One of the things I find very difficult about my job is dealing with crying children.
I’ve never been particularly good at consoling wailing infants, and in the past have relied upon cuddles followed by uncomfortable “gimme a smile!” type remarks in a silly voice. However, it’s much more complicated than that when the crying child doesn’t understand enough English to be comforted by my platitudes. For example, at the sledding place the other week, I encountered a crying child at the top of the slope. She wasn’t from our school, but no one around seemed to be with her or paying attention to her, and as the nearest adult I felt kind of responsible for her.
Now, of course, I was having problems staying upright at the time thanks to the tightly-packed snow and my slippery soles, and I was standing there swaying slightly and trying to figure out how to move without going flying down the slope sans sled. Unfortunately, the little girl seemed to be having the same difficulty. I knew that my role as the competent adult was to pick her up and sling her across to less slippery land, and yet all I wanted was for someone to do the same for me.
It’s OK, love, don’t cry, I said in my most reassuring voice, repressing a squeal as I tried to lean towards her and lost control of my left foot. She looked at me and howled even more loudly. I don’t really blame her. What’s your name? I asked coaxingly, but it was clear that she didn’t speak English. I asked her in Korean, but my Korean is another language that most people don’t understand. So I was left with making my way towards her, slipping and sliding, and saying comforting things that I knew meant nothing to her – in fact, if she didn’t know English, it was probably even more frightening for her. Red-faced, unbalanced, babbling stranger 5 times her size, edging towards her, bit by bit. Poor child. In the end, I managed to pick her up and swing her across to a dry patch, at which point she stopped crying and ran away, and I promptly fell face first into the snow again.
At school, I tend to hand the criers over to their homeroom teachers, but sometimes they’re not around and I have to deal with the situation by myself. The first time I actually made a child cry, I cried myself, afterwards. It was one of the more badly-behaved boys, who had ignored several warnings and disrupted the class one too many times, directly disobeying me and laughing about it. Finally, I snapped and yelled at him to move to the other side of the class, away from his friends. He quickly sat down in his place and did the usual smirking that said “she won’t really make me move, I’ll pretend to be good and then I’ll mess around again as soon as she starts talking”, but this time I was firm and made it clear that he was to move. Which he did, eventually, in the manner of a scared puppy with its tail between its legs. And then he burst into tears.
I looked at him in horror. The hateful, disrespectful little brat of seconds before had suddenly transformed into a baby-faced sweetheart. Somebody’s little boy, somebody’s cherished baby. And I had made him cry. It was awful. And you know what’s even more awful than making a 5-year-old cry? When all his tiny little classmates proceed to crowd around him and put their arms around him and say comforting things you don’t understand, all the while shooting defensive and condemning looks at you, the monster. Oh, the guilt.
I couldn’t do anything. I let his classmates comfort him for a minute, and then I carried on with the class as if nothing was wrong. Within a few minutes, he was smiling and happy again, but the incident shook me. I remember being the child who blushed crimson if singled out by a teacher, and cried when shouted at, and had sleepless nights because of worrying about getting into trouble for some minor thing. Maybe this boy was the same. But then, of course, he wouldn’t be downright disobedient and disruptive, would he? Hmm.
It’s taking some time to adjust to how children see the world. The tiniest little things are huge to them, and I’ve seen kids cry because of problems so small that I never found out what they were. Sometimes a kid will just start crying in the middle of a class, and I have no idea what to do about it. A tissue, a hug, a “there, there”. One girl reminds me a little of me when I was her age – a quiet, shy girl with a thick fringe and glasses, she works hard and seems terrified of ever getting into trouble. Occasionally, I’ll hear sniffles and “Teacher! Lucy cry!”, and turn around to see her sitting there with a stricken expression on her face, staring straight ahead as if in panic, clutching her pencil as tears fall on to her open book and she does that shaky sobbing thing of someone who’s trying not to cry but can’t hold it back. I think it’s happening when she’s lost her place or doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to be doing. Instead of yelling “Teacher, help!” or “Teacher, what do?” like the rest of them do, she just works herself up into a state of panic and is incapable of doing anything. I’ve learned that by just talking to the class in a cheerful way to distract them, while stroking her hair for a minute or two, and then crouching down and quietly helping her with her work, I can make it all better, but it’s been a very stressful learning exercise!
Sometimes, the criers have me so confused that I even try finding out what’s going on by interrogating the other students, but often their efforts to explain in English leave me even more baffled. One of my elementary students told me last week that “Daisy cry because Justin… erm… sing… uh… backpack”. I just don’t know where I’m supposed to go with that.
I suppose it’s all part of the job. And I must confess that sometimes I simply ignore a crying child in the hope that they’ll just stop. Which they usually do. It’s just so much easier than having to try to talk things through without a shared language, y’know?! Bad Teacha…