood bag for Romeo’s big death scene. Other kids tasted the fake blood to see if it was edible or poisonous (edible, luckily – it tasted of raspberries). But they didn’t want to stain their clothes with it. So only Romeo strapped on a blood bag.
Our play was second. The kids lined up beside the stage. My co-teacher was managing the lights; I was handling the music. The kids were nervous. We turned off all the lights in the auditorium. It was perfectly black, and a kid in the audience made the moment by yelling, “I’m scary!”
Lights up. The play starts slowly, with Oh Mi-Oh commiserating with his friend about his former love, Jeong Su Jeong. Later, he and his friend attend the B Class party, overseen by the divisive B Class teacher, where he meets and falls in love with Ju Ri-Hyeon.
The students lined up for their dance. They did it perfectly, and received a round of applause.
After the balcony scene, the guitar introduction to “Romeo and Juliet” played. Mario, a rambunctious, extroverted kid, sauntered on stage and sang the first lines:
A lovestruck Romeo
Sings the streets a serenade
Laying everybody low
With a love song that he made
He was joined then by another boy, who sang the next few lines. Then the girls of the class joined Juliet for the second half of the first verse. Then the entire cast sang the chorus.
That was the end of the song. One verse and one chorus. It was enough. It’s a really long song…
It brought the house down.
The fight scene was amazing! The choreography was perfect, and the girl playing Tybalt smacked Romeo a real blow, right across the face. The audience gasped. Later, we found out that he’d told her to do it. That was how he motivated himself to get into the fight scene.
The denouement. Oh Mi-Oh’s discover’s Ju Ri-Hyeon’s body, lying prone. He cannot live without her. He takes out his knife, steps to center stage, bids farewell to a cruel world, and stabs himself deep in the heart…
And nothing. The blood bag failed to burst.
Standing there, the poor boy had a number of choices available to him. Who can say what led him to the choice he made? He pulled the prop knife back and again stabbed it into his heart. Again, nothing. Now the audience was laughing. He began stabbing himself furiously, over and over again. He looked like a psychopath. The audience was in hysterics. Juliet, supposedly unconscious on the stage, hissed at him to forget the blood bag and just die already…
Finally he ripped the blood bag open with his hand. His white shirt turned red. The audience gave an appreciative gasp and he fell dead next to Juliet. Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo and kills herself, far less dramatically.
The teachers, principal and students discover the young lovers’ bodies. They learn an object lesson about about the importance of being kind to your 친구 and the Confucian duties of teachers to their students. The narrator gives her summing up in the words of the Bard. She didn’t quite get it perfect, but nobody knew the difference, and the kids finished to rousing applause.
At awards night, a steady procession of other plays collected awards. My kids were good about it until we lost for “Best Adapted Screenplay”.
“Teacher, why we don’t win?” they said. “We make very good change.” Then one of them figured it out. “Maybe every class is win one time?”
Yes. There were two big awards, the “People’s Choice Award” – aka second prize – and “Best Production”. We were down to the final two.
We won the big one. “It had everything,” the camp director said. “It had singing, dancing, it had blood…” and she pantomimed stabbing herself in the chest, and everybody laughed again. We all went up on stage, and the kids were happy.
For the individual prizes, I got Best Director. The girl playing Tybalt won Best Supporting Actress. Later, at the final ceremony, another of my students won a trip to the US for being the best student of the camp, and the girl who played Juliet won our class prize for Congeniality. I was happy about that. I was supposed to choose it with my co-teacher, but I decided to let the class vote on it by secret ballot. Student-centered learning! Almost everyone voted for her. When her name was announced she seemed surprised, and turned to me and asked, “You?” I shook my head, and indicated her classmates.
The camp ended; the students got their phones back and exchanged Kakao IDs. The girl who played Tybalt couldn’t stop crying. They were all a bit institutionalized by then; camp had become their world, but it was time to go home. As for me, I felt happy with how the camp turned out. I felt I’d done alright by my students. They were a really nice class, one of the best I’ve taught.