Alexandra. The weird girl.
I met Alexandra as a third grader. She was fat for a Korean kid. She was also obsessed with pink. So she was a fat Korean girl who always dressed in pink. I thought she looked and acted like Miss Piggy. No one in Korea knew who that was. But when I showed my co-teacher and her homeroom teacher a video of Miss Piggy they cracked up and agreed, Alexandra was just like Miss Piggy.
In addition to the pink, she also had a pudgy face and pig nose. Her voice was nasally, like sound originated somewhere between her throat and chest, then traveled up into her nasal passages and out through her nostrils. It was delightful.
All of the other kids in her grade knew she was weird. When I first met her she was in class 3-3, class 3 of third grade, which had two bad boys- the worst in her grade. One kid, Colton, was kind of bad, like you could sometimes bring him to the good side. But the other kid, Gabriel, was so bad a good day was when no one cried.
Colton had ADHD. He had trouble sitting still and focusing on classwork. Instead he often goofed off for attention, ripped paper and ate it, licked glue sticks, bothered other kids, and ran around the room. According to his homeroom teacher his mother didn’t know how to mother him, so she’d just let him do whatever he wanted. So Colton’s issue was a mix of needing a parent who knew how to handle him and getting his ADHD under control.
Gabriel, on the other hand, was a wreck. He was evil. He would bother the shit out of other kids. Not in a lighthearted, silly way like Colton would. He would torment and bully them until they cried. I kid you not- almost every single 3-3 English class the first half of my first semester there someone cried. He had a knack for knowing how to piss off people and get lots of negative attention. He shredded his English book, the pieces would be on the floor after class, so he couldn’t do any work even if he wanted.
Since Alexandra was weird, these boys loved to pick on her. They’d run up to her and pull her hair or pinch her, she’d scream, and then my co-teacher would get upset that she was being disruptive. She didn’t care about the details of what had happened, she just wanted Alexandra quiet.
Alexandra didn’t give up without a fight, though. Every time one of these boys would torment her she’d try to get my co-teacher’s attention. First she’d raise her hand. If that didn’t work, she’d call my co-teacher’s name. When that didn’t work, she’d get out of her seat, walk right up to her, and explain what was going on. I had to hand it to her, she was determined to get justice.
Where was I when all of this was happening? I was in the room, observing, trying to help. But the thing is, when these kids don’t speak English and you don’t speak their language, there’s a limit to what you can do with classroom management. You can’t have a discussion with them. At best you’ll rely on body language and simple common words and hope it works out. After that, you need to involve the co-teacher, a native speaker, especially when you’re dealing with complex, long term problems.
My co-teacher, though, was apprehensive when it came to discipline. She didn’t want to fuck them up. She was afraid that disciplining them would draw more attention to their bad behavior and egg them on further. She wanted to ignore it, hope they would stop and all the problems would go away. From my perspective, she was burying her head in the sand.
My biggest concern with how this class functioned revolved around Alexandra. She was the sorest subject of these two boys’ negative influence on the classroom environment. Everyone was victim to these boys, including us teachers, but Alexandra got hit the hardest because she was weird.
Being weird makes you a target. I love weird people. I’m weird myself. The last thing I’d want to do is encourage a weird kid to stop being weird. Being weird in Korea just isn’t allowed in most contexts because they value sticking to the straight and narrow path. This is especially true in school, so if I could offer a kid even a little reprieve from that- a place where they could just be- I’d feel I was doing something good for them. So I didn’t want to snap the weird out of Alexandra. Instead, I wanted to give her a space to be weird in English class, if that’s what she wanted to do.
Working with my co-teacher to pull this off was hard. She really didn’t want to pull out the big guns in terms of discipline. It felt too wrong to her. But she was open to reorganizing the seating. It was an indirect approach that didn’t call out any one kid- everyone would get a new seat and therefore everyone would be treated the same. I wanted to give Alexandra some space. 3-3 was a stressful class for her to be in with those boys, and I wanted coming to English class to be 40 minutes of peace from the drama she normally found herself in. I felt that if I could give Alexandra that, then maybe everyone else in the class could benefit too.
I decided to put Colton in the front of the room in the corner. That way he could easily pay attention but not be so close to other kids and random shit in the room to mess with. It also meant that if he ever needed to get up and move around, he had some empty space to do it. Plus he was right next to the door so he could slip out and make an ass of himself in the hallway, if he so pleased.
I put Alexandra on the opposite side of the room. She was in the back corner. She had no one in the seat right next to her, so she could stretch out. The kids who sat in front of her were mellow. Helpful if she needed it, but otherwise kept to themselves.
Gabriel I put in a solo desk, in the back, by himself. He needed to be away from other students for a while. He lost the privilege of being near classmates because he just couldn’t play nice. To bother people, he’d have to make a big, bold effort, which it turned out he wasn’t interested in doing.
It’s amazing what a simple seating arrangement can do. At first, Alexandra quietly sat back there and observed the room, taking it all in. She’d put her feet up on the empty seat next to her, sitting sideways, with her right arm over the back of her chair, looking up at the board. Sometimes she’d play with her pink pig pencil case. I didn’t care. She was relaxed, having some fun, and at times focused on class and learning. Then after a few weeks she started getting into class the full 40 minutes. She’d pay attention, follow along, write in her book, and she even started raising her hand! And getting answers right! She was coming into her own and into class so quickly in her new seat.
As we got into December it was getting cold outside. We had our first snowfall and the ground was freezing over. One day as I was walking back to the classroom from lunch, I noticed all the third graders were outside on the playground, playing on the ice. No adults were around (which is completely normal in South Korea, that kids play on their own, even at school during school hours). “They don’t bubble wrap their kids,” as one of my British friends put it.
So I’m walking by, kids are running and sliding on ice, giggling, playing, and Alexandra is on her own, sliding in her own weird way towards the edge of a huge patch of ice. She slips and falls. I then see Gabriel in the distance immediately yell something, then charge towards her. A group of boys follows. They run and slide to her. They surround her and start kicking her. Alexandra is on the ground, on the ice, surrounded by the boys of her grade, getting kicked from all sides. Like some Lord of the Flies shit.
I yell at them. They all flee and I can see Alexandra laying on the ice, crying. Gabriel then runs back for a few more kicks. I yell again and he runs away again. I go to Alexandra, as do a couple of girls in her class. We have a hard time getting her to sit up, then stand up. She wants to be left alone. I spend at least fifteen minutes trying to help her. Still no other adults around. Eventually she gets up and the two girls somehow tell me they will take her inside to their homeroom, I think.
I should have gone with them, but instead went to my room. About twenty minutes later the two girls came running to my room, asking if I knew where Alexandra was. They lost her and didn’t know where she went. I felt like shit for not sticking around. I didn’t know what to do or how to explain anything to the other teachers in Korean.
Eventually my co-teacher came back to the room and I told her what had happened. She called the homeroom teacher and headteacher to explain. They then held a meeting with Alexandra’s mother and the mothers of all the boys who kicked her. I wasn’t invited, but this is what was later relayed to me:
Alexandra’s mom spent the meeting apologizing for how weird her daughter is and kept saying she understands why the boys acted that way- because her daughter is strange. The boys were never punished. According to the school handbook, whenever there’s any kind of violence the abusers will have a long punishment, like lots of hard labor to do around the school for several weeks or months, depending on the situation. But nothing happened to these third grade boys because they lied to their mothers about how bad it was, and Alexandra’s mother accepted that her daughter will be tormented sometimes.
The head teacher told me she wanted to slap Alexandra’s mom across the face for putting her kid down like that and not sticking up for her. I couldn’t believe her mother’s wishes could override the terms of the school handbook. It was a disheartening outcome. That abusers can get away with abuse. That boys can get away with mistreating girls. That “normal” kids mean more than “weird” kids. That the feelings in a discussion weigh more than established protocol. These were not ways I was raised to think. These were not norms I was accustomed to living with. It was a way of thinking and operating I found hard to respect. It worried me what else Alexandra, and kids like her, endured for being different, and it scared me to think of the long, hard process it would take to truly carve out a free space for them.
Winter break rolled around a few weeks later. Alexandra and all the other kids had five weeks off from school. They came back to school for two weeks in February and started their new school year in early March. Alexandra was then in fourth grade and got placed in the best homeroom teacher’s class. She was still an oddball, but in no way a nuisance or embarrassment to anyone. If anything, she inadvertently provided comic relief in an otherwise serious, studious class, and we all welcomed her wholeheartedly.
Colton was in her class, too. He was also a changed kid, for the better. Apparently his teacher ripped his mom a new one, which improved her parenting. He was still goofy, but the big difference was that teachers could get through to him. He was sweet to work with.
Gabriel ended up in a different class. He remained disengaged, but he kept to himself. He was still a problem, just a different kind of problem. I never figured out how to work with him. He was so broken I don’t know if I ever would have.
It’s been four months since I’ve been in that classroom in Korea. I’ve had time to reflect on my experiences and what I can say is this: the classroom environment absolutely makes or breaks a student’s ability to learn- to see themselves in the space, to feel a part of the lesson, and to trust it enough to add to it. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to do everything in their power to create that welcoming environment. I hope I was able to do that for my students.