Thursday, April 21, 2011


On a popular South Korean TV comedy set during World War II, occupied Korean civilians discover a way to defeat the occupying imperial Japanese army: if four or more Koreans simultaneously shout “La-la-loo,” any Japanese soldier who hears them instantly dies, because his head explodes. Many of my 7th grade students, being 12-year-old boys and therefore genetically programmed to imitate what they witnessed on television, would interrupt the English lesson with choreographed shouts of “La-la-loo.” The boys then broke out in hysterics. The girls frowned and breathed loudly out of their noses. I sided with the boys and laughed. It was funny. Especially because of the choreographed arm movements. On the first “La,” they touched their hearts; then on the second “La,” they touched their shoulders; and on the elongated, falsetto “Loo,” they raised their arms in a “V.” It cracked me up no matter how many times they did it.
The math teacher, however, didn’t find it funny at all. Pak Gwang-Hyop, or as the students called him behind his back, the Dolphin, because he had the IQ of a dolphin, was my age but looked a decade older, his face lined from nightly binges of soju, that cheap Korean vodka that doubles as a sink cleaner. Every day, he stood at the entrance to the school, taking 10-second drags from his cigarette and then blowing the fumes downward so they soaked into his shiny black suit. The one time I went drinking with him, he showed me his well-worn copy of “Rich Dad Poor Dad.” The margins were filled with his scribbled annotations. He told me that in two years he would start an “education business” and become rich. Whenever the students shouted “La-la-loo” in his math class, the Dolphin forced them to bend over; he then whacked their rear ends with a length of hose, half a meter long, wrapped in electrical tape. He called the hose “Bill,” named after Bill Gates. No Korean parents complained about Bill, but this corporal punishment horrified my American sensibilities. One day, when the Dolphin was out front blowing smoke rings at passing students, I snuck into his classroom, snatched the length of hose from under his desk, and then deposited it in the dumpster behind the school.
In the middle of the period when the 7th-graders had math class, the Dolphin burst into the teachers’ lounge. His twitching eyes locked on to the gomdo sword leaning against my desk. (It was a meter long, dull, and made of wood. I had gomdo lessons immediately after work, so I often brought the sword to school with me.) Without asking my permission, the Dolphin picked up the sword and stormed out of the room. After recovering from my shock at his rudeness, I followed him. As I approached the classroom, I heard the thwacking sound of wood striking buttocks—every three seconds, a thwack. And then, when I was expecting another thwack, I heard the sound of wood breaking. Crack!
The Dolphin sauntered out into the hallway and dropped the two pieces of my broken gomdo sword into the waste basket next to the water cooler.
“You broke my sword,” I said.
“They were doing La-la-loo,” the Dolphin said, his hands shaking and eyes twitching. “I am not Japanese. I’m trying to help them.”
“That sword cost 70,000 won,” I said. (About 70 American dollars.)
“It’s not my fault,” the Dolphin said. “It is the students’ fault. They took my Bill. Tell them to pay for your sword.”
Eyes twitching, he returned to the classroom.
The next day, the Dolphin had a new length of hose wrapped in electrical tape. He called it “Gates.” The students were silent throughout the math lesson; no La-la-loo was heard.
“Don’t give up,” I encouraged the students. “I think he’s ready to snap. A few more La-la-loos and he’ll quit.”
But the students were silent the next day. And the day after that as well. I had to do something.
And since they had my English class the period immediately before the Dolphin’s math class, there was something I could do. I gave them chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Choco-pies, chocolate bars, even chocolate ice cream.
“Let’s have a competition,” I said. “Who can eat the most chocolate the fastest?”
When they went to the Dolphin’s math class, I stood in the hall and listened. It wasn’t long before the first chorus of La-la-loo sounded out. It was quickly followed by the Dolphin’s hose thwacking into backsides. But then there was another cry of La-la-loo. Even the girls were joining in. The Dolphin kept thwomping them with the hose, and the students kept gleefully shouting “La-la-loo.”
Suddenly, the classroom door burst open, and the Dolphin ran past me.
“I quit!” he sobbed. “I can’t take it anymore! I quit!”
Inside the classroom, the children continued to shout:
“La-la-loo! La-la-loo! La-la-loo!”
No matter how many times I heard it, it still cracked me up.