Fear and Loathing in Korea

Over the last few days I’ve worked on a few things with the inside of myself.  Last week, to my surprise, I cried for the first time in a long long time.  An accumulation of events led to choices that I began to regret only moments later. Some of that regret, I’m not even sure if it’s just reactionary in a “greener on the other side of the fence sort of way.”

I’m being vague, so let me describe a few of the other events that knocked me to one knee over the past few weeks.

First of all, Intensives.  Intensives from hereon refers to the 11 hours I spend at school every day from Monday to Friday.  It not only affects my life, but until the end of this month when Intensives end, it is my life.  I say this without any exaggeration in the slightest.  What follows is my view of the situation according to my particular method of teaching. You’re free to suggest ways that I could have done things better if you want.

When I started intensives, the first three days were hell.  Getting to know kids who have no way of responding to you is always difficult.  You have to build trust, and you have to do it as fast as you can– it will decide which camps you have in your pocket, and which camps go out and build walls to oppose your advances.

There’s this one boy that stood out among the rest.  I mentioned him in a previous blog.  He’s the one who, on the schoolbus, stuck gum in somebody’s hair and then noogied it in.  For that, he got in a great deal of trouble, especially since he ‘kindly’ offered to help her remove it by going at her with a pair of scissors.

Now, the first issue here is that we aren’t a government funded organization– that means that the company I work for has no reason to put up with Billy except because they want his parents’ money.  But of course, they tried to iron things out with the girl’s parents so that they wouldn’t make too  much of a big deal. 

About a half week later (I saw him every day from mondays to fridays) a few cross words between him and another student in class ended with him storming out of his seat during class and kicking a girl’s desk over.

As a teacher, I’m in a complicated situation.  If I’m in a public situation, and my pride is on the line, I’d take the punch if it meant that people around me wouldn’t get hurt.  I can, and have, apologized profusely in public to people to whom I owe no apologies, for the sheer sake of preventing violence from breaking out.   It’s not that I can’t handly myself in violent situations– I can, and I have– but I chose not to because that is what I have learned over the years.  I go in, make a fool of myself, maybe even look like a whimp, but it’s for the sake that everyone ends the night with their teeth still on their gums.

In a classroom, things are different though.  Especially with children, to whome pride is very important. 

So lets put the situation in the front– a boy and girl are arguing in a language you don’t understand. You don’t understand the circumstances.  But he’s gotten up, and he’s kicked her desk over with one solid thrust of his leg.  They’re both about 13 years old.  What do you do?

Well, the easy solution is to throw the kid out of the class. I can, and have done this before when real fights break out and continue– I get in between them, pick up the stronger of the two by the arms and lift him literally out of my room.  But Billy is different– this isn’t a crime of hatred directed at the girl.  It could have been anyone, really– she said the wrong thing to the wrong boy.

I look at Billy and I see a lot of things that I remember about myself.  I remember wanted, perhaps even needing, to be the bad boy in school– the one who would always make the smart comments to put other down, as if somehow me climbing on the shoulders of others made me a better person. It made sense at the time, and it makes sense in a different way now because I realize that all the things I ever did to hurt people was because I  myself was hurting.  When you’ve decided that being good doesn’t work, you do as Stephen Chow in “Kung Fu Hustle” declares– you decide  that good guys don’t win, and you decide you want to be bad.

I say it is a decsision because I don’t think that being bad comes naturally to children.  Not that good or bad is naturally built into us, but rather– I think if you really look at things, it’s normally easier for one to make friends and to live at peace with the group rather than fight against it.  At the very least, it’s easier for someone to just outcast themself and hope to not be noticed. It takes a great deal of work to ‘be bad’.

But Billy was the sort of person who I recognized as ‘wanting’ to be bad.  He had realized that there was power to it.  There was respect to be had through the employment of fear.  The usage of power, which was simply being willing to go where others wouldn’t.

The bad boy is different because compared to many others, a bad boy needs charisma and bravery. 

Can you imagine what would happen if a bad person used his power for good?

And I made it my mission to turn him around.  It’s cocky of me to think I can do something like this– ultimately, the choices were all on his plate and all I could do, all any teacher can do in fact, is to set up an environment that encourages postiive change. 

Day in, day out, i fought his hatred with fairness, I fought his disrespect for me with respect for him, I rolled with his insults and critiqued him objectively and did everything I could to make sure he knew that he was a smart kid.  Smarter than his teachers told him.  Smarter than his parents said he was. 

And most importantly, and I had someone translate this to Korean for me, I made sure that he knew that I beleived in him.

He had a 30 minute session with one of the korean counsellors, who I had given a very specific set of messages I wanted to pass on to Billy.

The thing about Billy is that as smart as he is, he is Korean first and English is a second language.  There are certain things that he doesn’t understand because of the language barrier, so the best I can do is set up a meeting so that I can have everything I want to say translated by a native korean who speaks fluent English.  So that’s what I had done.

Billy came back to class with red eyes, but after understanding things, we started over.  He made a conscious effort to control his wild behavior.  He acted respectfully to me.  And genuinely so– I can tell if a kid really respects me, or if he’s just faking it because he’s been instructed to do so.  Their body language says everything that their words might not.  So for a few days, things were getting better– it was still a constant uphill battle to keep him in his seat, but it’s like parenting I think.  We were getting things done.  His grades were improving.  His friends were starting to react to him as a person rather than him as a class bully.

And then one day, he was called out of my class to the office.  He came back about 20 minutes later, tears in his eyes, grabbed his stuff, and told me that he was told to leave.

The next day he came back for his last class as my student.

I learned later that on the schoolbus, someone had said that Billy had turned into a softie because he was in “Room 4”.  My class is notorious among the school aparently because a lot of bullies are from my classes.  But Billy, like many others, was reforming, and as such, his title as one of the alpha males on that schoolbus (that seat only about 20 people) was being challenged.

Billy beat up a boy to proove that he “still had it”.  And he was expelled from my school.

Billy is only 13 years old.  He has many years to go before he learns that violence isn’t a way to maintain any lasting respect.  It’s a lesson that doesn’t won’t make sense to a kid who by very nature of his age is based on the idea of instant results.  School sociology puts bullies on the same level as the smartest of kids, and all it takes is a bit of guts for the same social ranking as a kid who spends hours on homework.  It’s so easy.  All it takes is guts, and Billy’s got plenty.

How  do you tell a kid that his best talent should be kept in check?

In any case, I think a part of me died the day I found out that he had lashed out. I won’t lie: I am dissapointed.  But I am more sad.

A character like Billy has a lot more potential to be a bad person than a good person in his adult life.  There will be many chances in his life for him to “turn good”.  This one time– when he was challenged by his bussmates to proove that he ‘still had it’– was one of those chances.  It was the best chance I could give him, but it wasn’t a good enough one.

I felt that I really failed him, though I know that it’s not true– I know that I did all I could, or at least, I did what I did and there’s no changing it now.  But in him, I recognize some things, particularly his anger, that I used to have in myself when I was younger.  It’s not hard to get out of it. Yet at the same time, it’s infintely difficult.

It’s now about a week since he was expelled. It doesn’t sound long, but when you spend 11 hours in a school every day, you feel like you’ve been living there for a month when in reality only half a week has passed.  The relationships you build with your kids are so intesnse because they start and progress so quickly. 

And he’s not dead.  But it feels as if Billy had died.  Somehow, expulsion from the school, cutting him off from me, feels like my student has died.

I know this isn’t true, and there are plenty of other people out there in the world who could infulence him to change.  His last minute with me was a solemn “Sorry teacher, I no come back.”

And of course, he could change himself. Right?

… stay safe Billy…