And so this is Christmas…

I first noticed Hanna when the first grade teacher made her stand in the back of the classroom for the entire 40 minute English lesson. It’s frustrating when they do that, as it is the only English class they get all week, and their only chance to speak a few words with me. Making students stand in the back, usually with their backs to the class, is a popular punishment.
The next class, there she was again. I noticed she was wearing the same ugly brown pants and brown shirt, and her hair was lank and uncombed; unusual, as most Korean children seem very well cared for, and the girls love their Hello Kitty gear.
But Hanna had none of those accoutrements of a girly childhood. After she had been standing for nearly half the class I asked the teacher how long she was supposed to stand there, and the teacher replied, “Only one minute.” I pointed out it had already been 20, and the teacher relented and told her to sit down. Her “crime” was probably fidgeting, or talking, in other words, acting like the 7-year-old child that she is.
That day the teacher let Hanna sit with us at lunch, and that’s when everything changed for me. This tiny child matter-of-factly pulled up her sleeve to reveal a series of five large bruises running from her wrist to her elbow. It was then I noticed that what I thought were smudges on her face were bruises. She chattered at the teacher for a few minutes, while the teacher just listened and nodded. I asked the teacher what she had said, and she related that Hanna lived with her grandmother, who was “very sick,” and that her grandmother sometimes got very angry and beat Hanna with a stick – but that afterwards she was always sorry. I was stunned.

Now I certainly know that children are abused, beaten, neglected and worse every day, all over the world, but somehow I felt this one was personal. Perhaps it was the fact that she was so stoic about it that broke my heart, but I felt a strong desire to protect this child. And so, I tried to find out what was being done for her, and what could be done. What I found was not heartening. After school I went to talk with the teacher, whose English skills fade in and out like a bad radio, and she told me that Hanna’s parents had divorced when Hanna was two, left her with her mother’s mother, and hadn’t seen her since. So number one, she is abandoned by her parents. And number two, granny’s “illness” is a mental disorder. So this little girl is living with her crazy granny, who is so poor the village built her a house last year, ala Habitat for Humanity.

The teacher said the school and authorities were aware of the situation and were “monitoring” it, but that Hanna did not want to leave her grandmother, and that “it wasn’t as bad as last year.” And so I learned the ugly truth about the Korean child welfare system. Under Confucian principles, the family is paramount. Keeping Hanna with her grandmother was the number one choice, as long as she was clinging to life. Basically the only way they can be parted is if Granny dies, or is committed to a mental hospital.

Even if Hanna were taken away, the alternatives are not great. There is no foster family structure in Korea. In the rare instance when children are taken away from the family, they are put in an institution, like an orphanage. In some cases it is an orphanage. So which is the better of the bad choices – leaving her to live with the only family she has, and loves, although it means being neglected and beaten, or living with strangers in a cold institution?

So that’s where we left it for several weeks. I decided to make friends with her and watch for signs of abuse, and make sure they were reported. Every week she sat by me in the lunchroom, and I gave her and her friends cookies at the end of their meal. Every time, she would hold the cookie carefully in one hand while she finished eating, then carry it back to class with her. She waved it in her hand while she skipped down the hall. I imagined she was enjoying the envy of her classmates – for once.

Then three weeks ago when I made my classroom appearance, I nearly cried. She had a large bruise across her little nose, with black creeping under one eye. A large scratch on her neck showed above the flowered kerchief she often wore. Now I knew why she wore it. She had been beaten again. At lunch she pulled up her sleeve again to show another march of bruises inflicted on her thin arms. I imagined the stick hitting her arms as she tried to ward off the blows and protect her head. The teacher said Hanna had been late getting home from a birthday party on Saturday, and Granny, in her concern, beat her.

Corporal punishment has only recently been banned in schools in Korea, and parents are free to beat their children – and wives – as they feel is necessary for discipline, but beating a 7-year-old for coming home late from a birthday party? That’s just abuse.

This time I flipped out and started emailing and calling anyone that I thought could help. In the end a social worker came to the school and talked with Hanna and the teacher, and took pictures of the abuse. She also told the school that the foreign teacher was very concerned and was thinking of calling the police. Apparently this got their attention and that’s why the social worker was called in. I was informed of this later, but the person just repeated what I had heard before: they were monitoring the situation. I pointed out that they were not going to be monitoring when Granny hits her too hard and kills her. I’m sorry, I know this is not easy reading, so thank you for reading this far.

To her credit, the teacher sat down with me last week to tell me everything they had been doing for Hanna, including giving her baths at school and providing free lunches. The teacher has even bought her clothes, most of which Granny refused to let her keep. She asked me what I thought should be done, and I told her Hanna needed to be taken out of that house. I suggested that she could live in the group home but still visit her grandmother on weekends, but that didn’t even seem to sink in.

Then I asked if I could take Hanna out on the weekends, to give Granny a break and let Hanna have some fun. It would also give me a chance to take her clothes shopping! The teacher thought that was a great idea, and said she would ask granny. I was so excited I even asked a bright 5th grader girl at my other school is she could join us to act as translator. She was thrilled to be asked.

Unfortunately, the next Monday I was told that Granny not only said no to the outing idea, she said “never.” Or however you say it in Korean, but “never” is what the teacher related. Hanna was to go to school and come straight home. Period. My heart sank. Plan B, I asked if I could buy Hanna some warm clothes and things that she could keep at school. Remember, Korean classrooms are COLD. It can be below freezing outside and the teachers will open the windows for “fresh air.” The kids cope by wearing full outdoor clothing – hats, scarves and bulky coats – in class. Except for Hanna, who wore only long-sleeved t-shirts and plastic shoes, often with no socks.

So, last weekend, with Christmas approaching, I went shopping for Hanna. I ran into one friend in a local department store, and when I told her about my mission she opened her wallet and insisted on contributing to the “Help Hanna” fund. In the end I got her a stocking cap and muffler set, a pair of pink, fluffy Hello Kitty slippers for school, a quilted pink sweater with a rabbit fur collar and big white polka dots, a new pencil case, crayons and a coloring book. Before I gave her the bag of goodies, I ceremoniously presented her with a card that said she  had been chosen as the “Christmas Child of 2008” by the “Waygook English Teachers Association (WETA) of Jeju.” There is of course no such group, but if there was she would definitely have been chosen. My plan was that the designation would make it not seem like “charity” in case Granny found out.

When I gave her the gifts last Monday after school it was bitterly cold and snowing. We put the hat and scarf on her, then the sweater. Her smile just kept getting bigger and bigger as she saw more things in the bag. The teacher said she really liked the coloring book. Although she can hardly speak English, she gave out a very clear “thank you.” My eyes were not dry. The teacher barely got the sweater zipped up before she was running out the door to show her friends. You have probably looked at the photo by now, so you can see how adorable she is. Even without being a special case, she is just an exceptionally beautiful child.

An hour later the teacher emailed me the photo and said she had called Granny to tell her about Hanna being “selected” by the foreign teachers’ association, and that Granny had been “thankful.” While I was hoping Hanna could avoid any potential conflict by leaving the gifts at school — the last thing I wanted was for her to be punished for my actions – I doubt if she was willing to leave her warm and colorful new clothes at school after all.

That was last Monday, and now we are on winter break for six weeks. I hope and pray that lovely little Hanna will be safe during that time. That’s all I want for Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all my family and friends back home. I wish I were there with you.


4 responses to “And so this is Christmas…

  1. What an amazing story…sad, happy, sad, sad… but maybe hopeful? Let me know what I can do to help. There’s no reason why you can’t make the WETA of Jeju “real”………..let’s do it. And then do more…..count me in.

  2. I agree, the story is just astounding…the situation even worse. The abuse that goes on behind closed doors here in Korea can make anyone think twice about how “life” here really compares with back home. What’s even more annoying is the lack of a network or institution that can really fix or resolve these situations. You did the best you could considering, and I applaud you for it. This idea of WETA sounds very promising too…

  3. I couldn’t read this story with dry eyes. Any case of child neglect and abuse, in any country, is devastating. I admire the way that you approached and handled this situation, and especially for your bigheartedness toward her. I was attached to my students from the beginning, and so I can’t imagine any of them being treated like this and if I ever found out they were…I certainly wouldn’t keep quiet about it! So I understand your actions, and your story is definitely an inspiration for anyone to take action in any situation in which something grossly wrong should be stopped.

  4. Thank you for posting this story. Sad as it may be, I am glad to see teachers like you taking such an interest in their students.

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