Lighters, Pins, and Razors (My Second Year in Korea)

This is a true story. I wrote it while teaching in S. Korea.

Yes, the title of this essay is “Lighters, Pins, and Razors.” You say, “What kind of a title is that for a teaching essay?” Well, I’ll tell you. I am describing the kinds of things I have had to take away from students in my classes. The title of the essay well could have been, “The Stick and the Candy!” And again you ask, “What kind of title is that?” Now, I am describing the way I have had to handle the kids at my school. —-Me, the lady who used to hardly ever speak above a whisper, who grew up very shy, who considers herself 100% Christian, and tries to teach everyone to love one another, I had to learn to hit my students with a stick! I was so angry that I was forced into it, but I did it because I knew I had to do the right thing. Last year, I was upset when I saw teachers hitting students with sticks, but I had no choice but to join them this year, and this is how it happened.

I was sent to the country to a private middle school. I was a little suspicious when I heard the English teacher before me had only stayed six months, and then left, but I went anyway hoping for the best. I didn’t know, and EPIK (A government program in Korea that sends English teachers all over the country: English Program in Korea) didn’t know either, what kinds of students were at this school. The teachers in town knew because when I told them (the teachers from my yoga group from other schools) what happened, they weren’t surprised. They said the boys from the inner city are sent to the school in the country because they are so bad, or for some reason, they can’t learn. But, I am an English teacher; I came to Korea to teach English, not to get neglectful parent’s kids under control, or teach Special Education. I am also a very dedicated teacher, a Christian who tries to keep God in every compartment of her life, who tries very hard to do the right thing, so I was forced into doing the right thing in a way I didn’t want to.

There are students who can’t read in Korean in my classes, much less in English. They are 13-16 years old and have been in English classes since they were nine. A few can speak English because the actually want to; the rest can’t. The few that can are put in the Advanced English class, and the rest are in the regular class. I have no Korean teacher in the classroom with me. (The law said that a Korean teacher had to be in the classroom with me to keep the kids under control, but my Korean English teacher was afraid of the students and spent his time sitting in the teacher’s room too afraid to go to class.) In the Advanced class, we put on a play for the festival. It was a lot of extra work, but I did it. I wrote the play because everything I found was just too hard for them. They did a fair job.

In the other classes, they have been a disaster. In the younger classes, I couldn’t understand why they had such trouble doing anything. In the older classes, the big boys were just out of control. The girls told me the teacher before me just taught the girls and ignored the boys, but I refused to do that. EPIK told me the Korean English teacher should handle the discipline, but he refused. I was in a real dilemma because the big bad boys were ruling the school. When I told the Korean English teacher about the things they did, he would say, “Yes, we have many bad boys in this school,” and just go back to sleep or back to typing. I asked to have the classes broken up into smaller groups so I could control the boys better, but no one listened. I offered free English Reading lessons in my free time thinking maybe they made trouble because they couldn’t read in English. The younger kids took advantage of the free lessons, but the older ones ignored me.

I was forced into spanking them with a stick.

The big boys were still out of control. I always sing and play games with the students. I do anything I can do to make it interesting, but it just wasn’t enough. I saw the other woman teacher carrying a stick with her. I decided that was the thing to do. I would carry a stick, but just scare them, and not hit anyone because I don’t hit. If they did the wrong thing, I hit their desk hard scaring them. It worked for a few classes, but the big boys eventually figured out I wouldn’t hit anyone. They would walk around the class, play games, sit in one another’s laps, take their socks and shoes off, flirt with the girls, etc. during the lesson just like I wasn’t there. I had been standing them in the back of the class with their hands up because it worked in my school last year, but they would escape as soon as my back was turned. (In Korea, they don’t sit them in the corner if they are bad, but make the offending student stand at the back of the class during the lesson with their hands up, and their arms really begin aching.) I would take things away and put them on my desk, but as soon as my back was turned, they took them back. Just carrying the stick didn’t work. I heard the Korean teachers talking about me. They didn’t realize that I understood Korean. They were saying I was just like the other teacher, and I wouldn’t do anything about the big boys. I learned that out of class, but still at school, these big boys were drinking Soju (a Korean hard liquor), beating the younger kids up, and smoking. They are only sixteen years old (but still they were bigger and stronger than I was.) I knew I had to do something, so I bit the bullet and began hitting them. I was so angry that I was forced into hitting them! The American Indian (me) went on the war path, and the big, bad boys had no where to hide. I hit, and hit, and hit, putting them in their places. I emailed EPIK in Seoul and told them what happened. I prayed to God. I sought advice everywhere.

Besides protecting the little kids, I was trying to prevent this.

The next class, I wrote them a letter entitled, “Why did I hit you?” I let the advanced English class use it as a class project and translate it and type it in Korean for me. I explained that I didn’t want to see them sleeping in the street or starving when they were grown, but I wanted them to have good jobs. I gave a big long list of rules. (The Advanced English class was amazed that I had to make those rules, but the rules were there because the boys had done so many crazy things.) I ended the letter telling them that if they did the right thing, they would get candy, if not, the stick. I gave each of them a copy, and I let one boy read it in Korean to the class in case they didn’t or couldn’t read it to make sure everyone knew what was there.

Photo by Alex Nasto on Pexels.com

The next class began okay. I had them raising their hands if they wanted to talk. Then, I found one boy playing with a lighter. I asked for it, and he threw it in the floor and put his foot on it. I hit his leg with the stick until he moved his leg and I could pick up the lighter. I put the lighter in a box on my desk. At the end of class, all the “good” kids got a piece of candy. I found after class that someone had taken the lighter out of the box on my desk. I told the Korean English teacher, and he could care less, so I went back to the boy and demanded the lighter. He insisted he didn’t have it, so I told him he wouldn’t be playing drums in chapel any more until he found the lighter and gave it to me. The next day, he was on the stage ready to play the drums. I told him to get down or give me the lighter. (By the way, speak Korean, and all this was in Korean.) He said, “It’s in the classroom. can’t now.” I said, “Then, get down.” He then called his friend and had his friend fish the lighter out of his pocket and give t to me.

The next class period began well. The Korean teachers were curious, and peeking through the windows. The students were quiet and raising their hands if they wanted to speak. The Korean teachers were amazed at the students raising their hands, and then went away. I walked to the back of the class and saw a boy with his arm cut up putting medicine on his arm. I thought that maybe he had gotten into briars or something. I heard some whispers about tattoos and made the boys be quiet. I walked to the front of the class and back again. One boy had a lighter. Two others had several razor blades and were cutting their arms like the first one. Another had a pin sticking himself. Another was drawing pictures. Another had lead from a pencil. It looked to me like they were planning on giving themselves prison tattoos in my class, or possibly they were all just crazy for cutting their arms. I took everything away. I put everything in my pocket so they wouldn’t take it off my desk. After class, I gave the “good” students candy, and I dumped the razor blades and lighters in the middle of the teachers’ room for them to see what the students were up to. They asked, “Did you hit them?” I could say I did. At lunch, I grabbed one of the boy’s arms and showed the woman teacher because she seemed to care the most. I exposed them.

That afternoon, a girl approached me and told me she was the girlfriend of the boy who cut his arm up. She said, “Thank you. I love you,” and gave me a hug. A group of hard to teach kids, the big boys among them, came to my desk in the teacher’s room and asked to play with an English game I had made. They sat at my feet playing the game, then began memorizing ten vocabulary words at a time for a piece of candy. The principal came in and said he wanted the students to put my play on again for important people coming to the school in two weeks. A big, hard to teach boy brought me a can of grape juice. The big boy who had stared in the play came and drew me a picture of a car and gave it to me, and said, “I love you.” A teacher came to me and said I had taught a boy to read in English who couldn’t read in Korean. Students were coming one at a time and in groups telling me they loved me for what I had done. The teacher were all trying to show me how much they appreciated me. They hired a photographer to follow me around and take pictures. When I left the school that afternoon, the students were hollering after me, “I love you! I love you!” It was hard to do the right thing, but I did it, and I will continue. It may be difficult to deal with the big boys, but I am not going to let them rule the school. I will do the right thing!


Not long after this, I got offered a job to teach at Korea Christian University. That school had shot my nerves, and I wanted to be around more Christians, so I took a cut in pay to be with older students and around Christians at Korea Christian University. I received an award from the governor of Chungnam Province because he heard what I had done at the school. I got a letter from the next foreign English teacher at that school thanking me for what I had done because he felt like he walked into a perfect situation because the students were so under control and learning so well and they had explained to him what happened. Korea Christian University needed me because someone saw that award n my office and stole it. I began Bible studies in my office, and there were at times, thirteen students there studying the Bible with me. I was even invited to teach Bible to a group of the people on the board of Korea Christian University. Sometimes, I went back and visited Seosan, the city where that school was, and I often ran into my students from that school, and they were always glad to see me.

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