Once a year in Korea, the students give presents to their teacher’s in honor of their tireless struggle to enlighten and educate the young minds of the future. In my kindergarten and elementary hagwon, I got a few notes and a few little presents, nothing like Christmas, but just as satisfying. Even if the students were forced to give gifts by their parents, it is nice to receive things handwritten in childish script. Ones that say: “You are handsome and strong,” “I will work harder for you,” “Thank you for being a great teacher,” and the classic, “I love you.” They throw around the love word often in kindergarten, and it doesn’t get old. It is good to hear. It is especially good to hear after having worked the previous 4 years in a high school in Austin, Texas, two of which in the SPED department. The students don’t give presents, they don’t give compliments, they don’t give apples, in fact, they don’t give a sh#% about anything. They talked about music, drugs, parties, Nikes and how mean and stupid the teachers they have are. Not only did many students not care enough to thank their teachers, they didn’t even care enough to respect or listen to them. Now, it could also just be the difference between 1st grade and 12th grade; or the difference between adoring your elders and knowing that you know more than them despite being half their age and less than half of their wisdom.
I used to hear things like, “Shut up, I don’t have to listen to you,” “You’re not my dad,” “I hate you,” and other, unprintable curses and slang insults. There is no way to underestimate the impact of going from pure vitriolic negativity to pure lighthearted loveliness will have on a person. Smiles and attention versus frowns and indifference is a big change. Of course, my old special education students had had rough and painful lives even by the age of 15, so some of their anger was understandable. However, I always tried to help them realize that they could make the choice to escape or at least distance themselves from that past. Life is full of changes, and they could begin the process of changing the circle of violence and sorrow they had known. It starts with seeing the world as larger than the zip code they had tattooed on their notebooks, shoes or sometimes necks. High school, as everything, can’t and doesn’t last forever.
I remember one day, sitting alone in a room with my worst student for the third day, as his ISS punishment. He was mad as usual and screamed at me, “Why are you even here?” I didn’t really have an answer for him that he could comprehend, and I didn’t like the actual truth. So I told him, “You have to be here, so I have to be here.” He sulked and sank into a chair, muttering under his breath, “No, you can go anywhere.” It was a juvenile and immature way of thinking that a driver’s license with a little money buys happiness, but it stuck with me, that, yes, I could go anywhere. But, moreover, to me, it meant I could do anything.
Exactly one year later, my job is as close to a 180-degree work change as I could have pictured. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to teach and play games with smart, happy and enthusiastic kids. The bad prepared me to fully enjoy the good.