Besides almost dying from cholera when I was one and getting my hand crushed by a large, steel door when I was three, the rest of my early childhood in Korea was mostly a time of innocence and fun. I do have that one memory where my mom is pumping breast milk for my sister into what seemed to me at the time a large basin, but I’m still not really sure what to make of that image, whether it traumatized me or simply surprised me. But other than that, it’s hard to recall anything remotely negative. All I see is a skinny, Korean boy playing in the stream trying to catch frogs and tadpoles; hiking and exploring the hillsides and woods (we visited the shigol [countryside] often); waiting around the corner, listening for the man with the pull cart to ring his bell so that I could buy and devour a newspaper cone full of bundaegi (roasted silk worm pupae), which, at the time, was by far the most delicious thing on the planet (today, I can’t go near the stuff); feeding cute, fluffy, yellow chicks with rice grains; throwing a hammer at my grandfather’s head; and running away from my three uncles after pouring a bucketful of soapy water into the well, our main source of drinking water (they had to empty the entire well and wait for the next rain to replenish the supply). Of course, I only remember bits and pieces, but from those fragments and the stories my folks share with me, it seems that I really was a rambunctious, happy, little kid who, unlike the current me, actually loved to dance.
When I turned four, my dad’s employer asked him to help expand the U.S. branch of the company. Seeing a great opportunity for their children, my folks decided to relocate permanently. But even after moving to America, things pretty much remained the same for me. I made a bunch of friends in our little apartment complex in Clifton, NJ. I remember several kids teaching me how to speak English, an older girl who let me feed and hold her teddy bear hamsters, and digging tunnels through piles of snow several feet high. My first year and a half in school (kindergarten and the beginning of first grade) only served to continue the fun. I had great teachers who always gushed about me to my parents, I got lots of stickers on my writing and spelling tests (which hung on the classroom walls with everyone else’s), and I liked all the kids in my classes.
All of this, however, came to an abrupt end when we moved to West Paterson, NJ in March of my first grade year. At the time, I didn’t expect anything to be different. I vaguely remember thinking that I’d miss my friends, but I was also really excited about the move. The apartment was a little bigger, we lived next to a large public swimming pool, and there were some awesome hills on which I could sled during the winter snows. There was also a large parking lot where I could ride my bike, an onsite playground, and a massive water tower which ended up being perfect for target practice as it made a satisfying, metallic gong when I would pelt it with rocks. Making new friends didn’t really cross my mind as a concern, and it didn’t end up being one. Little did I know that it would be an elderly, white woman who turned my world upside-down.
Mrs. Smith*, my first grade teacher at Charles Olbon Elementary School, didn’t look too different from my first grade teacher at Clifton’s elementary school. She was slightly plump, but not fat. She always wore her grey hair in a bun and often draped large, wool scarves over her shoulders. When addressing a student, she would tilt her head forward and peer over her reading glasses to make eye contact. Also, while Mrs. Smith looked elderly and refined, she seemed to have the energy of a rabid Rottweiler.** In my mind, this is an appropriate image as I came to believe she had a ruthless heart of stone.
In terms of my childhood, my parents share that watching me battle cholera was probably the hardest thing they’ve had to endure; the second was having to watch me go through the last quarter of first grade. (Tellingly, I was unable to find any pictures from that time of my life.) They say that I was always stressed out and that my personality and demeanor transformed dramatically. Instead of the lively, playful son they knew so well, they found in his stead a suddenly introverted, moody and depressed shell of a child. After the first week of having Mrs. Smith as a teacher, my mom tells me that I constantly complained about headaches and stomachaches, and that I never wanted to go to school. This was a disconcerting change because I loved going to school when we lived in Clifton.
Concerned, my parents met with the principal of the school to see what was going on. They say he was a really nice man, but he wasn’t acquainted enough with the details of my situation to know what was causing the precipitous drop in my performance at school as well as the drastic change in my behavior. He advised the best route would be to meet with the first grade teacher directly. And so they did.
During this parent teacher meeting, Mrs. Smith told my parents that I was definitely a child with special needs (not sure if they used that terminology back then), and that I probably had a major learning disability.*** Alarmed at this news and lost as to what they should do, they asked the principal if he could connect them to someone who could help. He recommended that they take me to an after school program that could more rigorously evaluate Mrs. Smith’s assessment. To their relief, this center found that not only did I not have a learning disability, but they could not find a single reason why the teacher would even come to that conclusion. Nevertheless, my mood persisted, and my fear of going to school only got worse. At this point, the principal recommended that they take me to see a child therapist to get to the bottom of all of this.
I actually have no recollection of going to the after school program or seeing this counselor. But my parents, who have impeccable memories, say that I revealed much to this therapist. I shared that I was scared of Mrs. Smith and that I was afraid that my mom was going to die because she was sick all the time. My mom said she was confused that I would say something like this about her, but I believe I know what happened.
One of the things my mom remembers clearly about the initial parent teacher meeting is that Mrs. Smith was extremely condescending when speaking to them (probably because of their broken English); she didn’t even try to hide her disdain. My mom shares that it was very evident that the teacher did not have a high view of “orientals.” And through other encounters with this woman, my mom says that Mrs. Smith most certainly was a racist.
Up to that point in my life, I had not experienced overt racism in any form. If I had, I wasn’t aware of it. So I didn’t have the experiential grid to process Mrs. Smith’s actions toward me. Of course, I had been disciplined before. I had been spanked. I even had my mom chase me around the apartment complex with a sizable wooden pole. But never had I experienced someone look at me with such utter contempt and heartless disgust as Mrs. Smith. I simply didn’t understand why she hated me so much, why she constantly put me on the spot, and why she treated me harshly all the time.
When I look back at that period in my life, all I see is this large, gaping black hole of perpetual fear. Fortunately, I seem to have blocked out most of the specifics concerning the innumerable negative experiences; however, the residue from those three months remains in my long term memory and looms like a dark cloud over my childhood. But I do have two distinct memories from that time. In fact, they are so clear and so emotionally potent, I believe they have been enormously formative in my personal and spiritual development. Even to this day, I still find my mind wandering back to these memories. It’s as if my memory was attacked by some fanged predator, and what remains are these two puncture wounds that have scarred over; when I feel them periodically, the trauma of that far off time comes immediately into focus, and I’m back in first grade reliving the nightmare again.
The first memory I have is of Mrs. Smith scolding me over two tests that I was supposed to get signed by my parents. I did not do very well on these tests. I think I failed them, actually, which is why she told me to get them signed. (I wonder if teachers still make kids do this? What about getting parents to sign the good ones, too?) Anyway, I didn’t get them signed. I was so stressed already because it seemed like Mrs. Smith was always on my case—I didn’t need to add my parents’ worry or anger to the pressure I was already feeling. Also, I really was scared for my mom. I thought if she found out that I was doing so poorly, she would get sick and die. I believe this is why I connected the two thoughts (fear of school and my sickly mom) when I was talking to the counselor—I believed if my mom knew the details of how badly I was doing, it might make her worse.
So I tried to copy my mom’s signature. Of course, a first grader doesn’t have the penmanship to pull off a convincing forgery. But I honestly thought I had done it successfully as the signatures looked fine to me. However, when Mrs. Smith called me up to her desk to show her the signed papers, she knew immediately. I remember her looking at the papers, then slowly lifting her head and gazing at me over her glasses.
She asked, “Who signed these papers?”
I replied, “My mom did.”
“No she didn’t. Tell me the truth. Who signed these papers?”
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t prepare for this scenario. The only thing that came to mind was what I was feeling at the time.
I stammered, “I signed them.”
“Because my mom was too tired to sign them.”
“Too tired? How could she be too tired to sign a couple papers?!”
I didn’t know what else to say. It was clear to me she wasn’t in a listening mood. It was also abundantly clear by this point in my relationship with her that she did not have a very high opinion of me. So I just stayed silent. Seeing my silence as stupidity or insolence, she got up from her desk, grabbed my arm, and dragged me down the stairs to one of the kindergarten rooms. She then forced me to sit in the corner until the end of the day.
I had already been crying from the moment she pulled me out of her room. But it wasn’t until she stormed out of the kindergarten room that I started sobbing. The tears made everything blurry and difficult to see; however, when I lifted my head, I could make out that there was a class going on in the room and that they were all looking at me. I felt embarrassed, but I couldn’t stop sobbing.
None of this made any sense to me. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. As I cried, I kept thinking, Why does Mrs. Smith hate me? Why doesn’t she believe me that my mom is tired and sick? Why is the world so different now? I want to go back to Clifton to my other teacher. The memory ends abruptly at this point.
The only other detailed memory I have of the first grade is walking home from school on the last day with a desk-full of papers. We were told to clean out our desks and to bring the contents home. I never once brought any of my papers home from school those three months because I had not done well on a single test, so I had a significant pile to carry up the road to our apartment. I considered throwing them out at school or somewhere on the way home, but I didn’t because I thought Mrs. Smith might find them somehow and show them to my parents. That’s how much I had come to fear her and how paranoid those months had made me. At that age, I truly believed Mrs. Smith could find me out almost anywhere – her stranglehold on me was complete. So I carried the papers up the mountain hoping I could hide them near home.
As I climbed up the road to the apartment, my mind felt fractured, and my spirit broken. That final walk home at the close of my first grade year was the culmination of my three-month racist encounter with Mrs. Smith. Every few steps, I’d think back to moments during the previous weeks, and I’d wonder what I did to make this person detest me so much. In fact, the papers weighing down my hands felt like a massive pile of hate. The more I thought about them, the more they kept screaming at me, You’re worthless. You’re stupid. I hate you. And the voice was that of Mrs. Smith. And the more I heard her unrelenting voice, the more I began to feel nothing. Numbness began washing over me, and by the time I reached my apartment, my heart had so completely shut down that I simply didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t even begin to conjure up the energy to devise a plan to hide the papers. I just wanted to stop thinking altogether because this new world that was thrust upon me didn’t make sense. I hated it. So, in protest, I threw the papers in some bushes next to the apartment.
When I opened the door, I saw my mom. She asked me about school. I grunted a reply, walked into my room, and closed the door. A few minutes later, she came into my room holding the papers in her hands. She looked at me with concern, and I didn’t feel a hint of judgment or condemnation from her. After a few moments, she calmly asked me what they were. I told her.
Now, in any other context, being told to get tests signed, sit in a corner, or bring my papers home wouldn’t have been a big deal; however, under the constant terror of Mrs. Smith’s racial agenda, they were incredibly traumatic.
I’m not sure what happened the summer after first grade. But when I went back to Charles Olbon for second grade, I remember being petrified. However, when my parents introduced me to my second grade teacher, all my anxieties melted away. She was young, tall and had jet black hair; most importantly, she exuded the care and warmness I remembered from the teachers back in Clifton. I went on to get straight A’s and B’s the rest of elementary school.
After Mrs. Smith, I learned quickly that there are many people like her in the world. And, unfortunately, one of those people is me. I don’t blame her as the person who placed the seed of racism in my heart. At one point or another, I would have encountered it and it would have grown in me as it does everybody. In fact, knowing the racism that dwells within has been pivotal for me in finding the power to forgive her. One person I trust believes Mrs. Smith was a part of the generation that experienced the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And while the reasoning would be quite ignorant as Koreans and Chinese were severely oppressed by the Japanese Empire, it could explain why Mrs. Smith hated me so much—I embodied the enemy that killed people she loved. Another possibility is that she hated me because so many American lives were lost in the Korean War, and so I embodied what should not have been. Or, she could simply have been a person who gave in to the tribalistic instinct that plagues us all. But regardless of the reason, treating a six year old the way she did is inexcusable. Forgivable, but inexcusable. As adults, we may think children don’t understand and that they forget, but they don’t. I hope and pray society progresses to a point where children do not have to be thrown into the world of racism by the ones who are entrusted for their care. I am not holding my breath, but this is not nearly as ambitious a wish as asking for a color blind world.
Personal memories have this peculiar, almost atemporal trait that allows them to be examined by a growing person at any point along the trajectory of their lives. I believe this is one of the reasons processing those memories is so important. They certainly will affect us and form us. The question is, will we do the hard, but necessary work to forgive or will we harden ourselves and perpetuate the cycle of hate? The fact that this question sounds like a rhetorical platitude is what scares me the most.
*Name has been changed.
**Of course, Rottweilers are great dogs, but I’m using the negative stereotype as a means of helping the reader imagine how I perceived Mrs. Smith at the young age of six. I tried to use other animals, but, for some reason, this one fit the bill perfectly on a visceral level. My apologies to owners of this typically excellent breed.
***I do not mean to cast children with special needs in a negative light. Many children have learning disabilities and require help, and I have the utmost respect for them. I have friends with children with special needs. Mrs. Smith, unfortunately, used them pejoratively.