Every grade has one or two “problem students”: those kids rued and infamous for their misbehaviours. Even with those staff-members whose English is shakier, these kids are one subject that can be easily discussed. “You know Minho*?” another teacher asks. I nod – I know the kid, and I know exactly where this is going. “This student… has troubles. Always make bad. Homeroom teacher is very headache.”
One particular kid up for regular discussion is N. N. has always been a little louder, a little gruntier, and a little more aggressive than the other kids: I’ve just tried to consider it part of his charm. He knows maybe 20 English words, one of them being my name. I see him wandering around the neighbourhood with middle and high schoolers. The carry themselves in such a way I cannot describe other than with the word “skulk.” His actions in school are legend, passing through a giant chain of whispers as he stomps past. “Did you hear what he did?” the onlookers say.
Every grade six teacher knows about N. Every grade 5 teacher remembers him as though he was a natural disaster enacted upon our school for past sins, like a plague of locusts and swears. They are just relieved he is out of their hair.
I think I might be N.’s favourite teacher.
I’m not going to claim pedagogical genius here, or something. I’m not doing anything special, and I’m certainly not more involved in his life than any other teacher. He just really likes me for whatever reason, and listens to everything I say, even when he doesn’t understand a word of it. I… don’t really know why.
After I returned from my grandfather’s funeral, N. saw me walking into school. We were at the main entrance, in the depths of the morning influx of students, messily and noisily changing into their indoor slippers. He barreled through dozens of third graders to come to my side. He seemed, for a moment, deep in thought. “Uhh…. Grandmother!” he called, with due urgency. He couldn’t really think of the word, but I was still pretty touched by the show of support. Every time he saw me for the next two weeks, he would ask me, in English or Korean, if I was alright.
I told my coteacher about it. She looked at me, confused, like I had surely misspoken. She repeated his name, in case I had mistook him for another burly, angry kid. She squinted at me for a long time, wondering if this was some trickery of the English language, and what I actually meant was that he spat on the name of my ancestors. After a few moments to process, she told me, “I did not think [N.] was capable of these kind of emotions.”
But he is, although he apparently doesn’t often show them. I want to figure out how it is I have got this kid on my side, so I can bottle it and use it for every student I ever meet in the future. For now, I guess I’ll just enjoy the unearned loyalty.
*For the record, “Minho” is a pseudonym. It’s basically the Korean John Doe.