Thursday, March 6, 2008

Travelogue #28: Where Were You, Really?: Late to Work Because of a Girl With No Make-Up?

Nobody wants to be the guy who stumbles into work late. Out of breath, coat hanging halfway off his arms, he's the guy who mutters, "traffic was bad," the adult version of a "a dog ate my homework."

Last Monday, the dog really did eat my homework.

It started when three friends and I took a bus to Seoul Station, where we bought ferry tickets for a weekend vacation to Fukuoka, Japan. (Blog forthcoming) We got everything we needed, and we were ready to leave with a solid hour and twenty minutes to get to work. Typically, a bus ride would take us to Bundang in no more than an hour flat.

But Monday was not a typical situation: a lazy snowfall turned persistent and sticky, and our bus route took more detours than Mullholland Drive.

"Um, are we going the right way?" I asked.

I didn't recognize anything through the foggy windows. Traffic moved at a maddening sputter-sputter clip. I checked my cell phone. Bad news. I was going to miss my first class. My favorite class.

Paging Natalie to the rescue. "Yeah, I can take your kids," she said. Whew. My comfort was only temporary, because the snow still fell and the bus still clugged so damn slowly, making it possible that I would miss my second class as well.

I was fortunate to be accompanied with friends/colleagues in the same predicament, but that made me feel only marginally better. We swapped nervous calls with the school, with the message relayed back to us a simple one: "Get here now."

Our bus finally chugged to its stop.

We ran.

And ran.

Five minutes into the second period, I arrived, marker in hand, ready to teach. I had completely missed my first class, but I apologized to the administration, swearing that it wouldn't happen again, that I was the guy who came early to work. But this time?

The traffic was bad.

I looked to thank Natalie for helping me out with my favorite group of kids. She greeted me with a mischievous smile, "Alex, I told them you fled to America without saying goodbye."


"You went to the Coffee Bean and met a girl in a sweatshirt and you fell in love. And she went to Brown for an MFA, so I told the kids you really wanted to be with her, and you flew back to the States desperately looking for an MFA writing scholarship from Brown so you can be with this girl."

Natalie so impressed me with her imagination that I became convinced that I was in love with a sweatshirted girl from Brown. A girl whom I met at the Coffee Bean, and I don't even like coffee.

No wonder the students drank up the story.

"Where were you, really?!" they shrieked at me. It was Wednesday, and I was on time, but apparently I had some explaining to do.

"Guys, Natalie was just telling a story - "

"Where were you!" they asked, their words running together, their bodies practically on top of their desks.

I told them to be quiet, and then I calmly told them the truth: about the buses, the snow, the traffic... and Natalie's wild imagination.

They bought it, but they remained skeptical, and I heard that skepticism firsthand as they presented their responses to the homework assignment: Write a letter to Mr. Pollack. Beg him never to miss class again. Be sure to tell him you miss him.

"What I don't understand is you started liking a girl who wore sweat shirt, jean and sneakers, and no make-up!" Keira wrote, "she is more important than your own class that you said you missed us the whole Sulnal holiday?...You should never miss class. It is an excuse to miss class."

But Keira, the traffic -

"We WEREN'T missing you," Anna wrote.

Anna, I'm sorry -

"If you decide to come back, I thank you," Ray wrote. "If not, I really beg you to come back."

Thanks Ray.

My students read their letters aloud, and even with the tone of their notes ranging from earnestly sweet to sarcastic and dry to pointedly accusatory (In the words of Grace: "Did you order her (Natalie) to lie to us? Because if you did, I'm never going to trust you again. Never . I mean it.") I was flattered that my absence could affect their day just as much as my presence could, for better or for worse. "It doesn't matter if you missed our class," Anna said. "It was a nice day."

I grinned goofily through the recitation of each and every note. "Tell us the real reason why you couldn't come, or we'll ask our Korean teacher if we can change our teacher," Grace said. "P.S. Forgive me if I sounded kind of rude, or anything. Nothing against you!" They would shout me down if I said it aloud, but I love these students. I love this class, and I will never miss it again, no matter what happens with traffic, snow, or fictional Brown girls at the Coffee Bean.


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