Spend enough time in the education-themed daycare centers of this country, and you’ll end up with an indelible graffiti of weird experiences that blight the recesses of your memory. Other than serving as lifelong triggers for revolting shudders, their only value is in their dissemination, preferably in excruciatingly personal detail that makes the reader wince with that curious combination of empathy and schadenfreude so effortlessly provoked by tales of the Korean experience.
And so begins the tale of my second mildly gay middle school student. He was notably precocious, with a high IQ, bouts of depression, and a honed cynicism for the Korean education system that made him fun to talk to. He used to get weekly one-on-one speaking and writing practice with me, and so we spent a lot of time together over the course of a few months. The fact that he was nearly fluent in English made the classes a ton of fun.
It was after a few months had passed that I began to notice unwanted changes in my intelligent pupil. While guiding him through a persuasive essay on why Korean students should drop everything and join ISIS, which was a topic he and I sardonically brainstormed together, he began touching his leg against mine even though there was no reason to put his leg out that far. I reflexively pulled back and made nothing of it, but he kept close anyway. I forgot about it until the next week, when he got a bit bolder. That’s when I noticed an emerging pattern of unwanted kino from this kid.
That following week we were coming up with essay ideas for ways to help solve major problems in Korean society. We came up with the idea to convert the hagwon system from one that catered to an ever-decreasing demographic of youngsters to one aimed at the raucous geriatric community wreaking havoc on the streets of Korea. These would essentially be filial piety clinics where, well, we didn’t develop the idea any further because he suddenly put his hand on my leg and we stopped the brainstorming session right there. I joked that if she had seen that, my girlfriend would have killed him; then I stretched, looked over at the clock and told him we could take a 5-minute break. I barricaded myself in the teacher’s office for 8 minutes and then stood at the lectern and spoke to him from a distance for the rest of the class.
He was absent for family reasons the following week, which allowed for the awkwardness to die down. The week he returned, we went over ideas for easier jobs cardboard collectors could do to make a little money and keep off the streets with their bulky handcarts. He mentioned cleaning all the vomit on the sidewalks and then I added that old people could walk around with a bag of bird feed and drop a handful of feed onto each pile of puke to coax more birds there. This would cause the pile to get eaten up by flying rats in record time. As we began stringing this idea into an organized essay, he again leaned his leg against mine and then asked me out of the blue if he could hold my hand while we worked.
And that’s where I drew—no, fracked—a line in the sand.
I asked him why on Earth he would want to hold my hand but he stonewalled and again asked if he could hold it. He wasn’t giving in. The kid, in his early teens, was being clear that he really, really wanted this. That’s when I told him flat-out “No” and that that was simply not going to happen. He was surprised by my response and said I was overreacting, but by then I had given him enough plausible deniability and so felt justified in switching to light male-on-male gay shaming, which did the trick temporarily but not permanently.
It’s useless experiences like this that are forever squatting in the ghettoized hell holes of my increasingly perforated memory. With the way memory loss works in this cuel, cruel world, I’ll probably forget my own future children’s names before I forget the time a mildly gay middle school student insisted on holding my hand during class.