I wasn't a mean teacher. I played by the rules.
I had to: I had 644 students.
As an English language teacher at Jeonju University, I was responsible for giving my students two exams over the course of the year: a written exam, which I gave at the end of the school year, and an oral exam, conducted at the middle of the term.
Because I had 644 students and only one week in which to complete the mid-term exams, I had to test two students at a time in 10-minute intervals. In five days, I worked almost 70 hours.
In the week leading up to exam week, I prepared sign-up sheets for my students: all they had to do was find a time that worked for them and then show up. Depending on the level of the student—be he or she a beginner or advanced—I would have some prepared conversations to follow or we would simply chat.
Because I had to deal with so many students, once the sign-up sheet was full, I had no room for anyone to make up if he or she couldn't make the allotted time. If you missed your time slot, you failed, unless you had a doctor's note.
It went like clockwork: two students would enter my office, take a seat, and go through the exercises. Or we would chat about any topic they chose (a lot of times, they would just chat about me—what I thought about Korea, what I liked to do in my spare time, and the like). I worked in about a five-minute buffer to the 15-minute slot, to allow for those students who were late and to allow me to catch my breath, go to the washroom, or have something to eat or drink.
Some students did come late. They would come running, out of breath, apologizing for their tardiness, sometimes offering valid excuses, like they had a meeting with another teacher and it ran late, to lame excuses, such as they forgot until the last minute.
One student, who missed his time slot entirely, came to me the next day with a note, written in Hangul, telling me it was a doctor's note. A quick consultation with the Korean secretary revealed it was, in fact, a parking ticket.
He received a failing grade.
The best excuse came from a student who arrived four hours late for his appointed time. He was apologetic, speaking to me in good English, being one of my better students. Had he actually shown up for his time slot, he would have earned an easy A.
It was June, 1998, and the FIFA World Cup championship was being held in France. In the week of the mid-term exams, South Korea was still playing. In 1998, Korea itself was vying to host the next World Cup. In the city in which I lived, posters were displayed all over, reading World Cup 2002 Must Be Held in Chŏnju!
"So sorry," my student said, "I overslept. I was up late, watching World Cup."
"Nice to see you have your priorities," I said. I didn't have much time to talk to him: two students had just wrapped up their exam and I was expecting the next two any minute. "So, you like soccer?" The Koreans followed the North American naming of the game.
"I love it!" he said, excited that I wasn't scolding him for missing his exam, for not telling him he failed the class. He would learn that later, when the grades would be posted.
"Why did you stay up late last night? Korea wasn't playing last night."
"I know. I love the game. It doesn't matter which team is playing."
"But it matters to me," I said. "You see, if you had slept in because Korea had been playing, I would have been more forgiving. I would have understood. I would have said, 'It's okay. You can make up the exam another time.'"
"Really?" he said, sounding both surprised and regretful that his country hadn't played.
"No, not really!" I said, probably louder than I should have. "Your exam was more important than a game. If you had shown up on time, we could have had a conversation just like this one, talking about FIFA and how the teams have been playing so far. And you would have received an A because I know your English is excellent. But that's okay, now you can stay up late as long as you want, without worrying about being in my class. Goodbye." And with that, I showed him the door.
Maybe I was a little mean, sometimes.