Tick tock tick tock. The clock landed on 19:30; study hall had begun. JaeHeon sat down to do his math homework. Just as he was picking up his pencil, he looked around his dorm room. He could see dirty clothes lying under his roommate’s bed. Even though he tried to avert his eyes, he could almost hear them begging and screaming to be picked up. His head started to throb. Right after he threw the last dirty sock into the hamper, he started to organize everything else on the other side of the room. Books must be precisely arranged from big to small; eraser dust had to sucked up by a vacuum; the blanket should be folded up with perfect, 90° corners. To reduce his headache, doing these chores was more effective than taking Advil.
When JaeHeon sat back down at his desk, it was 20:00. A bit frustrated that he had lost 30 minutes of work time, he tried to concentrate on the problem: x+5=3. He could have easily calculated problem, but he got distracted by his pencil cup: it was like a battlefield with pens fighting against markers. He had no choice but to line the two groups all up according to height and width. Everything was back in its place, and JaeHeon was glad that his head no longer throbbed in pain.
Suddenly, John, his roommate, busted through the door. Without so much as a hello, he started blasting his music. He was spilling Doritos crumbs and tossing his clothes on the floor. JaeHeon helplessly watched as John made a mess of everything. It didn’t take long for him to rage. At the top of his lungs, JaeHeon told John to stop wrecking the room, but John ignored him. JaeHeon initially wondered whether he had said it all wrong in English, but he later figured that John had understood every word. When John put on the Bose noise- cancelling headphones, JaeHeon threw up his hands, muttered some Korean swear words, and then did the cleaning himself. Once he was finally done, he was ready to concentrate on his work.
But the dorm parent popped into the room to announce that lights out was in 20 minutes. JaeHeon sighed and sighed. He didn’t have time to finish his math, English, history, and science homework. What was he going to say to his teachers? And what about his parents? Getting zeros on his assignments was not as bad as disappointing his parents and grandparents back in Korea. For sure, this was not a good start on the road to Harvard University.
Fourteen study halls later, JaeHeon still had not gotten his homework done. Papers were unwritten, math problems unsolved, textbooks unread. He was not surprised at all when he was finally called in to see Mr. LeRoy, the academic dean. Was he going to get put on an academic probation? Or was he going to get kicked out of Cardigan Mountain School? Nervously, JaeHeon sat in front of his academic dean and waited to get assailed by threatening words. Silence. Unable to meet Mr. LeRoy’s eyes, he scanned the room and approved of its cleanliness and orderliness. Focus! He finally worked up some courage to briefly make eye contact. To JaeHeon’s surprise, he saw kindness rather than anger. Then Mr. LeRoy gently spoke,
“It seems that you are not getting your work done. We feel as if 2 hours of study hall is enough time to complete all your assignments. What’s wrong JaeHeon? Are the classes too hard for you?”
“No, I just cannot concentrate well,” replied JaeHeon, and he felt comfortable enough to talk about some of the cleaning that he did. With extra encouragement, he spent over an hour listing every single task of vacuuming the floor, organizing the books, folding the laundry, making the bed, rearranging the socks, lining up the soda cans, and repositioning the stationary.
“Oh, I see. This problem seems like it can be fixed easily. I think we might need you to see a counselor. I will call your parents to let them know of the problem you are having.” JaeHeon doubted the fact that seeing a counselor would make a difference. But in a month, his bi-weekly sessions had proven to be effective.
A month later, JaeHeon’s parents visited Canaan, New Hampshire, for Parent’s Weekend. They talked to the teachers to see how well their son was doing in his first trimester at Cardigan Mountain School. “Needs improvement” was the feedback that they got for the most part. So they screeched, howled, and roared at JaeHeon for not being a good student and not finishing his homework on time. Didn’t he know that he was jeopardizing his future, letting his ancestors down, setting a bad example for all Korean students? They stopped lecturing him only when they arrived at Mr. LeRoy’s office.
Uncomfortably, JaeHeon sat between his parents. He could see smoke spewing out of his parents’ heads, but he hoped that Mr. LeRoy would provide him with an explanation. Surely, having the academic dean on his side was a “Get out of Jail” card.
Mr. LeRoy calmly spoke, “Mr. and Mrs. Kim, it came to my attention that JaeHeon is having problems with his concentration. He is a bright student, so we worked hard to figure out what was wrong with him. The bad news is that we have diagnosed him with obsessive-compulsive disorder; the good news is that therapy can improve not only his condition but also his performance at school.”
JaeHeon’s parents glanced at each other. They did not know what therapy meant so they quickly looked it up in their Samsung electronic dictionaries. The definition said: ‘treatment of mental disease or disorders.’ Together, their eyebrows arched, and their mouths opened. These words took their time to sink in. Seeing the looks in their eyes, JaeHeon knew that this meeting would not end well. Each of his parents swung an arm around him. Then his father thundered,
“WHAT? So you’re saying our son is crazy? He is a normal kid! He does not need to go to a mental hospital or need mental treatment! He did not have any problems when he was back home in Korea! He got perfect grades! He was a perfect student!”
JaeHeon’s parents were so angry that their faces turned bright red. JaeHeon tried to calm them down by patting them on their knees. He wanted to tell them that having OCD wasn’t the same as being crazy and that a therapist’s office was different from a mental hospital. But how was he supposed to say it in Korean? It was a language that did not have any kind words for people suffering from mental disorders. Just as JaeHeon was about to speak up, Mr. LeRoy calmly responded.
“It is okay. It is perfectly normal to have this disorder. JaeHeon seemed to be improving a lot after seeing the counselor and me. In fact, lots of other kids have this disorder, too…”
“You Americans did something to my normal kid! We are going back to Korea where educators are educators, not making kids crazy! I thought sending him to an American school would allow our son to be better, not worse! How can you make JaeHeon believe that he is crazy? He is not crazy! He’s our normal boy! He only started being less-than perfect here! What kind of place are you running?”
Before Mr. LeRoy could respond, JaeHeon’s parents stood up, yanked their son out of his chair, and left the office in a hurry. The sooner they left this place, the better it was for their son. Or so they thought. After that incident, JaeHeon was never able to visit America again in his lifetime.
Jin Ho Jeong
Age 15, Grade 9
Trevor Day School