Generation Glue Stick


Title: Generation Glue Stick

Main Idea: How the invention of the glue stick has changed an entire generation of young people.

Introduction: If Laura wasn’t so adorable, she might be mistaken for a brat. It would be an understandable mistake. Laura is nine years old, wears nice little dresses and bursts into laughter a lot. She could be the poster child for cute children. She could also be the poster child for COCD – Childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Give Laura the colored pencils to color with and she will have a fit (she prefers the markers). Hand Laura the scissors with the red handle and she will refuse to use them (she will only use the scissors with the blue handle). Grade her paper by putting a smile face next to the right answers, and she will remove them with White Out (correct answers, obviously, are scored with hearts). The thing is, Laura isn’t the only one with COCD. Most of the kids I work with have it to some degree. It’s not a new phenomenon – kids have always been stubborn – but it’s getting worse. Why, you ask? Perhaps it began with but one small invention, the glue stick.

Body Paragraph #1: Way back in 1969, a German company named Henkel had a bright idea. They studied lipstick and noted how remarkably easy the ‘twist-up’ applicator was to use. What if, they asked themselves, other items could be created in lipstick’s image? Henkel decided that glue would be an ideal candidate and soon after introduced “The Pritt Stick,” the first incarnation of the modern glue stick. Only three years later, Pritt Sticks were being sold in 38 countries. By 2001, that number climbed to 121. But while the bright idea of creating a glue applicator modeled after lipstick came originally from Henkel, another company piggy-backed it with a bright idea of its own. The Elmer’s Company, who used a cartoon figure named Elmer the Bull as their mascot, had the brilliant notion of sticking the word ‘school’ in the name of their products. This worked wonders. Schools always needed cheap crafting products, and Elmer’s jumped all over that. Elmer’s products such ‘School Glue,’ ‘Krazy Glue,’ and the ‘X-Acto Knife’ became ubiquitous in schools all over America. The focus of Elmer’s advertising is still squarely placed on educators and students; go to their website today, and you will find a feature entitled ‘The 1st Day of School’ filling their homepage, with side links for parents and teachers.

Body Paragraph #2: So what does any of this mean? I argue that through the advancement in the quality of products (The Pritt Stick, for instance) and their widespread usage in schools (thanks to companies like Elmer’s), we have spawned Generation Glue Stick, a explosion of young people who have grown to understand the world through a prism of order, convenience, and tidiness. Let me explain. For a long time, students in younger grades had to make do with what they had. Want to glue two papers together for an art project? A student used a bottle of glue for that. This was, by its nature, an imperfect device. One had to be rather careful when using the glue bottle, making sure not to overdo it. Personally, I liked to employ the ‘glue dotting technique,’ where a person places a small dot of glue on each corner of the paper and sticks it to something that way. It required patience. The glue took awhile to dry. Also, classrooms weren’t always that well stocked with glue bottles. Sometimes there was only one big bottle and you waited your turn to use it. That said, I never considered a bottle of glue to be particularly hard to use until recently. My kids, it seems, are very glue stick reliant. Give them a bottle of glue, and it’s a disaster. There’s glue everywhere and lots of children crying. While convenience is the major draw of the glue stick, independence is a benefit as well. Schools have tons of little glue sticks so that each student can glue his or her own stuff in solitude. There is very little waiting or sharing. It’s a fact that having only four glue sticks will turn an otherwise normal class of ten kids into Lord of the Flies.

This is an awarding winning piece of art created by an elementary school student. I didn’t have much time for abstract art in elementary school, as I was too busy drawing dragons.

Body Paragraph #3: The glue stick isn’t the only culprit. Everything, for today’s young student, is constructed on a platform of order and visual aesthetic. At the risk of sounding really old, when I was a kid, White Out was a delicacy, something used only in special cases where the scribble out technique just wasn’t acceptable. Today, all my kids carry around white out tape. Before, kids wrote with little nub pencils that had shrunk down to a half an inch from lots of usage. Today’s kids have immortal mechanical pencils that they fill with pristinely thin pieces of lead in a delicate procedure, done with the care of a surgeon making an incision. Very little is handwritten today. Final drafts are almost always typed. Crayons are Stone Age-level old fashioned. With copy machines in all schools, kids can always screw up their worksheet and ask the teacher for a clean new one. Class speeches have a PowerPoint presentation to back them. Instruction has become more visual and structured as well. Take a writing assignment, for instance. I can remember jotting down a crappy outline on a sheet of loose leaf paper. Now, reading and writing assignments involve a giant variety of mental maps, graphic organizers, brain storming diagrams, and the like. There is a real sense of perfection in the work of today’s students. It’s no wonder that Laura will only use the blue scissors or accept hearts for her correct answers. For her, everything in education has been done by design, been crafted and molded to fit. It’s not a negative thing. Call it a new outlook. With the glue stick and its cohorts, our children today are being encouraged not only to be creative, but to be professional about it.

Conclusion: Generation Glue Stick, in many ways, is more advanced than previous generations were. They will grow to become people who file things well, who document, who know how to plate food in a visually pleasing way, and who will hand in reports that are spaced properly and don’t have mustard spilled on them. True, they can’t use a glue bottle, they don’t work particularly well with others, and they have difficulty dealing with mistakes and adversity. It doesn’t matter. They know how to fix things. Whatever mistakes they’ve made will safely be confined to the outline, and, I’m pretty sure, no parents hang outlines up on the refrigerator door.


It’s All Positive, the Way I See It


Academy Summer Progress Report

Student: Bob O.

Subject: English

Teacher: Bill

Comments: Bob is a very enthusiastic young man, filled with life and energy.  He has shown consistent progress this year.  You should be very proud as parents.  Bob is well liked by his peers and has a wonderful sense of humor.  He is upbeat and always smiling.

Academically, this semester has been one of growth for Bob O.  A review of testing data proves this.  On our semester’s first assessment, Bob received a score of 2/30.  However, on the second assessment, he doubled his score with 4/30!  On the third and final assessment, Bob continued to show improvement with a score of 5/30.  This empirical data indicates that Bob is making tremendous progress and will continue to improve with further studies.

Behaviorally, Bob is still adjusting to the classroom.  He typically talks through the entire lesson, but this is okay because it points to him being socially popular and accepted by his peers.  Bob has a difficult time listening and paying attention, which is probably because of his age (17).  Clearly his attention span will get better as he matures.  Finally, I feel a note should be made regarding the blinding incident: I apologize for initially over-reacting and would like to say that it was obviously just an accident.  In retrospect, it has become clear to me that Bob was simply waving his pencil in joy and did not intend in any way to stab his classmate in the eyeball.  Instead of being stern with him, I should have acknowledged his wonderful enthusiasm for learning.

In terms of skills, Bob has many.  He struggles with reading, but knows that words exist and that they are sometimes combined into sentences.  Writing is also an area where Bob can further develop his skills with more practice.  Currently, he cannot write words and is inconsistent in making letters.  He does, though, own a pencil (as we know from the incident mentioned earlier).  Often times, the importance of having the proper tools is overlooked when one gauges writing development.  It has been said by some – yes, including myself – that Bob’s effort appears to be lacking; going forward, I propose that instead of forcing him into curriculum based lessons that he seems to have little interest in, we can better teach him through the use of video games and television programs.  As a teacher, I need to incorporate an individualized approach to Bob’s education.  I apologize, and will be sure to spend the bulk of my evenings making educational games for him.

Overall, Bob is a tremendous student and has been a joy to have in class.  To be honest, I am considering leaving the school soon due to unbearable ulcer pain.  That said, I am sure the next teacher will love Bob O. just as much as I have!  : )

Parent Signature (Forgery Accepted):_____________________________


Big Mother Is Watching You


Back in the USA, my classroom was very much like an impenetrable fortress.  I think “fortress” is the right word here.  Remember when Pat Buchanan nicknamed his foreign policy “Fortress America”?  He meant that the country would close its borders and return to a doctrine of isolationism.  That’s exactly what my classroom was like.  Fortress Classroom.  The door was always shut, only rarely did anyone come in to observe what was happening, and my students, for the most part, didn’t even talk to their parents about what went on in class.  In other words, the only people who had a very strong idea concerning what was going on in my classroom were me and the students.  What happened in Mr. Panara’s classroom, stayed in Mr. Panara’s classroom.

Don’t get too excited.  “What happened” in Mr. Panara’s classroom was typically English lessons, so scratch me off your list of possible bachelor party locations.

Most of the other classrooms were like this too.  I used to tell new teachers one bit of advice: never (well, in extreme circumstances yes, but otherwise never) write administrative referrals on students.  The administration encouraged teachers to fill out a form which would refer students to them for disciplinary reasons, but in truth, teachers who wrote a lot of administrative referrals were viewed as being unable to handle their classes.  It was a sign of weakness.  Conversely, a teacher could have a complete madhouse going on behind that closed door, and as long as that teacher didn’t start writing referrals, the school’s administration would go on thinking everything was fine and dandy.  Sadly, I suppose, that was the preferable option.  Teachers who went to the admins seeking help with their classes often wound up being the ones on action plans and under tight scrutiny.  Teachers who shut up got to keep teaching their hell classes without anyone breathing down their necks.

As I mentioned before, at the school where I taught, parent involvement was pretty minimal.  Most of the time, when I called parents, they were in the dark about what was happening with their kid’s education.  Trying to set up a parent/teacher conference was as difficult as trying to get Lennon and McCarthy to sit down and discuss reuniting The Beatles.  And I don’t mean in 1975.  I mean now.

By my last year teaching at my high school in Charlotte, NC, technology was altering the “Fortress Classroom” reality, albeit only slightly.  Cell phones, and their ability to record things, absolutely made teachers more aware of what they and their students were saying and doing.  Nobody wanted to end up on YouTube with the title “Teacher Meltdown” or “Dance War in Science Class.”  Also, teachers were required to keep an electronic grade book, so parents could log into a website anytime and check out their kid’s grade.  The Internet changed things too.   Websites like “Rate My Teacher,” where students can go and give teachers a number rating and leave comments, starting popping up.  Just as with other aspects of life, technology and the Internet was taking what used to be a closed door and cracking it open a little.

None of that, however, compares even slightly to what teaching at a hakwon in South Korea is like.  In America, people on the outside are peeking into the classroom only slightly.  Here, they’ve got both eyes firmly planted on you as though you’re on The Real World: Classroom Edition.  To illustrate, I will provide a helpful bulleted list:

  • In America, the classroom is typically a closed box.  The windows only teasingly expose the sun and the beautiful land the children are not allowed to enjoy until the final bell rings.  At my school in Korea, there is no view of the outside world and the fourth wall to my classroom – the one facing the hallway – is one giant sheet of glass.  Anybody can see in at any time.  In addition to this, anybody walking down the hallway inevitably captures the students’ attention and throws them off task.  This happens about once every 10-15 seconds.
  • In my classroom in Korea (where mothers typically don’t work), there is a CCTV camera.  If you’re unfamiliar with CCTV, it basically means that there’s a surveillance camera in the classroom.  The front office has a big flat screen television where there is a live feed from all the classrooms.  Often times, I’ll pass by the front office and see a few mothers sitting in there, watching.
  • The kids in Korea tend to tell their parents everything that happens.  Pretty regularly, I have some mother call the school to complain.  The biggest complaints are that I give the kids too much free time (like 5 mins at the end every other class) or that some kid swore in Korean during class.  This makes me look bad.  Not because the kids are not working on English, but because one would think I would’ve learned the Korean curse words by now.
  • Every five months or so, teachers are required to do “open classes,” where the mothers come in and literally join the class.  They typically sit there tight-lipped and stone faced, as though they’re watching the Kony video or that Adam Sandler movie where he played his own sister.

I wonder if this is an improvement over what I formerly had.  I remember the countless meetings where we tried to come up with ways to increase parental involvement. Now, I’ve got parental involvement.  In fact, I have so much parental involvement, the mothers have unlimited access to the classroom.  And you know what?  I don’t think it’s helping much of anything.  It’s got me thinking, though, and questioning how open a classroom should be.

Maybe not a fortress, and maybe not a glass house.  I do believe there needs to be some sense of privacy for a classroom to come to life, and I also think poor teachers are able to hide in the dark for too long.  I’m sure that we’ll see how accessible the classroom becomes.  The possibilities, I suppose, are endless, if you have time and a computer.

Want to know what your child did in school today?  Click ‘Download.’



Horse Shoes and Heavy Artillery


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.


Billy Is Gay!


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 ladies of Miss A

(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.

On Friday, a Korean teacher I’d never met before came down to talk to me.  “You have my student’s cell phone,” she said.  “She would like to see you and apologize.  She’s very sorry.

“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.’”


Dark Hair? Yeah, We Got That


Backpack 4, one of the many books my school uses, begins with a unit on personal description.  Since I have 32 classes a week and little prep time, occasionally – gasp! – I don’t really look at the material I’m teaching ahead of time, and this was the case yesterday when an activity out of the textbook didn’t quite go as the curriculum makers probably imagined it would.

In the first activity from the book, there’s a big picture of four kids.  Backpack is all about cultural diversity, and so the children are named Juan, Jennifer, Young-mi, and Helmut.  However, the names are not in order, and the students have to match the name with the picture of the kid.  This would take some kids about two seconds, as obviously Young-mi is the Asian girl, Jennifer is the white one, Juan the Hispanic boy, and Helmut the crazy looking blonde kid.  Luckily, my class of South Korean children weren’t able to pick up on that, and so I got to play the CD.  They sat attentively, matching the names as the woman on the CD spoke:

“Helmut has blonde hair.  Jennifer has curly hair.  Young-mi has glasses.  Juan has dark hair.”

Based on the descriptions, the kids were able to tell who was who.  The next activity was when things went downhill.  The students were supposed to do a scavenger hunt of who in the class matched what description.  “Oh, I get it,” I said, looking at the activity for the first time, “this will be fun!  Let’s do it together!”

Number one read “Who has red hair?”  We all looked around the room.  “Okay,” I said.  “None of us have red hair.  So in that case, we write ‘No one has red hair.’”

Q2: Who has blonde hair?

A: No one has blonde hair.

Q3: Who has dark hair?

With this question, the trend that would follow for the rest of the activity was set.  I scratched the stubble on my face.  “This is sort of the opposite,” I said.  “Um, we can write ‘Everyone has dark hair.’”

It was dawning on me that this might not be the most effective lesson for a class of all Asian children.

Q4. Who has blue eyes?

A: No one has blue eyes.

Q5. Who has green eyes?

A: No one has green eyes.

Q6. Who has brown eyes?

A: Everyone has brown eyes.

I quickly read over the rest of the list.  Almost all of the traits were either common to everyone or completely absent.

Q7.  Who has curly hair?

A: No one has curly hair.

Q8.  Who has straight hair?

A: Everyone has straight hair.

And it went on like that.  We learned that nobody in the class has eyes that aren’t brown and hair that isn’t dark and straight.  By the end of the lesson, ‘Roy has glasses’ was the only sentence that didn’t start with ‘everyone’ or ‘no one.’  It kind of felt like the students were being generalized even though that obviously wasn’t the intention.  Everyone just turned out to have the same physical characteristics.  After the class was over, they all went to go eat noodles and practice tae kwon do (I kid the Asians).

I laughed while we did the class scavenger hunt.  Everyone was similar and that was kind of funny.  It made me a little thankful, though, that I got to go to school in a place where SOMEBODY had red hair or blue eyes.  Differences aren’t necessary, I guess, but they’re nice.

I’m sure Helmut, Juan, Jennifer and Young-mi would agree.




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.)


Peer Buddies


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.)


Deviants in the Classroom


“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.)


Grape Jelly Burger


During my first week as a middle-school teacher’s assistant, a student named Michael asked me if he could put grape jelly on his hamburger.  Michael was an overweight 8th grader with big glasses and a bad stutter.  He was one of nine students in the TMD class where I’d been hired to work.  In the world of special education, TMD stands for “Trainable Mentally Disabled.”  It’s one of those pleasantly demeaning spec ed terms, carefully avoiding things like the word “retardation,” and instead opting to refer to the students as “trainable.”

“Sure,” I told him.  “Why not?”  Putting jelly on his burger was odd, yes, but seemed harmless.  Then again, that could be because my personal tastes sometimes stray from the beaten path.  I smother French fries in mustard, and when I eat vanilla ice cream, I like to put Bacos on it (it’s a delicious treat).

From across the cafeteria table, Miss Tee saw what Michael was doing.  She rushed over and, in one quick motion, smacked him upside the head with the palm of her hand.

“What’s wrong with you?” she scolded.  “Putting grape jelly on a hamburger like a crazy person!”

Michael hung his head in shame.  He tried to stutter out an apology to Miss Tee.  Working with Michael for the good part of a year, I’d get used to hearing people call him “crazy.”  It happened on a daily basis.  Michael giggled and clapped his hands when he was happy, cried like a child when he was upset, and would slap and grab his classmates when he was angry with them.  Even those in the same boat as Michael – meaning his classmates – thought he was nuts.  “Man, Mr. P,” his classmate Jermaine said, “Michael sho’ is crazy.  Ask him how he got that scar on his arm.  Ask him!”

There was a long white scar twisting down Michael’s wrist and forearm.  About a year earlier, Michael’s father had left the car running in the driveway.  An opportunist, Michael hopped in the driver’s seat, put the car in drive, stepped on the gas, and proceeded to drive the car right into a tree.  He fell out of the car but, to his dismay, the car kept going.  Miserable from mistreatment, the car proceeded to maneuver itself over Michael’s arm and then, just to add further humiliation, ran itself into a neighbor’s house.  This left Michael’s parents with some large bills, and Michael with a big scar and a story he’d have to repeat a million times.  I heard the story a lot.  Every time Michael would finish telling it, the person he told would shake their head and say, “Boy, that Michael really is crazy.”

Of all the kids in Miss Tee’s class, Michael seemed the loneliest.  People don’t want to be friends with the “crazy” kid.  He was teased by the kids in the class, and when he’d walk down the halls and say hello to the other students in the school, they’d usually just pass by him in silence.

Michael and I sat at the last table in the school cafeteria during lunch.  We’d look out at all the other middle-school kids.  We saw the ones in all black, the ones with expensive clothes, the ones with their jeans sagged, the ones done up in nerd chic.  To them, being unique was a celebration; choosing to be different was part of their blooming identities.  When they passed by Michael, they didn’t understand how lonely it feels to be someone who truly is different.  For the vast majority of 14 year olds, it’s an exciting time discovering the small idiosyncrasies that separate them from the rest.  But while that majority finds peace with its quirks, the Michaels of the world are stuck with the confusion that comes with really being separate, the frustration of knowing exactly who they are.

I liked Michael.  He was who he was.  He was only a boy who stuttered, had a scar, and didn’t understand why grape jelly doesn’t go on a hamburger when, to him, it made all the sense in the world.

(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.  “Grape Jelly Burger” is Part Two.)