Pretend I didn’t say that.

When you teach little children all day, it’s easy to forget how young they really are. It can be kind of a shock when you see your students out with their parents and realise that they’re not much more than babies, in spite of how hard you see them being pushed in school.

What’s even more strange for me is how I’ve actually come to see my afternoon elementary classes as practically adults. After a day of dumbing it down for the tiny tots, it’s lovely to be able to have more meaningful interactions with my students. My second grade girls are an absolute pleasure to teach, with their eagerness to communicate and question everything, and I love being able to joke with them in the knowledge that more often than not I’ll get laughter rather than blank expressions. In my head, they’re practically teenagers, but in fact they’re only 9 years old in Korean age… maybe 8, in our terms?

My fourth grade class, however, are adults to me. I didn’t even realise how strange this was until a friend was showing me a video he’d taken of one of his classes, and said “they’re only in the fourth grade” in an “aw, bless, look at the babies!” kind of tone. My fourth grade class are the oldest children who come to our school, and they look like grown-ups when you see them walking up the corridor amongst all the screaming 5-year-olds. They’re starting to stretch out, and they’ve lost their chubby-cheeked, baby-faced look. They can understand me when I speak English at a reasonably normal speed, and they are already so highly educated in all subjects that I sometimes feel a little intimidated by them! They all have strong personalities and well-thought-out opinions on just about everything.

I must confess, I am a much better teacher to this kind of group. Lower ability classes are not my specialty – possibly because I’m not actually a qualified teacher and haven’t been trained in how to deal with the ones who aren’t all that interested, or possibly because I lack the extraordinary, superhuman patience that it seems to take. Fortunately, this year, I only have one such class – a small group of first graders, whose class comes between my super-smart second grade and my young adult fourth grade. It is the only class I don’t enjoy teaching, and I suppose when my fourth graders arrive at the end of the ordeal I greet them as if they are my native-speaking friends.

Our time together tends to be more like a rather strange, rambling conversation than a structured class. I do start out with a plan, but before I know it the 50 minutes are up, we’ve only covered the introduction to my lesson, and my board looks like this:

"How did we get here?!"

It is a little disconcerting. And the fact that they are capable of following the whole thing, getting really interested in topics you wouldn’t imagine children could understand in a foreign language, and contributing their own thoughts, opinions, and anecdotes on the subject, all adds to the distorted impression I have of their age. They are at least 15, but probably nearer to 20.

In fact, they are about 10 years old. This just does not make sense in my head; I can’t accept it. And it does lead to the occasional blunder on my part, when I catch myself telling them something that you shouldn’t tell 10-year-olds, only realising my error when they react with delighted laughter and a burst of fascinated questions I don’t want to answer. On the plus side, they now have an excellent understanding of the phrases “Forget I said anything”, “Never mind”, and “Moving swiftly onwards…”.

Then there was the day I suddenly saw them for the little children they actually are. We were discussing myths, legends, and the word “strange”, and the question in their book asked them to tell everyone the strangest story they’d ever heard. They weren’t sure what that meant, so I gave them an example, starting with “The strangest story I’ve ever heard…” and proceeding to tell them the first story that popped into my head, which happened to be this one (#6 Isla de las Munecas) that I’d read a few days earlier.  In short, it’s about a weird hermit guy who lived alone on an island collecting dolls and hanging them on trees to appease the ghost of a girl who drowned there. He did this for 50 years or so before drowning in the the very same place as the little girl, and to this day the dolls remain hanging from trees all over this uninhabited island, with their rotting hair matted with spiders’ webs, and maggots wriggling out of their eye sockets.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t an ideal story for a group of 10-year-olds.

Nor should I have shown them the pictures, now that I think about it.

My colleague thought it was hilarious when I crept sheepishly into her classroom later and explained that I had just had to bribe our traumatised students with the promise of ice cream in exchange for them forgetting the whole thing and pretending I’d never mentioned the terrifying haunted island of wandering souls and Chuckyesque mutant dolls and little girls drowning and psycho hermit men warding off evil spirits.

Sometimes I really do marvel at the fact that I am a teacher of young children, you know.

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3 thoughts on “Pretend I didn’t say that.

  1. I can relate! I’ve always taught middle and high school and I’ve always hated the fact that, just since I was a teacher, I would be the perfect volunteer to run the activities, even when my kids were very small. I am definitely not a primary-grades teacher! When I taught middle-schoolers, my 8th-graders (14 year olds) were my ‘mature’ group that I looked forward to; in high school, it was my seniors (17-18). And at university, it was always a pleasure to find a few ‘non-traditional’ students (eg, older adults) in the mix. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the little ones, but you’re right: after a day spent talking on a completely different level, you really do yearn to communicate with people who think and talk like you do! I’ve had a few moments like you describe, but mostly the kiddos took them in stride – I think it made them feel quite grown-up to be talked to like adults!

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