In the winter of 1970 I went to Korea, a country still recovering from a terrible war. The Peace Corps sent me there to teach English at a middle school in the central mountains, near
the DMZ (demilitarized zone), where a fragile armistice was not always honored. The winter was colder than what I had known, learning the language was difficult, and in those early months I was often ill. But the true challenge was witnessing a kind of cruelty that most Americans today would call child abuse. For my part, I had been raised in an Irish Catholic environment, so I was no stranger to corporal punishment; indeed, I had my own vivid experience, both at home and in school. But nothing prepared me for what I saw at my school in Chunchon, and I reached a moment when I doubted I could stay.
The students were all boys and ranged in age from eleven to fifteen, and while some were still small, even diminutive, others were gangly and tall for their age. There were sixty to seventy boys in each classroom, and the boys were as full of energy as boys in any country, and some of them were always getting in trouble. It was understood that in the fullness of time, all these boys would serve three years in the Korean Army . . . very likely on the front line a short bus ride from where they sat learning their lessons, so they might as well get ready for it now. The rules were strict, and the discipline was swift and harsh, and the boys were expected to take their punishment in stride.
The usual scene for these dramas was the teachers’ room, where the boys were brought for their punishment. We teachers all had our desks in this large room where our seating was assigned by seniority, with the vice principal and senior teachers at the head of the room, closer to the stove, and the younger teachers (and I was youngest) at the far end. Most of us would gather in the teachers room for the few minutes between class periods to warm ourselves briefly, have a quick cigarette, and take a look at the chalkboard for any new announcements. The teachers were almost all men and they, too, were Army veterans and had seen their share of discipline, both given and received. Everyone took it for granted, it was the nature of things . . . part of life.
Punishment for the first year boys was not very severe; typically teachers beat the little boys with a bamboo switch across the calves, and for certain infractions the boy was told to hold up his pants legs so the switch could smack on bare skin. Whatever the age of the boy, the punishment was preceded by the teacher berating the student, and while I was still new to the language and comprehended little of what I heard, the harsh tone echoed the scoldings of my own boyhood. For second and third year boys, the punishment was more severe. The teacher’s voice would rise in volume and grow in heat and pitch as he built up to the climax, and then his open hand would make a loud smack on the boy’s cheek, and this might be repeated for emphasis, depending on the nature of the infraction or the teacher’s mood. The boys were expected to take it stoically. Crying out — or worse yet, shedding tears — was considered bad form. I saw these scenes so often in the first months that it began to wear me down. The difficulty of adjusting to the harsh reality of my new life — the climate, language, diet and every circumstance so very different from my college life not many months before — was compounded by the near daily sight of this cruelty.
By late March, I was ready to quit and go back to America. It was springtime by most people’s reckoning, and the snow had melted on the steep hill behind the school where, I was told, the first forsythia buds would soon appear, but the wind still blew down from Manchuria and the air was bitterly cold. Was this part of my misery? Did the grim chill make that morning’s spectacle in the teachers room even more appalling than usual?
By then, some teachers could see that the sight of these beatings upset me and they tried to distract my attention, talking to me about some unrelated thing. One time a teacher even took the boy out to the hallway for punishment, out of my sight, but I could still hear what I could not see. In retrospect, my visible distress at these episodes very likely was seen as an implicit criticism, and even though I never spoke of this, some teachers may have resented what appeared to be my judgement of them. But in true conscience how could I say anything? How could I criticize a practice which had been part of my own childhood, when the only difference was degree?
One day I had no notion of what the boy had done to deserve his beating, but really, nothing could deserve it. He was a third year boy, what we would call a ninth grader or high school freshman, a big fellow who stood to attention and took his beating with a stoicism I’m certain I never possessed. His seeming indifference appeared to drive the teacher to strike with even more force. By now the others in the room were not watching the punishment and instead were looking at me. And then the teacher, between slaps, turned and looked directly at me, and I imagined him thinking, This is how we do this, this is our custom!
Hardly aware of my motions, I stood up and left my desk, went out into the hall and walked down to the exit leading to the outside stairway. I stood there on the landing, looking far away and down the hill to the valley below and the fields bare and dun, the rice paddies not yet planted this early in the year, and I thought, How long can I stay in this place? How long can I watch this? And then I thought, But where will I go? I don’t know how long I stayed there, looking away to the distance and imagining myself . . . where? Perhaps it was no more than a few minutes, and then I went back to the teachers room, where the atmosphere was now more subdued. That day, no one said anything and I never discussed this with any of them, but from then on, something was different. It was nothing I noticed at first, or even for a while. After all, how do we know something has changed if we don’t see it? The beatings did not stop, but they were certainly less frequent and perhaps even less severe, but the problem did not end, my misgivings never went away.
And yet I didn’t leave, I stayed. I made myself think of at least one thing I liked about my situation, and I realized that there were several positive things. Most people at school and in the town were kind, even solicitous of this stranger in their midst. Also, I admitted that the language, which was so difficult — indeed, one of the most difficult languages for a native speaker of English — was a severe but intriguing mental challenge, and I had formed friendships with a few of the teachers, men who were always ready to answer my questions, apparently because they thought the questions themselves were interesting. Aside from the English teachers, there was a Korean language and literature teacher who said that my questions gave him insights into his language that he had not considered before. So I decided to focus on things like this, and not long after, I realized that there were other things, too.
In long retrospect I can say that the sight of the boys’ suffering affected all my relations at school. The teachers with whom I formed friendships were the ones who never hurt a boy, while the cruelest disciplinarians were those to whom I showed what could best be described as polite reserve. I shared a workplace with those men, too, and kept up a pretense of amicable feeling, but I never forgot what I saw them do. And now, fifty years later, I still remember.
There were valuable lessons in all this. I learned to hold back my judgement in new situations, to question how much I knew or truly understood, and to ask myself, was my perspective any better? In the many months that followed, two years in all, I learned much more about the life experiences of my colleagues, especially their wartime suffering and personal loss, those terrible years of adversity which placed school time hardships in a wider, historical context.
I learned to push myself past the first doubts, to make myself succeed, to cope with the day’s circumstance, whatever it might be. As for the physical and mental difficulties I experienced in those years, they too had intrinsic value and served me well in years to come. Afterwards, and for the rest of my life, I never doubted my ability to do anything. Faced with any challenge or any new experience, a new environment, some task never before met, I could always tell myself, truthfully, I’ve done harder things than this.
And I have. Long ago, in a far away place and a harsh circumstance, I learned to stay.