Hyun Joo's Oration
by Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2004. All rights reserved.
Professor Jordan Kaplan was sitting in the back of the classroom with his nervous students, right between Gyu Jin with the thin wire rim glasses and Sang Yeob with the tiny whiskers, which had probably taken him three weeks to grow, sprouting from his chin. Kaplan knew both of these characters would fail miserably on this, their last and final oral presentation in his freshman English conversation class; but after them Hyun Joo would be up, and Kaplan was expecting something fantastic from her. In spite of the fact that he was expecting dreadful performances from both Gyu Jin and Sang Yeob, Kaplan was sitting next to them because he wanted these Koreans to understand that he did not take it personally or in any way hold it against them that their English was so awful and in need of drastic improvement. Kaplan knew that Koreans, who are so sensitive about their culture as to force the sympathetic Western instructor to constantly strive to see the world from the Korean point of view, must be handled with a steady kindness and consideration. Kaplan wanted to show all of them, and especially Gyu Jin and Sang Yeob who were his very worst students, that he could sit among them and try to be as much a member of their group as they would allow him to be. In the end, however, everyone in the classroom was fully aware of two important facts setting Kaplan worlds apart from the rest: Kaplan was a foreigner, and Kaplan would be handing out the final grades in just a few days.
This is not to say that Kaplan’s freshman at Taegu National University in Taegu, South Korea were all that concerned about their grades during their first semester of college. They had all endured and survived shihum giok, the examination hell which all Korean high school students intent on entering college must suffer through. The long struggle of 19 hours of daily study, preparing for the grueling university entrance examinations, had tested their inner strength far more than it had tested their intelligence. Their motto had been: “Four hours pass, five hours fail,” meaning they would pass the university entrance examination if they slept only four hours each night and fail if they indulged themselves by sleeping five hours. While American teenagers were off tripping on ecstasy, shooting their teachers and classmates, and getting themselves pregnant, these Korean kids had been preparing themselves day and night for the future. Perhaps this is a bit unfair to the numerous American high school students who study and try to succeed, but there really is no comparison between the tremendous amount of work required of high school students in Korea, and the work that will guarantee an American student a passing grade. These were the children of an enormously proud Asian tiger, a nation that had overcome devastating civil war and poverty to become one of the great trading, manufacturing, and technology giants of the world economy. While hard times had recently befallen the Korean economy with the IMF crisis of 1997, the typical Korean worker, citizen, and student had only responded by working harder. The work ethic, that valued and sanctified moral code said to be handed down in New England by the Puritan fathers and responsible for the productivity of American capitalism, while feared by many an apprehensive American pundit to be further diminished in the States with each passing year, was alive and well in Korea, thanks to the force of Confucianism and traditional Korean values. Even in this day and age of Westernization, globalization, and the erosion of all things traditional, Korea is a land that an archetypical American like Benjamin Franklin, with all of his Poor Richard’s counsel about early to bed and early to rise, might deeply admire were he alive today.
The ironic thing about it all, Kaplan had learned from his experience as Visiting Professor of English, was that now that these Korean kids had reached the promised land of university, they were intent mainly on socializing and drinking away their first year of college, with little concern for the apparently minor matter of grades. So, added to the intricacies of teaching in a foreign land was the fact that the students would rather not be bothered with details like homework assignments, exams, and oral presentations. Kaplan had to admit that his students deserved a little break after all of their hard work in high school, but this state of affairs and the accompanying attitude of guge salmiji, or in French, c’est la vie, made Kaplan’s job all the more difficult. He tried to draw the line at sobriety in class, but this did not stop his ever so convivial students from sometimes coming to class drunk from a lunchtime dose of soju, the Korean national beverage, which is a bit like vodka brewed from sweet potatoes.
Kaplan called Gyu Jin’s name, and the slight nervous youth adjusted his thin wire-rim glasses with his thumb and walked hesitatingly to the podium in the front of the class. Then he proceeded to stutter through his presentation on King Sei Jong, the beloved scholar-king of the Chosun Dynasty who had invented the Korean alphabet, Hangul, in order to provide commoners with a language that would be easier to master than the complicated character script used by the Chinese and erudite Korean scholars. Kaplan could barely make out what Gyu Jin said, but he was able to fill in the wide gaps with his own knowledge of the King Sei Jong legend and Korean history. After Gyu Jin finished, Sang Yeob performed only slightly better at his laudatory remarks concerning Park Chung Ho, the L.A. Dodgers pitcher who was the first Korean ever to make it to the big leagues in the States. Kaplan was sitting there in the back of the classroom recording Sang Yeob’s marks into his grade book and wondering who was more beloved to the Koreans, the scholar-king or the fastball wizard, when Hyun Joo marched confidently to the podium to begin her final oral presentation.
Kaplan became more attentive, almost unable to control his anticipation. Hyun Joo was a true star in Kaplan’s class, and he had been looking forward to her presentation for days now. Her English was excellent, as good as the English of a student who had studied abroad for an extended period of time. Little Hyun Joo, however, had never had the chance to study abroad. She had only been to Seoul twice, and that metropolis was only a mere five hours away by train. It was only on rare occasions that she had left Kyungbook Province or the city of Taegu itself. Nevertheless, her English ability was extraordinary, and considering her lack of experience and her sheltered childhood as a Korean girl in a Korean city with few wei guks (foreigners) to see, let alone approach and speak to, Kaplan believed that Hyun Joo had to be some kind of a genius, or else a real Korean-style workaholic.
Kaplan wasn’t exactly sure how she had learned all of her English. He had always meant to ask her about that, but for some reason or another had always neglected to do so. An imaginative element in his character had not wanted to solve the mystery of Hyun Joo’s enhanced abilities. He speculated to himself that either she had spent endless hours studying her English books in high school, or else she possessed that rare natural ability to pick up a foreign language with ease. In any case, Kaplan knew Hyun Joo was a true star, a shining example of excellence. He loved her for it, not as he loved his wife who was also Korean, but as a teacher loves a student who strives for perfection in class and reaches quite near to it on exams and homework assignments. Yes, Kaplan loved Hyun Joo as he loved the idea of himself which he had held so close all of those years when he too had striven for excellence.
That had been a long time ago, and Kaplan’s dreams of excellence, achievement, scholarship, and distinction had all but disappeared when he tumbled and fell into what, at the time, seemed to be an abyss of self-doubt and fear of failure. All of his tumbling and tumult, Kaplan knew, had led to that moment in time, and that was why Kaplan believed that he and Hyun Joo were connected in a peculiar sort of way. He would not allow himself to call it fate, for that of course would upset his wife to the brink of hysteria, if she ever found out after picking Kaplan’s brain for details about his female students, as she was so often driven to do by an unsettling suspicion. Furthermore, it was not in fact the truth to say that Kaplan felt fated to be there in that particular classroom with those particular students at that particular point in time. He did not know for certain if he believed in fate. He could only feel that there was some connection, some link, perhaps a chain of events leading to a moment of clarity and self-awareness. Was it that Kaplan saw himself in this ambitious young woman about to deliver what he knew would be a fantastic presentation? Could he have been this young woman in another life? Most certainly the answer to the last question was no. First of all, both Kaplan and Hyun Joo were alive at the same time; he saw her standing there before him and so was certain at least of this single fact. In addition, Kaplan did not believe in reincarnation, and he could never stretch his imagination so as to see himself with Hyun Joo’s long, straight, silky black hair with alternating purple and blue streaks dyed in. He did not wear torn blue jeans and a Tweety Bird t-shirt as she did, nor did he rant and rave about the latest sensations to hit the Korean pop charts in an almost perfect English revealing itself as foreign only through its unmistakably Korean accent. Furthermore, Kaplan was a man, and although his emotions were often quite feminine, he could never visualize himself as a woman, no matter how hard he tried. In any case, to call Hyun Joo a woman was a bit of a stretch. She was in fact just a kid, who five months before had been a high school student. Kaplan could not see Hyun Joo as he saw himself with his steadily growing potbelly, fast receding hairline, and bespectacled care-worn face that seemed doomed to lose it’s former charismatic attractiveness with each passing year. No, the thin beautiful Korean girl with all of that black silky hair, the purple and blue dye, and the torn blue jeans, that was all Hyun Joo and none of Kaplan, but still, he felt connected.
It had to be her excellence that made Kaplan feel the way he did. Could he fully describe that feeling? No, he couldn’t. But he knew it was a good feeling. Yes, he was overjoyed to have such a little star in his class. But it was also a bad feeling, because when he thought about her, he thought too deeply about himself. Seeing her perform, he was drawn almost without a struggle towards those thoughts that had once chased him away from Chicago with its Saul Bellows and Nobel Prize laureates and nuclear chain reactions under the football stadium leading from one atom to the next until they reached the delicate atoms in Kaplan’s brain cells and contaminated him until he tumbled and tumbled and found himself in Room 402, Liberal Arts Building, Taegu National University, Taegu, South Korea. And there he was, feeling much smaller than he had once imagined himself to be, waiting in anticipation for a 19-year-old kid to shine for ten short minutes.
Hyun Joo did not let Kaplan down. She began with a short introduction, followed by a song and more.
“Good afternoon, classmates, students, and Professor Kaplan. Today we celebrate not only the completion of our freshman English conversation class, but also the close of our first semester as university students. We have reveled in our new found freedom from our parents and high school teachers and the dark and dreary days of our seemingly endless examination hell. We have enjoyed the fellowship of our classmates, and we have learned from the helpful guidance of professors with warm hearts and open minds like Professor Kaplan.”
As Hyun Joo continued Kaplan was aware of her radiance. It was not that same thing as her beauty, even though she was beautiful like so many Korean women are. What caught his attention was a glow sensed more by his intellect than by his eyes. Her English was so near perfect that Kaplan felt she could have been an American kid standing there sharing her thoughts with the class. The purple and blue hair, the Korean facial features, the cute Tweety Bird t-shirt all gave here away as Korean, but when Kaplan closed his eyes for a moment to just listen to her speak, he could have sworn that here was an American kid standing there addressing the class. He knew that Hyun Joo had worked diligently to achieve this sort of illusion for him, and as he listened to her speak, he became more self-consciously aware of the meaning of the significance of her words for his own life.
She had just praised him for his helpful guidance. When she did so he had visions of himself as a student and he remembered the kind of guidance he had received from teachers when he was very young. Their faces had not always been as friendly as he tried so hard to make his own now that he was a teacher. There had been plenty of teachers who had but little faith in Jordan Kaplan’s abilities.
There was his second grade teacher, Mrs. Temples, who wanted to hold him back a year because she was too old and burned out to handle his hyperactive tantrums and gallantries in class back at Washington Elementary School in the Chicago suburbs. Old Temples had nearly lost it when, without permission, Jordan had brought his pet frogs to school and let them hop all over poor Karen Anderson’s desk. Then there was the time Jordan tried to throw a ruler across the room to his friend David Silverberg, but instead hit Temples in the face, causing the blood to trickle down her furiously red cheeks. Kaplan shook his head as he remembered how he and Silverberg had spent more time at the principal’s office than in class because Temples would have nothing to do with them. Their masterpiece of misconduct had been the 103 page-long King Kong scrapbook. Inside they had drawn numerous pictures of Kong standing triumphantly atop the World Trade Center, fighting off dozens of military helicopters and jet fighters. In Kong’s palm was a naked blond drawn with as much elegance as two second graders could give her. Silverman drew the body in ink, and Kaplan covered the private parts with a bikini drawn in pencil. Whenever the two boys wanted to take a peek at the blond’s chest and crotch, they carefully erased the penciled-in swimsuit. Kaplan was convinced that it was the scrapbook that was the last straw for Temples when she recommended that he be held back a year. Fortunately, Jordan’s mother turned up at the parent-teacher conference with her son’s standardized test scores that were all in the top percentiles, and Kaplan was allowed to advance to the third grade.
Then there was Mr. Pudwinski, his eighth grade science teacher who recommended that Jordan take mainly lower level classes in high school because Pudwinski did not believe that Jordan Kaplan was bright enough for the honors track. Fortunately, mother Kaplan was there again to ignore the teacher’s best advice. Senior year at Southtown High School, when nominated for the award of Top Senior in Science, Jordan considered calling up old Pudwinski to gloat. The community had given Pudwinski the Golden Apple award because they considered him to be such an innovative and imaginative teacher. Jordan, of course, had a different opinion.
But the future was ahead of him, and Kaplan had not yet developed the terrible habit of dwelling on the past, a habit he developed when began to fancy himself a political theorist and historian in graduate school. So he never did call up Pudwinski, but instead silently hoped the honored teacher would see the article written up about Kaplan in the local newspaper when he won the silver medal in biology at the annual regional competition of the Junior Engineering and Scientific Society. Now Kaplan was heading off to the big U downstate in Urbana. He had wanted to be the first Kaplan to make it to the Ivy League, but he had failed to recognize his own talents and abilities in time to achieve a grade point average worthy of the coveted spots in the top eastern schools.
Downstate Kaplan spent countless hours in the library pursuing his dream of excellence, and he soon began to realize, while his friends were out drinking and partying with the fraternity crowd, that he, Jordan Kaplan, was a real scholar. He made the difficult move from hard science to liberal arts after hearing much grief from his parents and his favorite microbiology professor. Nonetheless, he managed to excel as a student of political philosophy just as he had excelled as a student of biology. Graduation brought heaps of awards and distinctions: Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, multiple scholarships, and admission to one of the top political science and political theory departments in the world for graduate studies.
For the next three years Kaplan lived the life of the pure academic. He consumed ideas as he breathed air. Aristotle. Plato. Thucydides. These great ancients were his constant companions. He explored the thought of Nietzsche and even dabbled a bit in the statistical analysis of social science data. He was pleased to be called a vulgar social science positivist by a cranky old Oxford-educated anthropology professor, whose class he had somehow or other managed to enter in order to develop his theoretical constructs for an analysis of race relations in his master’s thesis.
He lived in the old International House on 59th Street, one of the Rockefellers’ many gifts to the University of Chicago. At breakfast in the cafeteria, he discussed the headlines in the New York Times with Belgians and Dutch. At lunch, he discussed his master’s thesis research with Germans and French. At dinner he discussed the differences between eastern and western philosophy with Japanese and Koreans. His single room was pitifully small, but so were those of everyone else in the International House graduate dormitory. Many of them had graduated from schools like Swarthmore and Oxford. If a tiny little room with an old pullout couch-bed was good enough for them, then it was good enough for Jordan Kaplan. He was self-consciously a state-school boy trying to prove himself in an environment that had its share of slobs and snobs, prep-schooled legacies and genuine geniuses.
Kaplan was certain that he himself was not a genius after he befriended a few of these rare specimens in Hyde Park. Although he was at first painfully aware of his inferiority when compared to his truly gifted friends, he began to feel a certain pride in having made it so far on his merely above average or excellent, but not in any way genius, brain. But then, just when he began to feel comfortable around all of that superior gray matter and the people attached to it, he began to lose his senses in the Regenstein Library.
The library stood on the former site of the football stadium, which had been an important part of the campus back in the 30s, when the U of C was in the Big Ten and the trustees had not yet decided to scrap the big-time sports program in exchange for Nobel prizes and a grave seriousness that hangs above the campus like a dark cloud. At least Kaplan believed he could see that dark mist hovering above the neo-gothic architecture every time he walked from International House to The Reg throughout the cold Chicago winters. Could it have been the remnants of some radioactive cloud mistakenly created by Fermi and his colleagues when they split the atom under the grandstands that once stood where the Reg now stands? He knew he wasn’t alone when he had his troubles, for everyone at the U of C had heard the stories of the innumerable intellectual casualties produced in Hyde Park. How could Kaplan feel isolated when his own next-door neighbor in International House had sliced up his wrists up with a pair of scissors after he failed his Latin exam?
No, his problems were not anything special and he realized that he had no monopoly on tragedy or melodrama. Kaplan always marveled at how long he had to wait in order to pick up his monthly prescriptions at the student counseling center on Ellis Avenue before his regular meeting with his surprisingly relaxed and down to earth thesis advisor, who his cute Japanese girlfriend from International House nonetheless insisted on calling The Evil Doctor Shrinkerman.
All of these thoughts about Shrinkerman, Mrs. Temples, Pudwinski, graduation’s triumph in Urbana, and International House, they all passed through Kaplan’s head very quickly as he was listening to Hyun Joo’s introduction, the thoughts sputtering and jumping through his contaminated brain like short electric sparks of a dying current in a broken household appliance.
“And so let us all be grateful and appreciative of Kaplan, and Kaplan’s big heart. Even though he does not always smile, we all know he is kind and sincere in his inside part.”
It was true. Kaplan didn’t always smile when he was teaching English. His students always picked up on that because they were so sensitive to facial expressions. Many people falsely believe that Asian people are masters of disguise when it comes to hiding or showing their emotions. From his experience with Korean students, Kaplan had found that it is rather a more subtle manner of expression than a complete lack of expression that characterizes the display of emotion on the Asian visage. This explained why his students were always so sensitive to react to any hint of a smile or frown that crossed his face during class. Used to more understated and delicate expressions, they read Kaplan’s Chicago Jewish mannerisms like a billboard.
The Evil Doctor Shrinkerman also thought he could read me like a billboard, Kaplan thought while he listened to Hyun Joo’s tributary remarks. Was Shrinkerman wrong? Of course Kaplan had made Shrinkerman’s job more difficult by concealing many of his thoughts and feelings. Tomoko, the Japanese girlfriend, urged Kaplan to be more open with Shrinkerman, even though she was the one who had invented the insulting name for the distinguished Harvard-educated doctor in order to cheer Kaplan out of his hopeless depression.
“My girlfriend thinks I should be more open with you,” Kaplan announced in Shrinkerman’s (whose real name was Silverman) office back in Hyde Park years ago.
“I would appreciate that. I think it could only help you, Jordan,” Silverman replied.
“Tomoko thinks,” Kaplan began rather timidly, “Tomoko thinks I am too focused on making sure she experiences orgasmic pleasure during sex, and she says I am not focused enough on my own satisfaction.”
“I’m your thesis advisor, not your sex therapist,” Silverman said with a sigh.
“I thought you wanted me to open up,” Kaplan said dejected.
“I want you to talk to me about your feelings about Hyde Park and what you came here for,” Silverman said.
“What more can I tell you that you don’t already know,” said Kaplan.
“You can start by telling me if you think you really belong here?” asked Silverman.
Kaplan looked at Silverman, almost with a look of fear. Silverman was always so relaxed and down to earth in spite of his illustrious pedigree. He had never before asked a question that put Kaplan on edge like this one did.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Kaplan asked angry and scared.
“I just want to know what you think,” said Silverman. “Do you think you deserve to be here?”
“Are you trying to tell me that I don’t belong here?” Kaplan asked.
“What do you think?” asked Silverman?
Kaplan never had the guts to call him Shrinkerman to his face. He did not think he was a bad professor. In fact, Kaplan liked the way Shrinkerman had taken him under his wing. He just hated the fact that he was unwell and in need of this kind of advice and supervision. Hence Kaplan’s complicity with Tomoko’s little game of derogatory misnomers.
“Do you think I belong here?” Kaplan asked.
“Only you can answer that question, Jordan,” answered Silverman.
“But Dr. Silverman,” Kaplan pleaded, “It sounds like you really don’t think I belong here.”
“That’s your insecurity talking, Jordan,” said Silverman.
“What do you mean? “ Kaplan asked.
Silverman sighed again and shook his head.
“Jordan Kaplan. You were accepted into the graduate Ph.D. program in political science at one of the world’s leading institutions of higher learning. The professors who read your application for admission obviously believed that you deserve to be here.”
“But I never talk to them,” mumbled Kaplan, just loud enough for Silverman to hear him. “I’m afraid to go to office hours.”
“They’ve given you a full scholarship. You’ve received addition grants from several other foundations. Your grades last term weren’t perfect, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of. You finished your master’s thesis and you got an A on it.”
“It was six months late,” Kaplan said pleading the case against himself.
“This is the University of Chicago for Christ’s sake,” said Silverman. “How many people do you know here who finish all of their work on time?”
“Maybe you’re right, “ said Kaplan, his head in his hands. “Maybe I don’t belong here. Maybe I should drop out.”
“For Christ sake,” yelled the usually calm Dr. Silverman. “Jordan, will you listen to yourself?”
“Maybe I should transfer to another department. Philosophy or Social Thought,” Kaplan said.
“Maybe you should, Jordan. Maybe you should.”
“And so without further ado,” announced Hyun Joo as Kaplan drifted back from his memories of the U of C to the here and now of his classroom and Hyun Joo’s presentation, “I would like to dedicate a song to our great and kindly teacher, Professor Kaplan.”
Well, Kaplan thought to himself, this could only happen to him in Korea. Where else would a student dedicate a song to a professor during a final presentation of a graded university course? Where else would the student be wearing a Tweety Bird T-shirt, torn blue jeans, and have purple and blue dye in her silky black hair. And where else would Kaplan be called “Professor Kaplan,” because he never did transfer to another department and he never did believe Silverman or anyone else who told him he could finish the dissertation if only he put his heart into it. Only in Korea could he be a professor without a PhD about to hear a song sung in his honor by Tweety Bird hovering there at the podium.
“This is not my fate,” Kaplan muttered to himself as Hyun Joo began, very quietly to sing a Bon Jovi ballad in honor of her English professor. “It is an unforeseen combination of contaminated brain cells, the inescapable cuteness of Korean girls, and the Nore-Bong-- inspired musical culture that has brought me to this moment.”
Gyu Jin, laughing, lightly punched Kaplan on the shoulder.
“Professor Kaplan,” Gyu Jin said, “No you to talk. Hyun Joo sing a song now time.”
Kaplan regained control of himself and listened to Hyun Joo sing.
“I lost all faith in my God, in his religion too.
I told all the angels they could sing their song to someone new.
I thought that I was left to walk this wicked world alone....”
Hyun Joo was so quiet at first, it was difficult to hear her, so Kaplan was afraid that he might have to give her low marks for comprehension and pronunciation. Kaplan knew immediately what the problem was. Watching her restrained gestures and body language, he could sense that the she was not sure whether or not he would approve of the song. Kaplan was surprised that his top student had decided to pay homage to him through the words of Bon Jovi, but he was not shocked. Living in a foreign country for three years had taught him to expect the unexpected. He had long ago concluded that these Korean undergraduates were irretrievably absurd, what with their Mickey Mouse t-shirts and Big Macs one minute, followed the next by anti-American demonstrations and uncompromising demands that the U.S. military leave Korea immediately. How many times had Kaplan heard an angry freshman, influenced by the cant of some radical Korean professor, expostulate in class the theory that North Korea and South Korea were divided today mainly because Japan, the United States, the United Nations, and the International Monetary Fund were conspiring to keep the Korean people weak and dependent. What Korea really needed was nuclear weapons. Then neither Uncle Sam nor the detested Japanese would be able push Korea around. If the North built the bomb before the South, so much the better, since the patriots in North Koreans were less apt to be subservient to the capitalist world economy than the money-loving and corrupt industrialists in the South.
All of this would come from a student who, directly after class, would ask Kaplan out to lunch and absolutely refuse Kaplan’s offer to contribute even a single Korean won to the check, and then explain to Kaplan how he, the student, would not dare to step on the great teacher’s shadow. Kaplan knew that Koreans are a people of deep sentiment and emotion. Life among them could be utterly incomprehensible and frustrating to the foreigner who was unwilling to simply sit back and observe, just as a good social scientist or writer would observe. If Kaplan was not fated to be a great social scientist or theorist, perhaps he could derive some satisfaction from these years of teaching English through his almost ideological commitment to patient, empathetic observation.
But the years were passing him by ever so quickly. Where was he going? Good heavens, how the ludicrous notions of a foreign life sometimes aggrieved him.
All of this he thought as Hyun Joo sung softly but clearly. Her confidence grew quickly and the volume of her voice increased. Now Kaplan could hear her unmistakably and he was awed by the fact that the English was perfect, or at least as perfect as someone like Bon Jovi could fashion the words of the English language. As Hyun Joo looked at Kaplan to see whether or not he approved of her song, Kaplan smiled and gave his precious ace the thumbs up sign. Hyun Joo then broke into a wide smile and began to sing louder and louder until the classroom was filled with the sound of her beautiful and lovely voice, and all of the students were clapping along in harmony. Gyu Jin and Sang Yeob stood up and started dancing together like man and woman in the aisle, and the class gave out a holler of approval. Kaplan felt all of a sudden very warm and almost happy, even as he realized that his life had reached this ridiculous pinnacle. He felt close to Hyun Joo and close to his students, clapping his hands just like he was one of them. They were all singing and clapping as Koreans love to sing and clap at the beach on a summer evening, or when hiking in the mountains, or on the countless televised variety shows and concerts featuring the latest and oldest Korean singers and dancers, traditional musicians, and newest techno bands. This singing and dancing and clapping everywhere, this was Korea to Kaplan. Evidently, a final presentation for a graded university course at a prestigious national university was also an appropriate time and place for song and dance.
He was aware that his life for a long time now had been this ludicrous, but this did not shock him. Hyun Joo was his best and favorite student and he had a feeling that she would try to pull something amusing, some surprise that would be both pleasant and strange in a peculiarly Korean way. The best part of it all was that the students thought nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. Even though none of them but Hyun Joo had anything close to the confidence required to sing their final presentations, they all behaved as if Hyun Joo’s performance was not the least bit unusual or unexpected. Gyu Jin and Sang Yeob were dancing as if their failing grades, earned just a few minutes earlier, were long forgotten. And what could Kaplan think about Bon Jovi? He was the perfect choice for that moment. How much further way from Thucydides could Kaplan be?
The philosophers and historians were far away now, hidden in memories of almost forgotten dreams of knowledge and distinction. At one time, it had all been very religious for him, just as it was for all thinking men who understood that the pursuit of knowledge requires many of the sacrifices of a monastic existence. But now there was no History of the Peloponnesian War to struggle through, nor were there The Politics, Ethics, or Symposium. Now there was just Hyun Joo and Bon Jovi and the clapping crazed enthusiasm of his students who wanted anything but seriousness. Kaplan felt a hard bitterness, but he managed to remove his feeling from his billboard foreigner Chicago Jewish face. A classroom was no place for a teacher to take out his frustrations, and after all, they had all made it through examination hell, hadn’t they? For Kaplan, it was years ago downstate at the big U when everyone else was drunk at the football stadium, and he had his nose in some book reading the footnotes for the second time But for the students it had been just six or seven months in the past. They had struggled and suffered just as he had struggled and suffered. So he did not hold this song and dance routine against them. Instead, he clapped and shouted along with the best of them, louder in fact, he believed.
Gyu Jin, now held in Sang Yeob’s arms like a mock lover, looked over Sang Yeob's shoulder and shouted at Kaplan.
“Good Singer! Good Song!” was what he shouted.
Kaplan just smiled back at Gyu Jin and nodded his head in agreement. Hyun Joo in fact was a good singer, a great singer really, like so many Korean people are. She was reaching the end of her song and she belted out the last line in a confident burst of sound that was close to a holler, but still very musical. The students were mad with applause and cheers. Kaplan flashed the thumbs up sign.
“Thank you so much,” said Hyun Joo, catching her breath. “I hope you all enjoyed my song. I really love music and I hope Professor Kaplan does too. However, we all know Professor Kaplan likes the politics and the history the best because he always asks us so many questions about the Korean politics and history. So we students called our class Politics and History and a Little Bit English, Too.”
The students all laughed at this joke. Kaplan grinned. Apparently the billboard revealed that he was less than enthralled about teaching English. Kaplan looked at Hyun Joo and he believed he could see a look of understanding, as if she was saying to him, “I know you were once as ambitious as I am. Don’t worry, I will keep on winning even though you had to throw in the towel.” Kaplan wondered how she would top the Bon Jovi song. He felt she wouldn’t be able to do it, even though he had the highest confidence in her abilities. He prepared himself for an anti-climatic lecture when Hyun Joo managed to astonish him once again with a flawless rendition of one of America’s most cherished orations.
“So, in honor of our Kaplan, I will now say to you the famous address delivered by the American President Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.”
Kaplan almost could not believe his ears. Then he remembered he was in Korea. This was not insane. This was to be expected. And why not Bon Jovi as the opening act for Lincoln?
“Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…..”
The Gettysburg address, a perfect tribute from a Korean student to an American Professor. As soon as Hyun Joo finished the first line so ingrained in every literate American’s head, Kaplan recorded her grade into his grade book. Gyu Jin, sitting next to Kaplan once again and recovering his breath from his recent waltz, leaned over to sneak a peak at the mark. When he saw the score he looked at Kaplan and said,
“Good. Good student. Good score. Good.”
After he recorded the grade, Kaplan sat there listening to his little star and struggling to put together the disparate elements of her striking performance, searching for the connection between himself and the wonder before his eyes. There were the ripped blue jeans and the black, purple, and blue hair, Lincoln superimposed over Bon Jovi, the slain Americans on the field of battle and the student with the Tweety Bird shirt singing a ballad of loneliness in a world torn asunder by brother killing brother. A thousand decisions had brought him to this place and time to hear and see all of this. Some of these decisions Kaplan had made, while others had been made for him by unseen forces called God, or fate, or the fear of permanent contamination. The years were passing by ever so quickly, victories and defeats propelling him through his life like a tiny ship blown seaward by a monsoon typhoon. Kaplan felt at once slightly ill and determined to fight against he did not know what. Where there is no escape from the tempest and our tiny ship falters and we are tossed overboard into the turbulent cold waves, we must struggle and swim, savoring every last breath until we sink slowly down to another world hidden from the stars, where darkness and gloom separate us from every human face.