This is the story of how I butted heads with a student, ended up stealing her cell phone, and was eventually reprimanded by my school for giving her an obscene gesture (although I was innocent). In the course of reading this, I hope you will see how a teacher can never really guess what’s going to happen next. Teaching is full of surprises, little moments that a reflective person unlike myself can learn from. I don’t know if I learned anything from the events that transpired with “Miss A,” other than the statement of fact that provides our story with its title:
Billy is gay.
It all began on a Thursday, my first Thursday at the new school. Up until that point, things had gone wonderfully. The kids seemed awesome and classes were off to a good start. That all changed when a heavy-set middle school girl came bounding through the door. This was my last Thursday class, a group of ten middle school kids. My attention was quickly gobbled up by the girl I mentioned earlier; she was incredibly loud and seemed to be the leader of the gang of middle school girls that sat around her. It’s not hard to tell when the “bad” student walks into the room. They typically like to announce their presence.
“Hello everyone,” I said to the class. I wrote my name on the board. “My name is Bill. It’s easy to remember. Just like Bill Gates, or Bill Clinton, or Bill Belamy.”
I figured the students would know one of them, most likely Belamy, and that would help them pronounce my name. Before I could say another word, the girl I’d already started to worry about exploded.
“Billy!” she shouted. “Hahaha!!! Billy is gay! Teacher is gay!”
This caused the rest of the class to go berserk. Suddenly everyone was saying, “Billy! Billy!”
“Um,” I said. “Okay. It’s actually Bill. So it would be good if we could stick to that, I guess. Bill.”
“Teacher!” the girl laughed. “Billy means gay!”
“Well, that’s nice to know,” I said, and then tried to change the subject. “What is your name?”
“Billy! My name is Billy!”
The class was seriously losing it. I felt embarrassed and it was only two minutes into the first class. I faked a laugh. “Nice one. Really, what is your name?”
“No name,” she said, a huge smile on her face. “Haha. Gay. Billy.
That fifty minute class seemed to go on forever. When it finally came to a close, Leah, my boss, came in my room. “How was the big girl?” she asked me. “She gave the last foreign teacher many problems.”
“She was bad,” I said, admittedly. “We’ll figure her out.”
I’ve been teaching for awhile now, and so I was confident that I could ease this student back onto the road more travelled
(the road where students don’t answer ‘how are you?’ with ‘teacher is gay’). The next time the class met, I gave her lots of attention and was super nice. She still wouldn’t make up a name for herself, so I dubbed her “Miss A” after the popular Korean music group. I joked around with her and gave her candy at the end of class. The following week was more of the same. This was theory one – win her over. I rigged the English game we played so that she won and then gave her money (only 1,000 KW, but still) as a prize.
I was convinced that soon she would not see me as an adversary; she would see me as the greatest person ever to step foot in her hogwon.
For that first month, Miss A was still bad, but she was manageable. She was loud and obsessed with the whole Billy thing, but she did her work and participated in the class. Things would regress in the second month. I blame a two week span where I didn’t see her class at all – my English class was cancelled due to testing. When Miss A came back, it was like the first day times infinity.
“Teacher likes boys! Teacher is gay! Gay gay gay! Billy!”
And then it caught on. In one of my elementary school classes, a tiny little boy named Daniel pointed at me and said, “Bill Teacher is gay.” Walking through the hallways, I started to get it from the majority of the middle school kids I’d walk by. “Hi Billy!” they’d say, cracking up.
The second theory went into effect – ignore it and be above it. Now, I wish I could say that being called ‘gay’ was no different from them saying ‘stupid’ or ‘ugly.’ That it was just another name. Really, the whole thing was starting to get under my skin, and I wish I could say that it was because it disrupted class and, hey, I’m human and I just don’t like being laughed at constantly. That wouldn’t be the truth, though. I think if it was “teacher is stupid,” I wouldn’t have cared too much. It probably is a bit homophobic; being called gay all the time bothered me. Especially because it led to having a bunch of kids, including a lot of young boys, going around the school saying “teacher likes boys.” That was NOT cool at all. It was slander, man. Baseless slander. Or slander based on, I guess, my name.
“Damn,” I said to myself. “I should’ve told them my name is William.”
Ignoring it wasn’t making it go away. It was only getting worse. Miss A had infected the whole school.
Finally, on a Wednesday, I went straight into theory three – get strict. I was sitting at my desk when Miss A ran into the classroom, a bunch of girls following behind her. I was surprised to see her, as she’s not in my Wednesday class. “Teacher,” she said, smiling, “do you like boys?”
The girls behind her burst into hysterics. I stood up. I told the others to leave. “Listen,” I said in my serious voice, the door closed behind us, “it isn’t funny anymore. NOT FUNNY. No more gay joke. Do you understand? I want you to STOP IT. No more.”
She nodded and smiled and laughed like I was telling her the parrot joke. The next day in class, it was obvious that our little talk was pointless. “Billy!” she shouted to the delight of her peers. “Teacher is Billy!”
I wanted to kick her in the face. As a professional, my judgment told me to refrain from that. “Deep breaths,” I said to myself. “Stay cool.” I told her to stop again. She didn’t. Then I noticed that her cell phone was sitting on her desk. I snatched it up and put it in my pocket.
“Done,” I said. “The joke is done. No more. If you want your phone back, quiet rest of class. No more talking. Quiet.”
This was theory four – desperation.
Like its predecessors, it failed miserably. Miss A kept talking, just now in Korean. The class kept laughing. “Okay,” I said. I took a piece of paper and wrote the following:
“Dear Parents, Your daughter’s phone was taken due to poor behavior. To get it back, call me. I would like to talk to you. My number is ________________. Thanks.”
I gave the paper to Miss A. “You’re not getting your phone back until mom or dad calls,” I said. This quieted her. For the rest of class, she wrote a long apology letter. After the bell rang, she approached me with it.
“Teacher, I am very sorry,” she said.
“That’s nice,” I said. “You’ll get your phone back when mom or dad calls me.”
She held the note out. I took it and threw it in the garbage.
“Teacher!” she called to me, frantically. “I am sorry! Please give me phone!”
I shut the door. My serious tone was gone. I was pissed. “I tried to be nice to you. I tried to talk to you. I told you yesterday to stop it, and you didn’t. It’s been two months of this! I took the phone and told you to be quiet, and you kept on talking. It’s NOT FUNNY. You’re not getting this phone back until I hear from your parents. You’re not sorry – you just want your phone back.”
I stormed out of the building before any of the Korean teachers would know what was happening. Miss A followed me to my apartment. I left her outside while I put the phone in my nightstand. I had plans in Incheon that night, and I headed for the subway. Miss A and her posse followed me almost the entire way.
“Teacher,” they pleaded, “we did not understand. It is because you are American and we are Korean. It is culture mistake.”
I did my best not to argue, but once in awhile I couldn’t stay quiet. “That’s ridiculous. It has nothing to do with culture.” They kept following me. Eventually they gave up. I walked away as fast as I could, and, with my back turned to them, threw up the peace sign.
Riding the subway I felt nervous. Had I done the right thing? Probably not, but did I do something outrageously wrong? I wondered if I should’ve talked to the Korean teachers. I didn’t because I’d been told stories that, since a hogwon (private English academy) is more like a business than a school, the students get away with murder – the institutes don’t want to jeopardize a student dropping out and losing the enrollment money. I told myself to forget about it. To try and enjoy my night and forget about Miss A for the time being.
At seven o’clock the next morning, I was reminded of the whole thing in the worst way possible. Miss A’s alarm was going off and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. Being woken up early, I suppose, is one of the dangers in taking a kid’s cell phone.
“Um,” I said, feeling awkward, “here’s the thing. I get that she’s sorry. That’s cool. This is about making sure it doesn’t happen again, and that’s why I need to speak to her parents.”
“Her parents are very strict, though, and they will be angry.”
“Right. I guess that’s kind of the point.”
The teacher obviously wanted me to give the phone back. “She cannot study. Her mind is thinking about the phone. She has cried many times.”
“I understand,” I said, not yielding. “So have the parents call me, and I’ll give the phone back, and everything will be awesome.”
“Her parents don’t speak English. What can you say? How will you talk to them?”
“I don’t know,” I said. It was a good point. “I just want them to call, I guess. To show that they’re aware and so I’ll have their number to contact if something else happens later.”
The bell ran and I went to class. Between every class, the same teacher came down, trying to talk me into giving the phone back. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked several times. “How can I help this situation?”
By her fourth visit, I was losing patience. “Have the parents call me,” I said, in an irritated tone. “That’s what you can do.”
It got more uncomfortable. Leah came in to talk to me. “It is a culture misunderstanding,” she said. “In Korea, it is okay to be gay.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said. Then I lied a little. “But it’s not about the word ‘gay.’ I just want her to stop disrupting class.”
“Her parents are angry with the school,” she said. “They have called and yelled. You gave her ‘fuck you’ hand gesture.”
This was a curveball I didn’t expect. “What?!” I nearly shouted.
“You did this,” she said, and then she did the British two-finger ‘fuck you’ thing. I thought back to what happened. When I walked away to get on the subway, I had thrown up the peace sign. Since my back was to her, it was backwards and probably looked a lot like the two fingered salute.
“I didn’t do that!” I said defensively. “I’m American! I don’t do that two fingered thing. I threw up deuces! It was deuces, man, not the fuck you thing! If I wanted to say ‘fuck you,’ I’d put up one finger!”
Everything was wrong. It was a mess. To summarize what happened next, I gave Miss A her phone back on Monday. Then she either dropped out of English class or stopped going to the hogwon altogether. I’m not sure and I didn’t ask. I haven’t seen her in three weeks, not since I handed her the phone back. I was happy to, in a way. Getting woken up at 7:00 in the morning sucks.
I don’t know what to think of the whole fiasco. Her former class is very good now, well behaved and positive. I feel like they get something from the lessons. Nobody calls me ‘gay’ or says I like boys. The students on a whole appear to enjoy my English class. If one believes in a greater good, then I clearly did the right thing by, ultimately, getting her to drop out. Yet, I can’t help feeling like I failed. She was my student and now she’s gone. I didn’t get through to her. In her mind, I stole her phone and flicked her off. I was abominable. Yes, abominable. An abominable gay man.
Sometimes I sit at my desk and think about what I could’ve done differently. The other day a thought came to me that I’d never thought of it before. “Maybe,” I said to myself, “when she asked me if I liked boys, I should’ve just said ‘no.’”