“I will tell you this but you have to promise me you won’t tell anyone.” I whispered to my Mom in our guest room, while my chest was pulled down by a thousand pound weight. “I had to stand outside of class today. I was punished.”
It was humiliating at the time, when I was eight years old, to be punished for forgetting my notebook at home, for getting bad grades, or for chatting with a friend longer that we were expected. I remember in high school we talked about it as though it was the best joke one could ever tell, because there were many rules we acknowledged as ridiculous. Yet, I was eight, and that might have been the worst thing I ever experienced as a student.
That day when I told my Mom, I cried with minimal tear, for it was a strange thing that I didn’t know how to react to, for I needed to get it off my chest. And we fell silent. Not because it was such bad news that Mom had to process how to deal with me. She just never heard of me being punished, and I think she knew I didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know if Mom ever told Dad about it, but if she did Dad never told me he knew.
Today, I thought of my childhood and how my teachers humiliated their students just so we would obey. It wasn’t abuse, but there was little forgiveness or compassion. Every mistake made was dealt with with hours standing outside, with parents meetings, with hits on our palms.
In middle school, every student was accounted for their class weekly report. This means that if I did something wrong and was caught, my class’s points would suffer. We were the “chosen gifted” group, and if we didn’t rank first each week, my teachers would give a long speech on how bad as students we were. I assume they taught us how to think for others, how one wrongdoing of an individual impacts a group, and how we should be careful for the sake of everyone else. That might be a good lesson, but I wish it was a little bit different.
I wish we had more freedom to fail, and instead of becoming fearful and thinking ill of our teachers, we could see them as more understanding and loving. I wish we were taught that punishment was okay, and that it wasn’t a bad mark on our profile but a humble way to show that we were imperfect. I was a good student for years, and standing outside of my classroom that day made me think bad of myself. I didn’t have to feel that way, if I was taught failing is a part of growing. I wouldn’t look down on my friends who actually brought the class’s points down, if I learned that it was okay to lose some score and forgive others.
We learned so much about keeping face and taking pride in high grades. On the other hand, we learned so little about the main ingredient of life: failure. We learned so little about getting up after losing a fight or helping friends in challenging times. I was in the chosen group for those four years, but all and all I felt shame. I didn’t understand anything other than Math formulas and Vietnamese Literature. I didn’t understand what life would be about.