Caveat: With A Baseball Bat

or… The Horrifying Class

My students are filled with passive-aggressive anger toward their parents, and I almost wanted to cry today, having to interact with it. Korean parents push their children so hard. And sometimes unkindly.

We've been having the students write "Parents Day Letters" – Parents Day is a Korean holiday on May 8th, that is sort of a combined Mother's Day and Father's Day. The idea is that the kids get gifts for their parents, or write them letters, etc. So as an activity at Karma, we're having the elementary kids write Parents Day letters, in English.

One boy, in 6th grade, wrote his letter, and it was filled with the appropriate platitudes: thank you for raising me, thank you for helping me with my problems and being there for me, etc., all in the somewhat unnatural English to be expected of only intermediate ability, limited English. But then he came up and showed me something. At the end of his letter, he'd written "I love you." He pulled out something he had in his pocket, a flashlight. It was a black-light flashlight. "I wrote in invisible ink," he explained. And indeed, he had written in invisible ink: superimposed on his "I love you" was a clearly visible "I hate you" under the black light. I didn't know whether to amused or appalled.

I shook my head. "Do you think that's a good idea?" I finally asked.

"Maybe not," he admitted, but grinning.

"Are you going to change it?" I prodded.

He shrugged, and returned to his seat. I may intercept the letter.

Then a 5th grade girl refused to write her letter. She was suddenly refusing to speak English. She's a pretty good student, but not very consistent, and she gets frustrated easily. I got a little bit angry, saying she had to write her letter. She wrote it. She brought it up and showed me. It said a lot of platitudes, but near the end it said, "Mom I hate you x 10 x 100 x 100 x 100." You get the picture. She was angry at her mom.

She was standing in front of me. I circled the phrase in her letter. "I don't think you should say that," I said. I could tell she was angry. I could see she was even on the verge of tears.

"But it's really true," she defended.

"I understand," I said, blandly. I really believe adults should validate the feelings of children as much as possible. "I think sometimes we shouldn't say things that are true," I suggested. "How about writing about something true that you can agree with. Something about the future?"

I crossed out her words and sketched out a possible answer on her draft letter. What I wrote was to the effect of: "Mom, I hope that in the future you can help me and show me your love." I pointed to my draft sentence and asked the girl, "Can you agree with that? Is it true for you?" I was kind of prompting her, and happily composing her sentence for her, because I didn't want to add layers of frustration with the English language on top of the frustration she was feeling with this assignment and about her parents.

She wrinkled her brow and studied it, to make sure she understood it – it's in English, after all, and she maybe had to sort it out or translate it in her head. Finally she nodded, but then she said, "I don't want to give her this letter." Adamant.

"I think you have to," I said. "It's the assignment."

She shocked me, then. "I really don't want to. Why should I give her this letter? My mom hits me with a baseball bat." Tears were coming, now. "yagubaeteu," she emphasized, repeating the term for "baseball bat" in Korean just to make sure I knew what she was saying.

I just stared at the girl, then, a little bit slack-jawed. The other students were staring, too. "We'll talk about it later," I said, somewhat awkwardly. I let her wrinkle up her letter draft and stuff it into her bag when she returned to her seat. At the end of class, I asked her was she OK.

She spoke rapidly in Korean, to the effect of: the bell rang, I'm getting out of here, leave me alone.

I let her go.

In the US, we're obligated as teachers to follow up on these kinds of revelations. Korea doesn't work that way – especially for foreign teachers like me, and especially not in a hagwon environment like mine. The most I can do it mention it to her homeroom teacher or the owner of the hagwon. Past experience with this kind of thing tells me that nothing at all will happen.

Parental child abuse as we conceive it in the US seems largely unrecognized as a crime in Korea, as far as I've been able to figure out. Yes, there are laws on the books about it, but they're only enforced rarely if at all. Just like the rules about corporal punishment in schools. Some schools follow the rules, some don't. Enforcement is random.

Helplessness is not a happy feeling.