Talk English, Teach Good


Min Hyung, the secretary from Ivy, calls me on Friday morning and asks if I can teach an SSAT Reading Class on Saturday.
Before I can rub the sleep out of my eyes, Min Hyung passes the phone to Terry.

Hello Joseph. You can come in Saturday for young student? You teach them SSAT Reading. I can see Terry in my head, leaning over the beat up computer desk that sits in his office. The desk is riddled with scratches, dents, and small splinters jab that at your skin if you run your hand over it.

Why can’t I just teach regular English? I ask.

Terry sighs. SSAT for assessment. You teach English good to them so they go to UTS. He takes a long slurp from a coffee cup. His desk is cluttered with crushed coffee cups, crinkled Korean newspapers, and empty packets of Marlboro cigarettes.

What’s UTS? I stretch and try to stifle a yawn, pushing my blanket off of my legs. The red digital numbers on the clock beside my bed say 8:45.

Another (louder) sigh. UTS University Toronto Schools, very hard school to go. Private.

Private what?

Private school. Terry says thickly, over the crackle of interference from that cheap plastic phone that sits on his desk.

Oh, is all I can say while I try to swallow another yawn.

So Saturday you come in and teach SSAT English, Terry tells me. You have grade 6 student.

Well, I-…


I spend the next two hours on the Internet researching UTS. UTS is a private school (for grades 6 and up) founded by the University of Toronto in 1910. Admission is limited: entrants need a grade in the top five percentile of the national SSAT. Most UTS students score in the top three percentile. UTS graduates move on to the University of Toronto, or to one of the Ivy League schools in the United States. It costs money to attend UTS: tuition runs about $16,000 a year.

I pull my bicycle from the cluttered storage room in my backyard and spend 30 minutes biking to Chapters to look for a book on SSAT testing.

When I get to the bookstore, I stand in the doorway, staring at all the books. At 11:00 on a Friday morning, Chapters is deserted except for the staff. The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts from the attached Starbucks. The SSAT testing books are hidden in the Education and Learning section. I take the books into Starbucks and sink into an overstuffed leather chair.

The SSAT is a comprehensive test, assessing mathematical, verbal, and written skills. The math section confuses me. What does (1.654)6  equal? I can’t even get the right answer with my cell phone calculator. The written section has essay questions like, is imagination more important that knowledge? (I imagine so?) and is laughter the best medicine? (No… because it doesn’t cure cancer). The second part of the written component tests the stuff I teach at Ivy: grammar, vocabulary, figures of speech. I flip through sections on analogies (Wisdom is to understanding as fire is to ___—I don’t know), grammar identification (Circle the gerund—what’s a gerund?), and definitions (Define Usufruct—Usufruct? Is that even a word?).

Many of the grammar questions stump me and I turn to the back of the book for answers. My level of ignorance makes me wonder how I ever got into university at all.

Saturday comes. In the living room, I pick at the eggs and rice that my mom made for breakfast. She walks to the table, wearing her house shirt and yellow slippers. Dad’s still sleeping.

Bakit hindi ka kumakain? Mom asks. Why aren’t you eating?

Because I don’t know how Im gonna teach a test that I would probably fail if I took it now.

Anak, don’t worry, you’re a good teacher. These kids should feel lucky they have you. Eat your eggs. Mom sips her coffee and picks up the TV controller, switching the channel to a rerun of Dr. Phil. Dr. Phil is trying to talk sense into some moron who is morbidly obese—Big is beautiful, the fat guy says arrogantly. Yeah, right—and on the verge of death.

I dunno, mom, I never thought I’d be teaching something like this. I just thought I’d be teaching them how to write. I get up from the table and bring my dishes to the kitchen.

Listen anak, she calls from the living room, marunoong ka sa Inglis. You’re good at English. Am I? I wonder. My only qualification is that I was born in Canada.

Yeah, I guess, I say. Anyway, I gotta go mom, I’m gonna be late. I grab my keys and wallet. Mom slips me a folded twenty for gas.

Ah, sigi, God Bless. I lean down and kiss my mom on the cheek. And don’t worry about those damn kids! she says as I run out the door.

At Ivy, parents mill around the tiny lobby, muttering hello’s in Korean. Mothers stand in clusters, making small talk. Fathers stand alone, glancing at their watches and cellphones. As the heavy metal door clicks shut behind me, Min Hyung nods without smiling. Usually she smiles and says hi, but Terry’s here early (for once), so there’s no smile. Terry gestures at me and says something in rapid fire Korean.

The parents look at me with frank curiosity, probably wondering if this kid wearing a pair of flip-flops, surfing shorts, a hoodie, and a t-shirt that says MR. PERFECT can really be the teacher of their future doctor/lawyer/engineer. The fathers are dressed business casual: brown khakis, dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, expensive wristwatch, Bluetooth receivers held to an ear. I’ve seen their pictures in the Korean newspapers. They own foreign car dealerships or dental offices, or medical practices.

I tug at my sweater, trying to hide my MR. PERFECT t-shirt. Terry grabs my elbow and ushers me to classroom E. Nine students sit at their desks, staring at me. I grin and give them a quick nod. Theres ten minutes left before class starts.

Joseph, this is SSAT class. Terry says. He’s wearing a velvet blazer, black pinstripe pants, and shiny patent leather shoes. Dressed to impress, Terry style. He flashes a smile at the parents who have followed us to the classroom. They stand uncertain, not sure what to say to me. I usually smile and nod politely when parents approach me to speak about their childs progress in my class. When Min Hyung isnt around to translate what theyre saying, I try to avoid the lobby entirely. If I have to go to the washroom, I keep my eyes locked on the threadbare carpet while I powerwalk my way through the lobby to the mens room.

Uhh… are you sure you want me to teach this class? I ask Terry.

Terry winces and smiles at the parents, making sure none of them hear what I just said. You go university, he whispers, leaning in towards me.

I can smell the pungent stink of Marlboros and coffee on his breath.

… yeah, I do, but Ive never taken an SSAT and I never went to UTS either.

Then you good English. UTS very hard to get into. Terry whispers again. He puts a hand on my shoulder and says it loud enough for the parents to hear, You teach students good English so they pass test. He leans on one leg and taps a patent leather shoe on the worn out carpet.

Yeah, pass test, big deal, whatever, I say.

Terry weaves through the crowd, crossing the dingy lobby and retreating to his office. He closes the door.

I start walking into the classroom, pushing the hollow door open. A woman strides up to me. She’s looks about 35. Her face is caked with makeup and she’s wearing big, white-framed sunglasses, big hoop earrings, skinny jeans, Juicy Couture sweater, and high heels. Im guessing that shell head to Yorkdale in her Lexus and spend a small fortune on more clothes, more jewellery, more makeup. She stands in the doorway, so I cant close the door. You, English? she asks.


She nods at me like Im an idiot. English.

I sigh. Oh. Yeah. English. Yeah, English.

She points at one of the boys in the class and says, My son.

I look over and see a little boy who’s a walking GAP ad, dressed in clothes that probably cost more than mine. He doesn’t make eye contact with his mother. He sits frowning at his hands

Must get into UTS, the woman says. She fixes her son with stern eyes, jerking her thumb at me. Teach English, you learn good.
I close the door.

The boy looks up, his eyes darting between me and the white board, his fingers flipping a pen back and forth. Hes just as confused as I am.

Okay, I say, opening my copy of the SSAT guide, the one with the answers penciled in. Lets see what we can do.