As a temporary Kindergarten teacher in Korea, I get to have a peek into a life controlled by four year olds. Lunchtime, especially, is a harrowing ordeal. I will describe a typical day to you now because I want someone to understand the madness.
For an hour every day I sit down with nine four year olds and attempt to make them eat all their food like good little kids. The normal procedure for lunch time is: in the morning, the kids take their empty lunch boxes to the 'lunch room', which is just an unused classroom. The lunch lady fills them up while the kids are in class, and at lunch time the kids retrieve them after washing their hands (or pretending to wash their hands). I carry a soup tray to the classroom and ladle out soup for everyone. We are supposed to sing a lunch time song, which I don't even know because I've never actually made them do it, and then everyone eats. Or at least, that’s what is supposed to happen. But things usually go wrong around the 'sitting down to eat' part and continue through the rest of the lunch time.
First, Kevin tells me that he can't eat yet, because the case that his spoon and fork are in is, in fact, a spaceship, and it is about to blast off. He then starts to go through all the numbers he knows – in no particular order – in an attempt to count down to blast off. Knowing from experience that nothing with Kevin will progress until after ‘blastoff’ I leave him to it and turn to David who is placidly staring at his lunch box. David seems to spend his days staring placidly at things; I don't think he would even eat if someone didn't tell him to. He'd just sit there being cheerful. He will be the next Buddha.
Lukas is running around frantically looking for something, or trying to do something. It doesn't matter what it is, come lunch time there is always something urgent Lukas must be doing besides sitting in his seat and eating his food. I can just imagine what goes on in Lukas' head - there would be a 24-type scenario going on where he has to find X before it... I don't know, blows up? I'm sure he sees his quest as very dramatic and important. He is the Jack Bauer of his own little universe.
I herd Lukas into his chair, ignoring his theatrical pleas for me to wait, just wait, Teacher! I open David's lunchbox for him and tell him to eat, and turn back to Kevin who is still 'counting down'. He's switched into Korean numbers at this point, with a few Chinese numbers thrown in for good measure. The 'spaceship' is still waiting patiently to blast off. I grab it from him and say 'Three, two, one, blastoff!” and do my very best impression of a rocket ship. Kevin is very impressed. He opens his utensil box and begins to eat.
At this point, Kris saunters in like he's the Lone Ranger back from a sojourn. He's been off God Knows Where for the last ten minutes and looks way too proud of himself. This can only mean he's broken something, or sent another kid to the hospital. But since all nine of my kids are accounted for, I decide it's not my problem. I settle him in and take the soup container back to the lunch room to empty the leftover soup into the leftovers pot. By the time I get back, Lukas is out of his seat again and arguing at the top of his lungs with Clare, who is screeching back at him. I choose to assume they are engaging in a highly intellectual discussion on the economic and social ramifications of uniting North and South Korea, and move on. Meanwhile, Kevin is staring off into space with both his hands down his pants. Abigail, Paul, and Kylie have remembered that chopsticks fit up their nose holes pretty well and are now attempting to pick up their rice with them.
I corral Lukas back into his chair and remind David – who is still staring placidly at his food – that at some point he'd going to have to eat some of it. Clare is following me around now, telling me 'TEACHER, LUKAS IS OUT OF HIS CHAIR' which she had been telling me for the last ten minutes and could refer to the current episode or any of the last five. Either way, I've already made him sit down so I try to convince her to follow suit. But, upon hearing his name so sullied with such libelous slander, Lukas jumps up and starts another yelling match. Kris decides that he doesn't want to eat and instead wants to cling onto my leg while I move around trying to referee the fight. I am so distracted that I let him stay for a couple seconds which inevitably provokes another child – probably Abigail – to cling to the other one.
This is about when I break down and threaten their stars. Stars are serious business in Kindergarten. Each kid has their name on the board, next to which are all the stars they get for good behavior. To threaten one’s stars is to threaten the owner’s very place in the Kindergarten social hierarchy. While I am waving the board eraser around like a super villain with a bomb detonator, they all race back to their seats with astonishing swiftness. Once I have taken away a couple stars, they are all sitting down, backs ramrod straight and determined to be quiet and eat.
This lasts for the three seconds it takes Olivia to pick up a big blob of rice and drop it on the floor. Her face is stoic as she does it, like she was simply feeding her pet, the floor. Nothing unusual. I get some tissues to clean it up and Lukas is out of his seat, doing the Butt Dance (a staple of kindergarten entertainment) which provokes similar responses from the other children. Another round of stars is erased, tears are shed, and everyone sits again.
Clare is finished and I empty her leftover food into the empty soup tray. I make a big deal about it because these kids will eat at glacial speeds. I give her a star and put a big number one by her name. Kris sees this and 'accidentally' drops his rice on the floor, smiling at me ('uh oh, Teacher!'). Then, ten seconds later: 'teacher, finished!' which is basically how Kris does everything in life.
Olivia and David, who always insist on sitting together, are now bickering loudly about something in Korean like an old married couple. It's probably something to do with how David pays more attention to Kylie these days. Olivia is shaping up to be a pretty controlling and jealous girlfriend. Every five seconds one of them will give me a play by play on what the other is doing. 'Teacher! David is looking at my rice!', 'Teacher! Olivia touched my plate!' Neither of them is eating.
Kevin has rice ground into the elbows and forearms of his sweater sleeves and is shoving more up his nose, ostensibly so he can say he is finished, too. Lukas, who now has no stars left and thus, no fear, is sticking his head out the door and shouting down the hallway at some kids from another class. Abigail tells me she is finished when it looks like her food hasn't even been touched at all. I bargain with her until she agrees to take three more bites of her rice and one more big spoonful of soup. I do the same with Paul but he doesn't seem to understand the concept of bargaining. Here is a sample conversation:
Paul: Teacher, finished!
Me: Okay, Paul, I want you to eat at least three more bites of your soup.
Paul: ...Okay, teacher.
Paul: Teacher, five more bites!
Paul: Teacher, ten more bites!
Me: Paul, you can eat it all if you want.
Paul: Okay, teacher!
The madness continues in this vein until 12:40, at which point I can tell them all to go to the lunch room so they can finish their lunches under the watchful eyes of the lunch lady and some of the other Korean teachers. I wipe the table down and take the soup tray of leftovers to the lunch room for the lunch lady to deal with. I collapse at my desk and contemplate the fact that this will all start all over again tomorrow.