There are no bad students, just students who received one too many doses of caesium-137 at birth. Chunsoga was one of these. His name has a far nicer meaning than sound; the mispronounced toneless Chinese characters governing the assemblage of his two personal Korean syllables, 천석, were probably 天石, Tiānshí, “Heavenstone”, and I only remember this ugly name at all—in a nation deprived of a euphonious nomenclature, a place seemingly victimized by J.R.R Tolkien—because this name was constantly being shouted at him, by me, by the otherwise unbearably nice Ms. Nam, and by whoever else happened to be sitting around him.
He would often while away his classtime by attempting to stab innocent bystanders with the enormous pairs of rusty meatcleavers, otherwise known as scissors, which Korean schoolchildren ostensibly use for cutting up papers, although their supple young sweaty limbs often offer far more tempting targets. He could neither read nor write English, and also had plenty of trouble with Korean, which was really an amazing feat of misfortune, as I can’t think of any children his age (the fifth grade) who were unable to write their own names. Even in America this would be cause for some concern, but although Chunsoga probably had a learning disability (the disability of being born into a poor family), and although he had fallen hopelessly behind his fellows, he was just passed along through a system which has little tolerance for those who cannot keep up.
Because he does not fit into his peg, the boy’s fate has already been decided, as a Delta-Minus Heavy Lifter, a miserable laborer of some sort, with little beyond the mindlessness of television to solace his rare hours of rest.
To my great chagrin, toward the end of my tenure at my illustrious elementary school, I was appointed to work with Chunsoga to better his English. Now I was not qualified to teach anything to begin with, having spent approximately zero seconds studying the art of education (beyond a few radical texts related to the no grades/no tests philosophy of Hampshire College, hardly applicable in test-crazy Korea), and I was even more unqualified to teach students with special needs. But teach him I did.
Twice a week for forty minutes I would sit down and do battle with the insurmountable laziness of Chunsoga, who resisted my tables of Korean and English letters and games and encouragement and despair with constant requests to go to the bathroom and get a drink. At best he would give me the bare minimum, and tonelessly repeat what I had said to him, not understanding, not remembering, not caring. I could only get him involved by encouraging him to compete with other unfortunate students, who occasionally joined us, but because they were not quite so unfortunate as Chunsoga, they quickly surpassed him, he no longer had any chance of victory, and so lost all interest. Every time we met it was as if we were meeting for the first time. It took weeks to get him to memorize the alphabet, which I believe he was still unable to recite by the time I finally escaped.
One of my evil co-teachers openly blamed me for his failure. But seriously, guys. I don’t know what else I could have done. Chunsoga was an unfortunate, misguided, nearly brainless child, but he wasn’t bad. If you got him away from the other kids he ceased all attempts to lash out; and in his defense the other children tormented him mercilessly, so of course I saw myself in him, having spent much of elementary school at the mercy of—how else to put it?—fucking shitheads. I wanted him to succeed. I wanted him to break through, somehow. If he could have gained the slightest confidence about his own intelligence, he might have been able to turn everything around. But the boy had no friends and probably no role models. I am fairly certain his parents worked around the clock. He wore the same filthy clothes every single day, for weeks on end, and they were always covered in all kinds of stains. After school ended I sometimes saw him walking around outside a nearby grocery store, his face smeared with ice cream. He would always say hello to me with a great deal of happiness and excitement. If I had been able to communicate with him in Korean, I might have inspired him…and as I think about things now I believe I should have gone to the nice co-teacher, Ms. Nam, and asked her to translate some sort of moving speech. But it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. Every last card was stacked against him.
He is still there now, slightly taller, enduring school as his school endures him, spending most of his life trying to get everything over with, a habit I doubt he will break until his difficult and unfair life is likewise gotten over with.