It’s midway through the week. As I enter our cubicle he’s blasting heartfelt opera and whistling along with the accuracy of a Disney songbird. Standing barely more than 5 feet tall, he pops his head just above the divider with a cheerful “good mawning” and a deep, whimsical laugh. His eyes simultaneously hold the wisdom of an aged wizard and the shiny joy of a youthful sprite. But don’t be fooled, within seconds the stick of order and the booming voice of justice will emerge. Meet Mr. Kim, the disciplinarian.
My desk just happens to be the center stage for all the comings and goings of disciplinary action. On a daily basis I witness my middle school students being punished and scolded in a variety of ways. And each day I am left even more confused. True, the language barrier leaves big gaps in the story, but a slap on the head or whack with the stick needs little to no translation.
To be clear, my school is a somewhat private middle school that has strict dress codes. The students all wear uniforms and the girls cannot have nail polish, make up, or curly hair (what?!), while the boys must maintain a certain bowl cut that is neither too long nor too short. Within the past week alone I witnessed a girl’s face being forcefully scrubbed to rid herself of make up, a boy planking face down on arms and legs in the hall for who knows what, and another girl wiping away tears as her hair was clutched and gestured at.
To my Western teacher trained eyes, where we’re taught to overly pamper and not lay even a finger on students, these scenes are horrifying. But here’s the rub- half of the time the students are laughing. I have witnessed them smiling as they are yelled at, giggling as their hair is balled in a fist, or receiving a slap to the face with a bracing cringe and a knowing laugh. It’s as if they know the error of their ways and accept their punishment. But does that stop them from doing it again? Nine times out of ten, no. Do they actually have respect for the rules and or the teacher? Debatable. They take their beating and go on with their lives, rather than understanding why what they did was wrong. There’s not enough time or space for emotions or feelings talk here, so a slap on the wrist, or head…or face….seems to be the simplest solution.
But as far as middle schools go, I have to say that this one is a fairly well oiled machine. I have yet to witness a fight (although I’m sure it happens), and attendance is high while drama is relatively low. Meanwhile I’m breaking up weekly fights, attempted pencil stabbings, and stopping children from running on tables or jumping out windows at my elementary school…but that’s another story.
I’ve learned in my time here that Korea (as with many countries in this day and age) is a place full of contradictions. But whacking a laughing, cringing child is a contradiction that continues to confuse me.