Black Man Field Trip

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Sang Sang has big ears and wears huge Woody Allen glasses.  His head is thin, his hair is short, and he laughs every time he speaks English.  I’m not sure why, but I generally laugh when he speaks English too.  Sang Sang is one of the best English speakers at the school and yet it’s an adventure when we try to have a conversation.  Typically, we’re both baffled by what he’s saying.  Unlike other Korean high school students, though, Sang Sang isn’t embarrassed into silence due his (can we say) developing English ability.  He’s amused by it, the same way I might be if you dressed me up in pads and skates and threw me out into the middle of an ice hockey rink.

I know that when Sang Sang cracks up, he’s really just trying to tell me, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now.  Enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

My most memorable conversation with Sang Sang happened during the English Interview Contest my school had me do about a month ago.  In a nutshell, students signed up to come into a classroom and have me interview them.  After doing the interviews, I would pick a winner.  It sounded easy enough, especially because my superior, Peter Teacher, gave me a brilliant list of questions to use.  It contained such gems as:

“Do you enjoy reading?”

“What is your favorite book?”

“What was your favorite part of the book?”

In dealing with the brilliant but inflexible Peter Teacher, I’ve learned not to question anything.  If he wanted me to ask them these questions, that’s what I would do.  On the day of the contest about fifteen kids showed up, all giggling nervously.  One by one they came into the classroom and I gave them the 3rd degree about their favorite books.  Most stumbled through descriptions of The Alchemist, grabbing their faces in frustration every now and again when they fell into a pit of indecipherable babble.  The agony showed on them like they were players on a football team that had just lost its fourth straight Superbowl (Go Bills!!!).  Somehow their second language had failed them and they blew it.  Peter Teacher glared at them sternly.  For my part, I was very nice.

“Oh,” I’d say, trying to help, “that sounds interesting.  Do you like colors?  What’s your favorite?  Blue?”

It was with a sigh of relief that I greeted Sang Sang, sitting down for his interview, a big goofy smile already on his face.  He talked about reading and his favorite book.  I don’t remember the name, nor do I remember in detail what his favorite part was, but it had something to do with racism.  The book was set in the US, and in the scene, a black man asked a white family for directions and was ignored simply because he was black.

“Why was that your favorite part, Sang Sang?” I asked earnestly.  The other students liked the action scenes, or the parts with the greatest drama.  Why on earth did Sang Sang like a scene in which a white family gave a black dude the Danny Glover taxi treatment?

“Because I like black people,” he said.

This was interesting.  Odd, yes, but interesting.  There are very few black people in South Korea – most are soldiers, either from the US or Ghana.  Koreans typically know nothing about black people other than that they exist, in places other than Korea.  Two years ago, during my first stint in Korea, I asked my class to name as many black people as they could.  Here was their list:

Michael Jackson

Michael Jordan

Obama

George Washington Carver

It’s insane to me that George Washington Carver, of all people, is known across the Pacific.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that Koreans don’t really like peanuts and peanut butter at Homeplus is incredibly overpriced.  (In time, the students would reveal that they knew more than those four – their minds must’ve gone blank when put on the spot.)

Anyways, I digress.  Back to the interview.  Despite the ominous presence of Peter Teacher, I broke from the script.  “Sang Sang,” I said, “have you ever met a black person?”

Sang Sang lit up.  It was like a parent talking about a child or a film director talking about his next movie.  “Yes!” he said excitedly.  “Last year we had a field trip to Itaewon and I talked to a black man!”

Itaewon is the area of Seoul where the US troops are stationed.  “On the street?” I asked Sang Sang.  “Where did you talk to him?”

“He was in a room,” Sang Sang said.  “The school wanted us to meet a black person, so we had a field trip to Itaewon.  We were all able to talk to him and ask questions.”

I really wanted to know more about this.  Who was this black man – was he someone important?  Sang Sang didn’t think so.  He was just a regular guy.  I was dumbfounded.  Had Mansu High School really conducted a field trip to Itaewon – a good two hours from the school – for the sole purpose of having the students talk to a random black person?  I wondered how they approached the dude with the idea for the field trip:

“Say, our students only know who four black people are, and two of them are dead.  If you’re not busy this week, would you mind sitting in a room and having fifty Korean boys stare at you?”

How many students did they really take on this trip?  Did they need permission slips?

“Sang Sang,” I said, “is that the only time you’ve ever spoken to a black person?”

“Yes!” he said, nodding his head enthusiastically.  “I will never forget it.  It was a great experience!”

Koreans must spend a staggering amount of time talking to other Koreans.  Here was a high school full of boys who can’t sustain a simple English conversation even though they’ve taken English class for the last 10 years of their lives and many of them go to hokwons (private tutoring centers) to study English outside of school.  But the English classes in public schools are taught by Korean teachers, and hokwons are expensive.  For my students, English is still a very Korean thing.

I tried to picture, in my head, what the bus must have been like the morning of The Black Man Field Trip.  Were the students excited or were the scared?  Nervous.  Was the bus filled with talking or silence?  I wondered if the students realized that this was the first and maybe last time they would ever talk to a black person.  What went through their minds (in Korean, of course, not English)?  Did they wonder how different he’d be, or did they wonder how much he’d be like them?

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Martin

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Sometimes parents are lucky enough to have a child that is born perfectly healthy; other times, parents don’t have that luck, but do at least know what is wrong with their child.  Mr. and Mrs. Snider didn’t have a healthy child, nor did they have the comfort of knowing what exactly was wrong with their son, Martin.  They had brought him to doctor after doctor, and there was still no real diagnosis.  The doctors agreed on certain things though – Martin had profound mental retardation, his ears were big, his eyes were widely spaced apart, and he had an enlarged heart that would likely cut his life short.  For fourteen years, Martin’s condition was a mystery, until he and his mother were approached by a woman in the supermarket.

“She came right up to us,” Mrs. Snider told me.  “She wanted to say hello to Martin.  We got to talking, and I told her we weren’t sure what his condition was.  She said, ‘He has Coffin Lowry Syndrome.  Trust me.'”

That night Mrs. Snider went on the Internet and typed “Coffin Lowry” into a Google search.  All she had to see was one picture, and in that second, the mystery was solved.

“I looked at the picture,” she said, “and my heart stopped.  The boy looked exactly like my son.”

After Mrs. Snider told me this story, I too did a Google search of “Coffin Lowry.”  Like she said, it only took looking through some pictures to know what was wrong with Martin.  In image after image, I saw him.  The thick lips and eyebrows.  The sleepy look in the eyes.  The open-mouth smile.  There was my friend, obvious and apparent in each and every photo.  In reading about Coffin Lowry, I learned that the syndrome is rare, untreatable, and comes out of nowhere.  The disorder is caused by a mutation of a gene that isn’t passed down by either parent; in other words, it just happens, like raindrops without clouds or a fire without a spark.

Martin was the most needy student in the middle school classroom where I worked.  At lunch, I cut up his sandwich into small squares that he would eat with a fork.  I took Martin to the bathroom several times a day, sometimes to change him when he had an accident.  I held his hand when we walked down the hall.  Everyone in the school loved him.  Miss Tee, the classroom teacher, adored Martin.  The other students talked to him even though Martin couldn’t say anything other than “okay” or “bye bye.”  When Martin laughed, you laughed too.  He made people happy without trying.  It was something about his spirit, his energy, and the way he was with people.  He liked them.  There wasn’t a person – an adult or a student – that Martin Snider wasn’t happy to see.

Then one afternoon near the end of the school year, I brought Martin to the bathroom and he collapsed.  His hands started shaking and his lips turned white.  His eyes rolled back in his head.  It was one of the scariest moments of my life.  I ran out of the bathroom and called for help.  Martin ended up in the hospital, and I didn’t see much of him after that.  His mother came by the school to let us know he was all right, but didn’t go much into detail.  When he came back, he collapsed again.  Even through all that, he kept his big smile and his loud laugh.  He wasn’t there in June, on the last day of school, but Mrs. Snider brought him in to say goodbye for the summer.

“We really miss him,” Miss Tee said with a broad smile.  I missed him too.  He turned to his mother looking as happy as he had ever looked, and her eyes got misty.  She turned to him and said, “You hear that Martin?  Everybody loves you.  We’re not ready for you to go yet.”

Genetics is a strange thing.  It can produce perfect cheekbones, wonderful eyes, and an entire range of physical beauty.  Or it can somehow produce something else.  But perhaps it also can produce kindess and love, or at least I believe so, especially when I think about Mrs. Snider and her son Martin, holding hands and walking together out into the hot June day.

(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom.  The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed.  “Martin” is Part Five.)

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Peer Buddies

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The little girl barely raised her eyes when she spoke.  I don’t know what her name was, only that she seemed embarrassed.  She was in the 7th grade, as were all of the girls in the room.  The other girls, with their braces and hoodies and makeup, all nodded along to what she was saying:

“It made me uncomfortable,” the little girl said.  “Especially when I hugged him, and he grinded his body against me.”

Let’s back up a bit, before anybody was grinding anybody.  Way back before Adapted Physical Education got too physical, before Peer Buddies became Hug Buddies, and before our self-contained class of special education students let their hormones overtake all those lessons on how to be “appropriate” in the community.

The Peer Buddy program at Crestdale Middle School was, in theory, a perfectly sweet idea.  The school had one all special ed class – Miss Tee’s class.  There were nine students in that class, and each one of them was assigned two regular ed “peer buddies.”  The regular ed kids were all volunteers, so this was not anything that was forced upon anybody.  They were selected based on their grades.  In other words, these were really good kids.  They wanted to buddy up with a schoolmate with special needs.    For forty-five minutes each day, the Peer Buddies would take their friends to what was called “Adapted PE.”  It was basically just gym class, the only adaptation being that the Peer Buddies were there to help out.

To our kids, the Peer Buddies were AWESOME.  It was the only time during the entire day (apart from lunch) that they were allowed to mix with the other students in the school.  For forty-five minutes our kids could integrate with the “regular” students, talk with them, be their friends, and really become people with personalities and not just a bunch of kids in a disabled class.

They could also, unfortunately, sexually harass all of the female students.

The problem with the Peer Buddy program was in getting the kids to make the distinction between an Adapted PE partner and an actual friend.  When our kids started calling the Peer Buddies their “best friends,” you could see a level of awkwardness set in.  Michael would ask his Peer Buddy what he was doing over the weekend, and there would be hesitancy and blushing in the “I’m busy” response.

The girl Peer Buddies had it worse.  They had to band together and tell their English teacher that the Peer Buddy program wasn’t going very well.  Miss Tee and I were called in.  There was the assembly of girl Peer Buddies, looking like a middle school version of NOW, ready to tell it like it was.  There weren’t angry, though.  Instead they seemed shy and sad, almost guilty for saying what they had to say.

“At the end of class,” one of them said, “the boys all ask us for hugs and kisses.  When we let them hug us, they rub against us.  It’s really uncomfortable.  We don’t want to do the Peer Buddy program anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I was just as uncomfortable and embarrassed as the girls seemed to be.  Miss Tee, though, stepped right up, speaking in her strong voice.  When she spoke like this, it never seemed antagonizing, but instead like she was saying something so clear and obvious it could only be said with blunt force.

“Don’t let them hug you,” she said.  “Why are you letting them do that?  Would you let a boy in your math class do that?”

The girls all shook their heads “no.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Miss Tee went on.  “You have the right to say ‘no’ to them.  Just because they’re special needs kids, you think you have to let them hug you?  They’re boys!  And they ask for kisses and you think that’s okay?  That’s not okay!  Girls, what are you thinking?  You don’t have to quit the Peer Buddy program.  All you have to do is say ‘no.'”

Our boys got a lecture as well, and more lessons on how to be appropriate in the community.  After the meeting, checking up on our students in the Adapted PE class, I started to see the girls stand their ground.  They would shake their heads ‘no’ and speak firmly.  The hugging came to a fast end.

That was the only thing that came to an end, though.  To the students in Miss Tee’s class, the Peer Buddies were still AWESOME.  As the summer crept in and the school year came to a close, our boys learned to respect boundaries, and the 7th grade girls learned to enforce them. The brilliant thing about the Peer Buddy program, it turned out, was that it wasn’t always easy.  It did what an inclusive program is supposed to do. It taught the kids about themselves, and about living with others.  They learned that it isn’t simple kindness that allows us to adapt to one another, but basic honesty instead.

(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom.  The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed.  “Peer Buddies” is Part Four.)

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Deviants in the Classroom

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“In a deviant society, why and how do people avoid deviance?” – Walter Reckless’ Containment Theory

Most of the kids in Miss Tee’s class had what were called “behavior problems.”  It’s one of those nice educational terms that exists so kids aren’t called bad, naughty, or, as I like to think of them, devil children. Another term used to describe Miss Tee’s class was “self-contained.” This is an odd phrase, one that makes it unclear as to whether the teacher works with children or with a contagious disease.  By definition, it just means that the students learn all subject areas in one classroom, but it sounds as though they have the bird flue or something.  I wonder if there was a big meeting somewhere, and the brightest people in the school system chose the term “self-contained classroom” narrowly over “sequestered zone” or “quarantined place of learning.”

In February of 2005, I got my first job in the field of education, becoming Miss Tee’s Teacher Assistant.  I chose to be a TA because I thought that the experience would show me the ropes.  As a TA, I could learn how to be a teacher from the inside.  Miss Tee had taught for ages, and I figured she would show me how to write lesson plans, how to differentiate instruction, and how to implement classroom management techniques that could turn a bunch of hooligans into a class of student-handbook abiding citizens.

For the first few days, this was what happened.  Miss Tee was a slightly older woman in her late forties or early fifties.  She was alternatively stern and kind as I thought a teacher should be.  Despite her name, Miss Tee had been married for years and had a daughter in high school.  I eventually learned that every woman in the South is referred to as “miss” regardless of her marital status.  In addition to Miss Tee, there was also a sign language interpreter in the classroom, an Italian woman around the same age as Miss Tee named Miss Pepperoni (hey, changing real people’s names is hard, cut me some slack on this one).  Of course, Miss Pepperoni was also married.  She and Miss Tee got along famously.  So well, it turned out, that on some days there would be very little interpreting and even less teaching.

As I got used to working in the classroom, I started to grasp the daily routine.  After I got the kids off the bus, the class ate breakfast in the empty cafeteria.  Next came the longest portion of the day, when the kids did a math worksheet independently while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni read the newspaper and talked about their lives.  Around mid-afternoon I took the kids to the gym for Adaptive PE.  Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni stayed in the classroom.  Lunch followed, and then story time.  Finally came my most active duty of the school day: taking the kids to the soccer field to play while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni watched Oprah.

Since I considered myself her apprentice, I was a bit disappointed.  When I asked Miss Tee about lesson plans, she simply said, “I don’t do those.” There were no tests and I saw no evidence of any curriculum being followed.  Eventually, Miss Tee laid it out for me nice and clearly.

“We’re self-contained special ed,” she said.  “The school don’t care about us.  How many times does the Principal come in here?  Maybe once or twice to say ‘hi’ to the kids.  These kids don’t take state tests! They don’t do EOGs.  That’s what the school cares about.  We just stay in our room and make it look like everything is nice and happy.”

Way back in the 1950s, a criminologist named Walter Reckless created what he called his “Containment Theory.”  It concerns how individuals resist acting out in deviant ways.  One of the main “buffers” in his theory is the “outer society,” which basically provides rules and dictates what is generally acceptable behavior.  Thinking back on that classroom, with all those “behavior problem” students, it’s striking how the teacher, Miss Tee, might have been the most deviant of anybody.  It makes sense, though.  There was no outer society to keep Miss Tee in line.  She had broken away from it, presumably after years and years of her special education class getting nothing but neglect and indifference from the rest of the school.  Our class wasn’t really a part of the school society.  And as a result, everyone did what they wanted.  The kids played soccer. The teacher watched Oprah.

Remembering my time as her assistant, though, I can clearly recall those days when Miss Tee’s “inner buffer” took over and she did what she knew how to do: she taught.  And man could Miss Tee teach when she wanted to.  When she read the class a story, they sat there riveted.  When she talked, they listened. When they misbehaved, she ended it with just a look.  Being with Miss Tee, I saw glimpses of one heck of an amazing teacher.  And I also saw – maybe more importantly – what can happen to a great teacher stuck in self-containment, in a school system that never bothers to look or say thanks.

(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom.  The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed.  “Deviants in the Classroom” is Part Three.)

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