Korea has a special perspective on those born less fortunate than the majority. Be it physical or mental, the nation seems to regard disabilities, however severe, as little more than a minor affliction. As a result, disabled students aren’t always guaranteed to get the full care and consideration they need.
This is particularly noticeable here in rural Gyeongbuk. I, and many other teachers around rural areas, have become accustomed to teaching “special students” in our everyday classes.
Where I come from, disabled students have a special school and specialized teachers able to manage and care for them.
Here in County Bonghwa, these kids are thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim like all the others their age.
What’s that, you have ADHD? No worries, just sit at the back so we can’t hear you as much. Asperger’s? Don’t fret, you can sit under the desk for the class, just wait until the angry homeroom teacher comes in and boots the table out of your grip and drags you out screaming.
Oh, and how about you? Down Syndrome and approximately only half your brain is functioning? That’s okay, you can sit between the two smartest kids in the school, surely their influence will rub off and you’ll be acing tests in no time.
I’m not even exaggerating. I’ve witnessed all of the above, enough times to become numb to it. Though there was no time to become numb on the several occasions where I had to physically restrain Ju Hyeon from tearing into his classmates on account of his “emotional issues”.
After a few months of trying to adapt to this, I learnt that the only way to teach with these kids in the class, was to teach as if they weren’t there.
It’s harsh, it’s unfair and it’s not something I was comfortable with initially but anytime I tried to engage or coach these kids along, the lesson would come to a standstill and any efforts would be wasted as the kid would struggle to grasp anything while the rest of the class grew restless and began to run riot in the background. Indeed, there seems to be little sympathy for students with special needs and some may fall victim to bullying in school.
Once I was advised against giving the special kids special attention by a “co-teacher”, who incidentally had weaker English than most kids in the school. He interrupted my one-on-one with a timid little 6th grade boy, who wasn’t actually a disabled student, merely a slow learner.
I turned to face the co-teacher as he motioned with his phone and pointed for me to read it. He had used a Google Translate to tell me what he thought of my efforts – “Education of the feeble-minded”.
Looking back from the phone to him, I watched him scowl and shake his hand at the kid as if to tell me not to worry, that one is a lost cause.
So, if the slow learners are a lost cause, what becomes of the truly disabled students?
At my main school there are a few disabled students. The most well-known and most affected is a little boy by the name of 지수 (Ji Su).
Typically he is accompanied by one of two care teachers most of his day.
In the lunch hall as over 100 students run in and jostle for best seats on the long benches, gabbling joyfully with their besties and classmates, Ji Su is on the bench to the far left of the hall, where all the teachers sit. He munches his food happily as he is surrounded by able minds 40 years his senior while his classmates sit 20 yards away and already light years ahead of where his mind and social skills will ever be.
In class he’ll stroll in, sometimes late as he waits for his assistant Ms. Yeung Sook, his little potbelly puffed out as he babbles incoherently about where to sit.
The content of the class eludes him every day and yet when the game time arrives, his little hand shoots up relentlessly and I always hear his voice crying out to be picked.
I’ll entertain it now and then. He never says it right, yet he always gets a point.
Over the past year, my relationship with Ji Su took some twists and turns.
While still living in Bonghwa, I sometimes would see him on my walk to school in the mornings. It was in fact Ji Su that showed me the shortcut through the town to get to the school quicker, thus shaving down my morning walk and affording me five glorious extra minutes in bed.
He saw me leave the shop that frosty January morning, long before I saw him as I stuffed my face deep into my scarf and pounded forward on the pavement only to hear his little voice babbling behind me and feel a hand grab my jacket.
Turning to look down, I saw his eyes rolling back in his head. As he garbled, I followed his lead and let him guide me through alleys and side streets to the school door in record time.
He shot into my top 10 favorite students after that and when we met again another morning, he caught me going into the shop and followed me through the door.
Like a little puppy, he snapped and whimpered at my heels as he shook a box of candy under my nose. Taking pity on the kid, I decided to treat him under the promise that he didn’t tell everyone. Of course, this was all done with my poor Korean and confusing charades. Even as I was trying to communicate this to him I could see the look in his eyes that simply said,
“Okay, okay, I get it, now just hand the candy over!”
However, I cared not as I walked through the alleys with him, watching him going into an ecstatic state of delight as he filled his mouth with more sugar than anyone should have in a day. Little did I know then, it was actually an ecstatic state of convulsion as he was filling his mouth with more sugar than he should ever have in one week.
Barely two hours had passed that morning when my class was interrupted by Young Sook.
She arrived in a state, worryingly speaking to my co-teacher, who in turn translated to me.
Limited in her English, she whipped out the trusty translator and shoved it under my nose.
“Ji Su is diabetic”
I felt my heart drop into my gut as I remembered just how big that family-sized box of candy was.
As I stood there feeling horrible.
I hoped he hadn’t started the second box as my co-teacher typed another message in her phone and gave it back for me to read.
“He’s also retarded”
I looked her sympathetically and nodded.
“Yes, I knew that”
Somehow, I didn’t feel in the best position to champion the disabled student in that moment. I decided against pointing out the political incorrectness of her translation at that time.
Luckily the little trooper had not only survived long enough to rat me out but had only puked on himself once or twice. Certainly not enough to be taken to the hospital. To my relief, I entered the lunch hall to find him munching away between the teachers. I offered an apology for the manslaughter attempt but he didn’t seem to understand what had happened. I wouldn’t forget though.
Another few months passed and I had made the decision to stay for another year in Korea. One afternoon I was alone in my room prepping for my last class after lunch. Ji Su barreled through the door and babbled “hello teacher” in his native tongue. Replying in kind, I looked up to see him approach my desk with a half-opened candy in his grasp.
As he tried to grab some scissors to free the candy, I swiftly intervened and sequestered the sugary poison from his clutches, thus saving him from certain death.
At least that’s what I thought. The next few minutes were a tense standoff as I tried my charades to re-enact his near-death experience from last time before then resorting to my phone in an effort to translate. It was at this point that I learnt Ji Su barely understands Korean, let alone English.
Suddenly, he went into meltdown and grabbed his bag. He stormed out in floods of tears as his classmates arrived. The mass panic and confusion spread like wildfire through the class. Then it spread to the class and teacher in the adjacent room.
I frantically tried to explain to all or any of them that I was not the evil villain that Ji Su would have them believe. All the charades and Google Translate in the world drew little more than confused smiles as I stood there exasperated.
Ji Su ran off into the distant end of the corridor and vanished out of sight.
I retreated to my classroom and went through the motions of teaching, all the while wondering what had become of him.
About 10 minutes in, he marched back in with all the authority of a man about to open a can of whoop-ass. I stopped talking as the class felt silent, watching as Ji Su began poking me with a pudgy finger in the hip.
I looked down as he stared through red eyes, rubbed dry by clenched fists.
His jaw was tense and his teeth clenched. Sticking a hand out with an empty palm under my nose, he growled in his squeaky tone, “사탕 주세요” (sa-tang ju-se-yo)
I looked down at his terrifying face as I processed what he had said – “Candy please.”
He looked like the ‘please’ part had hurt him. His eyes rolled back in his head as his jaw tightened and he repeated the demand, shaking his open palm furiously.
By this time Ms. Yeung Sook had arrived and so after a quick game of Google Translate, I received a knowing smile and then, to my surprise, the green light.
As it turns out, I was the only one who cared that the diabetic, disabled student was freely munching on candy. As his eyes continue to roll, I decided to give in as apparently the other teachers in the school didn’t think the previous incident was of any concern. So, having being giving the blessing, I relinquished the sweet hostage to his vice-like grip.
After that class, Ji Su returned alive and well. However, I thought the friendship was gone as he grew quiet and withdrawn, even from the most fun games.
Perhaps he doesn’t forget everything, I thought.
Leaving the school one sunny evening near the end of term, I walked alongside Ms. Yeung Sook as we chatted through a broken, bilingual blend of bad grammar and polite laughter. Ji Su scuttled alongside her, babbling quietly as his eyes traced along the ground in front.
Reaching the end of the school playing field, we walked out on to the street just as my bus blazed past. I was would have to run some 300 metres across the bridge before the bus finished its short loop of the town, thus leaving me behind.
Ms. Yeung Sook pointed excitedly and motioned for me to go before I missed the bus. Nodding and saying goodbye, I turned away.
As I took off briskly, Ji Su seemed to realize what was going on and he sprung into life.
“빨리! 선생님, 빨리!” (Bal-li, sun-sing-nim, bal-li)
I looked back over my shoulder to see Ms. Yeung Sook laughing as Ji Su frantically continued to shout.
Hearing him yell ‘quickly, teacher, quickly!’ put a smile on my face and I took off running knowing he was my friend again.
Either that or just wanted me to feck off.