sometimes, help is not helping

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Last month, we had about 100 new students enroll into the program I teach, making things a bit hectic, compared to the past few months. Most of them are first graders, and have had little exposure to English, making teaching English quite a challenge.

Actually, the language barrier is only a small part of it. A bigger issue is that I’m teaching in a rather upper-class neighborhood and some of the students are a little too spoiled for their own good! In the last few years, I’ve had my share of spoiled students but with the personal perspective of a parent that I’ve acquired this year, I see it a bit differently, now. I look at some of the more difficult students and wonder how much is personality and how much their parents have to do with it.

At eleven months old, Fina is already proving to be a force. Yesterday, I actually wondered how much insight into suffering Siddhattha gained by observing his own child (before I looked online to read that he possibly left before his son was born). Fina will go berserk wanting what is in someone else’s hands, but once she gets it, she’ll look it over a bit, toss it, and start reaching for what ever else another person has. Suffering caused by dissatisfaction with what one has and craving what one doesn’t have definitely comes to mind! I try my best not to give in to her, but do find myself caving at a certain point. I realize that how we react to her now is setting the foundation of our relationship as child and parents and also her relationship with others as she grows. It actually gets rather intimidating to think about it too much, but I want to do my best as a father to respond to her compassionately. By that, I don’t necessarily mean giving her what she wants, but more trying to see what is really best.

Considering he wasn’t around, some might question what kind of a father Siddhattha was. But his absence was for the benefit of all beings and, ultimately, he did return and ordained his son as the first novice monk. It is said that when he heard of his son’s birth, his words were, “Rāhu jāto, bandhanam jātam” — “A rāhu is born, a fetter has arisen.”  He named his son Rahula, which, according to my friend Joe’s more colloquial translation, could be taken as “pain in the ass”. What he saw was how the child could be a potential restraint to his and the child’s mother’s liberation, shackling them to Samsara. Siddhattha had already decided his renunciation before Rahula was born, and the arrival of the child made his renunciation that much more difficult. When he return seven years later, Rahula was urged by his mother to ask his father for his inheritance. Knowing full well that what was being asked for was the palace, riches, and rule of the land, the Buddha pondered his son’s request, “He desires his father’s inheritance, but it is wrought with troubles. I shall give him the benefit of my spiritual Enlightenment and make him an owner of a transcendental inheritance.” Soon the boy was ordain as a monk. The teaching that Buddha gave his son was to place truth as the highest value.

There are two students and their mothers in particular who have left impressions on me. The first is an eight year old boy, big for his age, whose mother accompanies to school every day. She brings him into class to tell him where to sit, she opens his bag for him to take out his books, she opens his pencil-case and takes out his pencil and eraser. She stands outside the classroom and watches him through the window. When class is almost finished, she comes in, packs his bag, and waits outside with his school bag until I tell the students they can go. The boy is mentally incapable of doing things for himself. While the other students are doing their work, he hasn’t opened his book. If I ask him to open his book, he cries. In nearly every class, he will get into a fist fight with the other students. He even clobbered the only girl in the class over the head because she sat down next to him. As I separated them, some of the other boys got upset at him for hitting her, at which point his mother came into my class and started yelling at the students not to pick on her son. She came into my classroom three times that day. In the five years that I’ve taught, I’ve become used to parents looking through the window, but she is the first mother I’ve ever had who came into my class, even without knocking. I spoke to the my Korean partner about the situation to see what I should do. She said she would speak to the mother the next day and see what the situation was. While they were talking, her son again clobbered a boy over the head who retaliated by biting him on the arm. The mother didn’t say a word to her son, but again yelled at the boy who’d just been clocked on the head. My co-worker told me that later in class he began to cry. When she asked him what was wrong, he replied that his mother hadn’t taken his pencil out for him. That was Friday, and today he didn’t come to class. We aren’t sure whether he will come back at all. Admittedly, a part of me would be relived if he didn’t but at the same I hope for his sake that he will emerge from this well.

In contrast, on alternating days, I have another eight year old student, a bright-eyed, smiling girl who is in a wheelchair. Her mother helps her out of her chair, and holding her beneath her armpits, lets her shuffle her feet along the way to her desk. She chooses a desk for her, but only because she would like her to be seated somewhere between two other students in case she falls over. She opens her school bag for her, but has her classroom books and pencil in a folder with a zipper which she lets her daughter struggle a little to unzip. She’s come into my classroom once, because her daughter needed to go to the bathroom. She’ll peek through the window from time to time but, mostly, I see her around the corner sitting with a book. Watching her mother help her, sometimes by not helping at all, and seeing her so willing to struggle fills me with a deep respect for both. She has trouble controlling her hands to write well, but by no means does she want me to help her. She’ll push my hand away if I try, telling me, “No, teacher.” So, instead, I told her that her G’s were a bit too messy and asked her to write them again. She smiled as I traced a G with my finger, and did her best to redo her work. At the end of class, as her mom helped her back into her wheelchair, I told her in English and then in Korean that I’m very happy that she is my student. I was saying it as much to her mom as I was to her. I realize that I should be just as grateful to the other boy and his mother for what they’ve taught me, but it’s a little more awkward to express, somehow. Perhaps best kept to myself…

8 responses »

  1. I love that story…. “a fetter has arisen!” Ain’t that the truth… LOL.

    Wow, had I not been in Korea, I’d never believe that story about the boy and the mom. Korea fills you with stories that when you tell them later on, you can hardly believe your own ears! You’re very patient to put up with that mom.

  2. I remember having the same experience when my daughter was in her first two years. A child’s grasping mind is direct and simple, so everyone can observe it. Later, of course, it becomes more subtle. How many of us can observe the same behaviors in ourselves.

    I also remember the broken hope within me that my daughter would be different – that somehow she would be free of suffering. That’s the parent’s mind, isn’t it? – to wish our children free of suffering.

    But, this world being what it is, they are also “marked” with suffering and desire. All beings have these marks. A kind of blessing perhaps?

    • Thank you Barry,
      When EunBong was pregnant, I had many fantasies of a little Buddha Child to sit and have tea with and meditate together…
      Just before Fina’s birth, the realization came to me that just the fact that she’s being born means she’s just as stuck in the cycle of suffering as I am.
      Sometimes I see her grasping mind as greed but other times I see as her wanting to know what’s going on, she’s so curious about everything and she wants to be in it, too.

  3. “Considering he wasn’t around, some might question what kind of a father Siddhattha was.”

    My answer to that one is simple….. Unenlightened.

    I mean, after leaving his son (“pain in the arse”! LOL! Love it!) he made years of more mistakes, even to the point of almost starving himself to death!

    However, what he then did was to learn from all these mistakes in a way that no one else had before (in this era) – and pass on to us what he’d learnt.

    And now here we all are – all on the same path, but with His help too. Wonderful.

    And I love the stories of the kids and their mums! Great to see these little pictures of others in their learning process too.

    Wishing peace and happiness to all,

    Marcus

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