Teaching Monks

So at first the monks at this university really charmed the hell out of me. It felt like I was in a different culture all over again, to see their gray robes peacefully swaying past the ruined pagodas, the vine-wrapped pergolas. I wondered what it would be like to teach them, and how they would differ from the normal (and usually far younger) students at the university, who thus far have been astoundingly nice, polite, and eager, in the six weeks I’ve spent working here.

Then at last the day arrived. Two of them waltzed into the classroom: one was a novice and still wearing regular young person’s Korean clothes under his robes. The other was a very serious, unsmiling fellow sporting a fine five o’clock shadow, whose name was Deok-gi, or Ducky. He stared at me like a grim statue as I presented myself to everyone, doing my best to charm, entertain, and enlighten; by asking my student’s names and then writing them down, quickly, in Korean, I usually manage to impress everyone, and have them covering their wide surprised mouths, and whispering to their friends…but Ducky had his arms crossed, and Ducky wasn’t cracking so much as a smirk.

I lectured for a few minutes to prepare everyone for the activity, which in the case of large groups of students (about a dozen) usually involves everyone getting up and saying a few different open-ended phrases to one another, and then after everyone was up and about and talking and moving around I came to Ducky, shyly, reluctantly, and he said something to me, I can’t remember what, and I slapped my forehead like a chimp, and shouted oh my god!, and had him giggling like a schoolgirl and shouting oh my god! to everyone else in the classroom for the next ten minutes. It was a good experience and he was actually a mid-level student, despite being in his thirties or forties—older people have not been so thoroughly saturated with this language as the youngins—but I never saw him again.

I think it must take a lot of courage and conviction to be a monk here, or really to be a monk—Christian or Buddhist or whatever—anywhere. When you encounter someone who has completely renounced materialism in a land that worships Materialism as the One True God, and risks the usual accusations of laziness for refusing to take part in the mindless rat race, and gets up at three or four or five in the morning every day to pray and meditate, and wears clothes that are specifically designed to separate himself or herself from everyone else, and throws his or her career out the window, and does all kinds of other crazy crap, you do have to kind of sit back in awe and wonder what you could possibly teach this person, when, in fact, a significant part of you admires what they are doing and wishes that you could ask them how to do the same. I don’t really feel that way with my other students.

One of my favorite professors at Hampshire was a former monk, living in Ireland; as he told the story, he did it for a few years, maybe even a few decades, and then woke up one morning and decided he didn’t want to do it anymore.

I first got the idea of becoming a monk toward the end of my life from the Byzantine Emperors, who tried to atone for killing tens of thousands of innocent people during their reigns by retiring to monasteries after they became too weak to resist the bloody machinations of their endless droves of enemies. Usually they would die in a matter of weeks, after doing so, their sins fully cleansed with somewhat less than all of Neptune’s seas, which were not incarnadined; but sometimes their eyes were put out before they were forcibly retired to whichever pretty little bulbous monastery they wanted on the shores of the glinting Bosphorous. Dante ran into one of them, Justinian, near the very top of the heavenly spheres, although at that point he was just sort of a happily pulsating light who wasn’t able to discuss anything except his famous legal reforms, since Dante himself wasn’t able to dig up any other information about him.

Other monks were more difficult. I was warned about them at an early morning professor’s meeting, and told that there should be a separate level for people who really cannot speak any English at all, and cannot read, or write. Often they are grouped in together with younger students who have several years’ of lazily-imbibed English behind them—it is true that if you waste your time and sit back and learn passively for a decade, as most of these youngins’ seem to have done in the case of English, you can actually learn a little through sheer osmosis—and of course when you mix these people with a bunch of seriously true beginners you find yourself thinking that it is completely impossible to teach both groups at the same time. How can you work with one person who has a vocabulary of several hundred, perhaps even a thousand words, decent spelling and conversational abilities, versus someone who is attending his first English class in his life?

One very nice woman entered the classroom, handed me a bottle of banana milk, namaste’d, sat next to the only other student, a young woman of readily apparent ability—and was soon sweating through the class so profusely that she had to mop her flushed bald head over and over again with a rag. She answered most questions by nodding and repeating the last few syllables of whatever had been said, or would usually just say something like I’m pine howwa yoo?—smiling and namasteing for all she was worth—but with the sweetest old lady tone you could ever ask for. That hour with her was quite a challenge, and I’m fairly certain that no one in the classroom learned anything; the other student was translating everything I was said straight into Korean, and thus doing about three quarters of the teaching for me.

I also spoke Korean to her, but another challenge with the monks is that I have no idea how to conjugate my verbs around an older person of significant eminence. There’s a special conjugation for teachers, directed toward students (verb stem + hay bo-say-yo), but this is for younger students, and it would not be good to address older people in the same fashion—unless of course they’re complete assholes, in which case you can shift all the way down the ladder to the very bottom, and call them out for a fistfight. We used to live above an enormous parking lot, and were awoken one night by one drunk shouting a woozy illy-wa! cummere!, to another, for thirty minutes.

Today, during a rather therapeutic, hour-long conversation with one of my favorite students, he revealed to me that a teacher had thrown a monk out of his classroom the year before, probably for the same reasons I’ve spoken about here: it is extremely difficult to teach someone with no experience next to someone else with ten years of experience. I don’t plan on going that route, since it sounds kind of rude, and thus far every single monk has been very nice (one was actually fluent and expressed interest in attending Hampshire College, where he would be worshiped as a god), but I am thinking about developing some basic alphabet and greeting worksheets that I can hand off to them when I encounter them again, but I’m not sure how effective this will be—since they’ve come to the classroom to speak with a Native, and not to puzzle their way through worksheets.

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