One of the reasons I know my life is a makjang is because I, the female lead, know what to say and when to say it.
There is also incredible timing of events–timing the authors write for dramatic effect–that doesn’t happen in real life.
So the day my Director called me into work, despite a doctor’s note prescribing vitamins and rest, I prepared for the confrontation of my life.
“So my question is, what do you want?” She said. We sat in her glass walled office. Everyone walking by could see my back, and the face she was making at me–a mixture of despair, confusion, and stress. I didn’t know if her eyes are permanently glassy or not, but they had to have been as nervous as mine.
I expected to break down. That’s what I always do during confrontation. Everything I want to say is caught in my throat and instead of speaking my mind I end up choking and crying. Which is why I’ve avoided confrontation my entire life. I was already a hot mess—my eyes were puffy and the room still a little fuzzy, how could I possibly keep my composure?
But in my gut, I was determined. I had broken down in her office twice—to the point where she brought me tissues and water. That wasn’t going to happen. I had things to say.
“I want there to be another foreign teacher and another Korean teacher in this campus.” I somehow got it out without choking. This was off to a good start.
She was silent for a moment
“I’ve been pushing for more teachers.”
I closed my eyes to prevent an eyeroll, which would have hindered the negotiations.
“I’m not the only one who is stressed,”I said. “Erin has migraines every day. Kathyrn has lost a bunch of weight. You don’t know what goes on in there—the things that are said. I’m just the first one to have broken down and told you about it.”
I almost did choke at this part. Thinking about walking in on Sohee (the fairy princess) crying, seeing Eunhwa (omma) have her head in her hands when she learned she had to miss yet another Saturday with her children to be at work, watching Morgan happily agree to every task and then see the worry on her face, and Kathryn helping Erin do migraine exercises from across the room.
The windowless room practically boils with stress.
“You are NOT the leader of this campus,” she said putting her hands on the table. “You do NOT make decisions for the teachers or for me.”
This was a weird moment because all I wanted was the day off of work, but now I found myself wanting a whole lot more.
“That’s not what I was saying—I’m just telling you that there things going on you don’t know about,” I motioned with my hands, “Everyone is dying in there.”
She tightened her lips. You could see in her eyes she knew it was true.
“I’m working on getting new furniture.”
The eyeroll was replaced by an exasperated laugh.
“There needs to be more than that. You KNOW our campus is different. We are the hardest worked in Gyeonggi-do everyone knows that.”
Who is this girl and how is she saying these things without breaking down?
“That’s not true,” Director responded. “The schools that teach Langcon and middle school have more work.”
And immediately the response came to me, “but they also have more teachers to do that work…”
Director closed her eyes and sighed like she was about to give a life lesson to her 5 year old. “I worked at Langcon at a campus much harder than this. My Director pushed us very hard and I model my directing after hers. I worked until I almost died.”
I widened my eyes. “Until you almost died???”
She realized her hyperbole and continued, “but for you. What do YOU want to do.”
I hesitated because I didn’t want to hurt her. I really didn’t. I felt the choking coming but I swallowed it–here it comes Mal here’s where you have to say it–“I want to switch campuses,” I pretty much whispered.
I expected surprise or at least a sigh but instead there was an enthusiastic nod.
“I want you to switch too,” she said–almost relieved that I came to the conclusion myself.
“But—I can’t recommend you to another campus.” She said regretfully. “because if you get this stressed here, you will get just as stressed elsewhere.”
She was really missing the point of this entire conversation but before I could interject she said, “maybe you should just go home.
That kind of hurt. But I could brush it off. She didn’t know all the fun I was having and the good friends I’ve made. She didn’t know that there were many reasons I hadn’t quit months ago.
She continued, “when I taught your classes yesterday, you had the wrong flashcards for Key” (I didn’t) “and were half a lesson behind for Speak Up” (we all were…we planned it that way)
She massaged her temples.
“You’re just a bad teacher.”
And that one actually hurt. I felt that deep and it’s something that I’ll never forget no matter how hard I try. I think she could tell that suddenly I lost all fight in me with that one comment when–the phone rang.
I told you–my life is a makjang.
“Just a minute” she got up and went to her desk and answered, “yeoboseyo?”
Now I can’t speak Korean, but I understand a lot. I understood “there’s really no other campus?” and “okay we can talk later because she understands Korean.” I would have laughed if I didn’t feel so…deflated. I wasn’t sad or angry I was…nothing. And that also led to a rare clarity.
“Mallory, I will let you go home today as long as you promise me something.”
I nodded my head. Whatever to make you stop talking and let me go home and cry.
“I need you to promise me that you will be here tomorrow. And on Monday. Can you promise me that?”
I looked at the table and seriously considered. Could I promise that? Should I even stay here at all? Was she right could I not handle this? But most importantly, am I hindering the kids’ learning because I’m a bad teacher?
Then the atrocious Langcon Bell rang and all the kids ran screaming to their classrooms.
I just nodded.
“and will you promise me to work harder?”
I looked up, the sense that can only come from emptiness.
“Director, I’ll work so hard, I’ll feel like I’m going to die.”
She startled back confused. “Oh,” she said, “I see, you’re using my words against me.”
Who was this girl that not only kept herself together when she was told she was a complete failure, but also was able to shoot a comeback at the enemy lead?
She must be in a makjang.
“I have to go teach a class,” she huffed standing up. “Gather your book reports and put them here like I told you.”
She left and all the kids had gone to their classrooms and I sat there with my head in my hands massaging my temples feeling worse about myself than I ever have in my life. I had all sorts of thoughts. Not any of them good. All bad actually. Giving up. Failure. Quitting. Saying goodbye to everyone. I’m a bad teacher. I should just stop being around children forever.
I wasn’t crying because I think I was past that point. But I was not in a good place.
You know the version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with Jim Carrey? There’s one part where innocent Cindy Lou Who looks up and says, “is everything okay Mr. Grinch?”
“Mallory Teacher?” Dorothy 2 said in a Cindy Lou Who voice. I stood up immediately and while I hadn’t cried since I was home, I wasn’t wearing any makeup and I’m sure my eyes were at least still a little red. I crossed out of the glass office and said, “Dorothy, what are you doing out here? You’re supposed to be in class!”
She looked up at me with the biggest eyes through her new fashion glasses. She looked so confused–like the world had turned upside down. Like the earth’s tectonic plates had shifted and the polarity reversed. Like something completely impossible was happening. Her mouth was hanging open and her eyebrows all squiggly.
I touched her head, “seriously Dorothy what are you doing here?” I choked a bit.
“I was…water…” she couldn’t even get out a sentence she was so bewildered.
“Oh! Me too!” I coughed and led her to the water cooler and we drank together. I tried to make casual conversation.
“Do you like the teacher today? Colin teacher?”
She hadn’t stopped looking at me–she just stared over her paper cup and spilled a little water on her dress as she nodded a slow no.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Okay Dorothy, let’s go back to Colin Teacher,” and I pushed her in the right direction and she looked over her shoulder as she entered the classroom.
Obviously I couldn’t stay in the glass office.
So I went into the Teacher’s room/hell and sat at my desk. Now I was actually tearing up a bit.
I had my hands on the bridge of my nose when I hear, “Mallory Teacher?”
I shot out of my chair.
“Kevin!” Little Kevin had opened the door and peeked in. I yell at this kid every day.
“Mallory Teacher okay?” he asked with the most concerned look I can’t even describe.
“Yes, Kevin, I’m okay. Go back to class,” and I touched him out the door.
I went back to sit in my chair when seconds later I hear another, “Mallory Teacher?” followed by a loud “OKAY NO ONE ELSE CAN GO TO THE BATHROOM” emanating from their classroom.
“Yes Emily. I’m okay. I’m okay. Go back to class,” and I pointed her away.
I went and hid behind the divider between the desks and the sink.
Just the thought that Dorothy had gone back into class and told everyone she saw Mallory Teacher crying and they all lied to the substitute to come and see me.
It didn’t help my mental constitution.
I did in fact come in the next day, and when I saw that class and asked them how they felt like I do every day, Dorothy asked first, “how is Mallory Teacher?”
“I’m happy Dorothy. Thank you,” and I couldn’t help but smile.
And Kevin said, “then Kevin is happy!” and Dorothy 1 piped up, “I’m Mallory Teacher happy!” and the rest of the class followed.
I know it sounds like that can’t be true. To go from being told you’re a bad teacher and should go back to America and feeling the worst about yourself than ever before, then to have your students individually tell you how much they love you.
I told you my life is a makjang.