Before Paul Bae was a superstar podcaster with tens of millions of listeners, before he made the pages of the Hollywood Reporter, or signed with Marvel (and Stitcher and then Spotify), Bae was a high-school teacher in Vancouver. And before that, he was a youth pastor. After he lost his faith and found his calling in teaching, Bae strove for excellence in the classroom. He kept a teaching journal where he wrote notes to himself about wins and fails in the classroom – both in terms of pedagogical methodology and practical stuff, such as, don’t let Student A sit next to Student B again, too disruptive.
That journal, as he says, took on a life of its own. Bae, who was doing stand-up comedy on the side at that time, knows funny when he hears it. And when he noticed how funny his students could be, he began writing some of that stuff down. Like the time he gave his Grade 12 English class an essay assignment on a Friday, which led to this exchange:
Grade 12 student: (Quietly) “You suck.”
Bae: “Excuse me?”
Student: “Sorry. You suck, sir.”
Bae started sharing these stories with his friends on Facebook. Then he created a blog. Now, this spring – five years after leaving teaching for good – Bae has published a collection of exchanges with students in his debut book, You Suck, Sir: Chronicles of a High School English Teacher and the Smartass Students Who Schooled Him.
“Luckily, my students kept saying funny things,” Bae said this week from Lions Bay, B.C., where he is enduring the pandemic with his wife and three dogs, while writing two podcasts for Spotify. His newfound professional knowledge, he has discovered, is in demand.
“Everyone’s interested in podcasting,” he says. “I think because of the present global conditions, podcasting is a way for writers to tell their stories. If people in TV ... want to create a test version of their idea, they can still do an audio drama.”
Bae, 51, was born in Seoul to parents who had left North Korea before the DMZ was established. The family immigrated to Mississauga in 1971. When Paul was in Grade 4, they moved to Burnaby, B.C.
Bae went to McGill, planning to study law. But at the end of his first year, he became a Christian, and decided against law school. “I thought Jesus wouldn’t want me to become a lawyer.”
He married another Christian and studied theology back in Vancouver. But Bae lost his faith and his marriage; his wife was moving deeper into her faith as he was losing it. “My wife and Jesus both walked out the door on me,” he says.
Divorced and lost, Bae – who has since remarried – found solace and joy in teaching.
It’s clear from the exchanges in the book that he was more than a teacher for these kids – he was a mentor, a guide – someone they could trust and confide in; someone with whom they could be honest and joke around.
A lot of the comedy comes from generation gap issues, his students not getting his references to The Terminator or Three’s Company. But there is also a lot in here about race – the students asking seemingly innocent questions that hint at ugly stereotypes. For example, the students mistaking him for being Chinese and making comments that suggested that he must be a bad driver.
As a teacher and writer, Bae treats this with a light hand – an implied raised eyebrow – and I wanted to ask him about that, especially given the disturbing increase in anti-Asian incidents during the pandemic.
“I believe kids are supposed to ask every genuine question they have and we, as adults and teachers, are to do our best to answer as best we can. Our goal is to help them graduate with a greater understanding of their place in a diverse, complicated world, equipped to manoeuvre their way through it successfully,” he replied. He says when he hears adults asking questions one might expect to hear from kids – such as the driving thing – he sees that as a failure of the public education system and perhaps parenting.
“I believe having diverse staff teaching in our schools build into our students an openness to guard against the type of ignorant, racist thinking we see today.”
But most of the book is lighter-hearted, and again demonstrates the kind of relationship Bae must have had with his students.
In one segment, he writes about returning from a three-day absence to a request from some of his female students that the same sub be called back, should Bae decide to take any more time off. “He was so dreamy!” one says. Bae asks his male students what they thought.
Grade 12 boy: “I guess he was pretty good-looking.”
Bae: “I mean his teaching.”
Boy: “Oh. It was all right.”
“Note,” the story continues, “Years later, this substitute teacher would become Canada’s prime minister. Yes, it was Justin Trudeau.”
Politics at the provincial level would insert itself in Bae’s teaching career, leading to a different kind of loss of faith.
He quit teaching in 2002, after British Columbia’s then-education minister Christy Clark introduced a bill that infuriated many teachers.
“She threatened to take away class size restrictions and I just did the math in my head ... and [thought], I can’t do this,” Bae says.
His side gig – stand-up comedy – beckoned as a full-time pursuit.
In 2006, he shared a small stage in Vancouver with Robin Williams. When Bae told Williams that his film Dead Poets Society was one of the reasons he became an English teacher, Williams deadpanned: “Hey, that’s not my fault.”
Bae hosted a news parody show in Vancouver called CityNews List. The show was cancelled after a year, and by that time, Bae had lost some of his enthusiasm for stand-up.
He wanted to try teaching again. He felt this time around, he could better balance teaching and comedy.
But then, Christy Clark became premier. And in 2014, there was a teachers’ strike.
“That’s when the bitter taste entered my mouth and I thought, I don’t know if I can do this much longer,” he says. He quit in 2015.
“It worked out,” he adds, “so I guess I do owe her, Christy Clark, a little bit of gratitude for driving me out.”
Bae’s first foray into podcasting, The Black Tapes, began as a horror story that Bae told students at Templeton Secondary School in East Vancouver during an annual Halloween ritual. He and his friend and creative partner Terry Miles first turned The Black Tape (“there was just one tape then”) into a screenplay. And years later, in the early days of audio fiction podcasting, into a series where the main character, a journalist, tries to seek out the truth about a famous debunker of the paranormal. It was a hit.
“We did this hoping to get the attention of studios to turn it into a movie,” Bae says. Instead, The Black Tapes got the attention of listeners, with millions of downloads. (The Black Tapes was optioned to NBC; a pilot script was written, but never shot.)
Bae followed that up with another series, The Big Loop, a critical hit that led to his next opportunity: directing the 10-episode podcast series Marvels, which recently wrapped up.
In February, he signed a multiseries deal to create two fiction podcasts for Spotify, which he hopes will lead to television. Working with Spotify gives him not just a platform, but a powerful partner with whom to take the product to TV.
He has spent his pandemic in Lions Bay – where he has a home studio. He is writing – and has been taking virtual meetings with Hollywood types.
“TV showrunners and writers, they want to know, especially during the pandemic, how do you write audio fiction? And I’m one of a handful of people [who do that],” Bae says. “We do Zoom calls, we talk. And I teach them. And in return I’m hoping they’ll be there for me when it’s my turn in their world.”
In self-isolation, Bae also hikes daily with his dogs. “It sounds hokey when I say it, but the mountains are my church,” he says.
“I still consider myself an atheist, but I try not to be a jerk about it any more,” Bae says, who once preached atheism so vociferously to his believer friends that they gave the former joyful pastor the nickname “Bitter Bae.”
He says he believes in something else now, and has faith that he’s on the right path.
“I have no proof that this life means anything beyond what it is, but it feels meaningful and I’m going to tie myself to that. I’m going to allow myself to believe that these moments of beauty are not just atoms firing synapses colliding with each other,” he says. “I’m going to believe that this feels beautiful because it is beautiful. And I have no proof of that. And it doesn’t matter.”
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.