On a dreary morning back in 2006, I was stopped by the police on my way to work. At that time, I taught at an elementary school in a rough area of Charlotte, North Carolina. To get to the school, I had to follow a series of twisting roads that weaved their way through the projects. Each time I drove through, it was depressing. It was eye opening to see the conditions my kids lived in. That particular morning when the police stopped me, I was ordered to turn my car around and go to the school a different way. The police didn’t say why.
It wasn’t until I got to school that I was told, “Everyone got turned around. It’s a crime scene. There’s a dead body in the street.”
Then, a few hours later, I was called into the guidance counselor’s office. “Mr. P,” she said, “the person who was shot late last night…well, it’s Jamaal’s cousin.” Jamaal was one of my students. He was in the third grade, energetic and always smiling. He had little corn rows and was insanely cute. The guidance counselor continued, “He’s not the only child in our school who has had a family member die recently. I’m going to start a group at the school for grief counseling. I will let you know when I’ll be taking Jamaal out of class.”
For the students in South Korea, nothing is funnier than to joke about death. The death joke is a real crowd pleaser. During the daily attendance, I might ask something like, “Is Harold here today?” Some kid will inevitably shout out, “No teacher – he is die!” Then the whole class will burst into laughter. Yesterday, I did a lesson with “Champ” class about using the words ‘always’ and ‘never.’ I asked the class, “What is something you never do?”
“I never die!”
“I never kill my mother!”
“I never kill my friends!”
“Your answers concern me,” I said, “although I’d be more concerned if you said those things for ‘always.’” Other things concern me too. Once, I asked a student named John, “What do you want to be when you get older?” He shot back, “Teacher, I want to be terrorist!” While the class went bananas with laughter, I thought about how that joke would NEVER fly in the US. On another occasion, I was teaching a class of around 35 kids at the public high school in Incheon, when a student named ‘Rust’ burst into the classroom holding a toy gun.
“Bam! Bang!” Rust shouted, aiming the gun at his classmates and pretending to fire. I stood there dumbfounded. It didn’t even concern me that he had interrupted the lesson. The whole class laughed and smiled at Rust’s joke. The toy gun looked real.
I wonder if, in America, the students would’ve jumped under their desks.
In the warm Charlotte spring, my small class of elementary students got 45 minutes a day to play on the playground. I
was walking to the playground with Jamaal one day when we passed an area that had been set up for the game Horseshoes. There were stakes put in the ground, maybe thirty feet apart. I looked at the stakes in the ground and immediately thought, “Horseshoes.” Jamaal thought something different.
“Mr. P,” he said, pointing to them, “who’s buried there?”
I tried to explain that nobody was buried there. It was a game. Horseshoes. He didn’t know the game. After school I went into the school gym and asked the gym teacher if she had a set of horseshoes so we could play.
“Horseshoes?” she said, surprised. “No, I don’t have that. Why do you want to play horseshoes?”
“I dunno,” I said. “The kids in the class don’t know it.”
“Here, I have a couple Frisbees,” she said. “You could throw them.”
Good enough. The next day my class played “Frisbee Horseshoes.” It wasn’t especially interesting or fun. I’m not sure the kids really learned the game; as for me, I learned that hitting a stake in the ground with a Frisbee is a lot harder than hitting it with a u-shaped piece of metal.
Much more importantly, I wonder if Jamaal understood.
It’s a game. Not a graveyard. It’s okay to be a kid.
Almost one year ago today, North Korea fired 170 artillery rounds at Yeonpyeong Island in response to a South Korean military drill. On November 23, 2010, North Korea fired on the island’s military base, killing four and injuring 18. I remember how freaked out a lot of the foreigners teaching in Korea were, and how calm and collected the Koreans acted. At my high school in Incheon, it was business as usual. No one seemed to bat an eyelash over the attack, which the United Nations said was the “most serious crisis on the Korean peninsula since the 1953 armistice which ended the Korean War.”
About a week after it happened, one of my students rushed into class. “Teacher!” he shouted. “North Korea has attacked again! It is war!”
I had just gotten off the Internet and saw nothing about a new attack. All I could think to say to the student was, “Really?”
He laughed. “No teacher. It is joke.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Well played, my friend.”
Last year’s attack is a reminder that the possibility of war, while remote, is present. Maybe because I can’t speak Korean, I can’t really tell if my students worry about that or if they’ve accepted it as a part of their reality. I remember some students proudly saying, “We will fight North Korea, and we will win!” While others said, “There will be no war. They are our brothers. We are all Korean.”
Still, although the threat of violence is so close, I don’t think the kids in Korea know death like my students in America did. I later transferred to a high school in Charlotte; I remember the students talking about their friends and family members who had been shot and killed. Death isn’t something that the students make jokes about. It doesn’t mean that the students in Korea are less mature. Actually, their innocence is maybe the way it should be. It must be nice be nice to grow up in a place where guns, terrorism, and death are just ideas, safe and abstract.
And where the teacher doesn’t have to take an alternate route, because his third grade student’s cousin is covered with a blanket out in the middle of the street.