4.1 Spring 2022

June 30, Panic attack

I’ve seen my students cry, I’ve seen them pretend to be horses, I’ve seen them punch and kick and hug each other. Today marked my first experience seeing a student have a panic attack.

It was like looking into a mirror.

I think I need to be much more cognizant of what activities I select for fifth grade as out of all the grades I’ve taught, these students are the most sensitive. Whether it was in the capital of Seoul or down here by the coast, the student population I’ve seen cry the most are in fact fifth grade boys.

Today we geared up for my famous spelling race game. The class is split into two teams and members on each team are assigned a sentence. When I read that sentence, the two students with that assigned sentence race to the whiteboard and the first to write it correctly earns a point for their team.

As you might imagine, as the points get closer, the teams get more competitive. What might start off as a quiet class ends in high volume, soccer-stadium cheering and yelling.

A girl for the Doraemon team, with a sparkly sticker attached to her forehead, and a boy from the Pikachu team raced to the front to write “I will visit my grandparents.”

The boy finished first, but he had missed “visit” and thus his answer was incorrect. But the girl, having already assumed he won, erased her answer.

“Why did you give up? He was wrong. You can write it again!”

She just seemed confused so I had both of them redo their turn but this time starting equidistant from the back wall of the classroom as opposed to racing from the starting point of their desks.

However, when I looked up from my notes, the atmosphere had changed. Both students were standing by the wall but the boy was wide eyed and confused, looking at his partner in a panic, saying “was it something I did?”

The girl was standing by the wall with her hand on her rapidly expanding and contracting chest. She had started to shake and hyperventilate and in the worried silence of the room, everyone could hear her labored breathing. Her eyes were unfocused and I recognized, with a sympathetic squeeze in my own chest, exactly what was happening. For a moment I was transported back to the crowded Fat Tuesday street of New Orleans where I’d had my first panic attack.

I moved quickly, knowing that having all eyes on her was only more stressful. I also thought about a parenting blog I had seen and how important it is to keep calm and act as a level-headed leader so that the children don’t become more frightened.

“Come on, let’s sit down,” I said, but she couldn’t move. Her whole being had collapsed to the single point of the speeding heartrate in her chest.

I had to take her by the shoulders and bodily guide her to her chair, which was difficult as her body was locked up in fear.

After sitting her down I went back to the front of the class and had everyone look at me.

I knew from experience that being looked at like an animal at the zoo would not help her calm down, and decided to distract the kids and keep going.

“Let’s not stress, okay? Don’t worry, this is just a game.”

The class clown, normally ill-timed in his ADHD-adjacent outbursts and usually sliding out of his chair or entranced clacking his Rubik’s cube, somehow had perfect timing.

“Are you raising your hand?” I asked, having signaled for volunteers.

“What? Who, me?”

His genuine obliviousness made the class burst into laughter. I had a few more pairs slowly compete and then wrapped class up.

I knew I should say something to her but limited by language and my knowledge of her personality, I just patted her on the back and asked if she was okay. The group of girls who had been taking care of her looked on.

“Did you get stressed? I’m sorry.”

That wasn’t half of what I wanted to convey– “Teacher should be more sensitive to her students, teacher has trouble expressing that she’s joking if you can’t see her face, teacher should remember that kids are people too with their own troubles and not be so hard on them, teacher has had this same experience and knows awful it is”— but that’s all I could say.

I talked to MJ later about what I should do. Surely someone should know, but at the same time, Korea is not too keen on mental health. I didn’t want this poor girl singled out.

MJ rightly said it’s our duty to keep the homeroom teachers informed, and also felt frustrated for me, or for her.

“Every time I go to sub in a homeroom class, the homeroom teachers tell me I have to stay in the room for the native English speaker’s class. But they don’t even stay in the room for your class.”

“Rules for thee, not for me.”

“Exactly,” she concluded.

I told Wendy what happened, but I think using “panic attack” was not the best choice of words.

“Did she hit the desk or hit someone?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

I tried explaining again, using the Korean words for panic attack, but both MJ and Wendy seemed a little unfamiliar with what it was. Something, something, state of Korean mental health awareness.

Wendy was shocked that the homeroom teacher wasn’t in the classroom. I wasn’t sure how seriously to take her surprise because Helen used to react the same way and yet this year now that she’s a homeroom teacher hasn’t been present for any of my classes…

Wendy called the fifth-grade homeroom teacher to gently explain that the student might need some more care this week. Apparently, the other students had already informed the homeroom teacher and the girl in question went to the nurse’s office. What the homeroom teacher didn’t know was the severity.

Brief research tells me that panic disorders are rare in children so I’m worried this may just be the start for her.

“The homeroom teacher says thank you for telling her,” Wendy said after hanging up. This is also, as far as the teacher knows, the first time it’s happened.

Wendy updated Jack as he was making his afternoon iced mix coffee and he asked me what the student’s name was. Sir, I have five hundred students without nametags and whose faces I’ve never seen so no, I don’t know her name.

Wendy then turned and asked, “I know it’s policy, but I also know it’s uncomfortable to have someone in your class. Do you want me to remind the teachers that they should be there?” Was that perhaps a Freudian slip to reference her discomfort when I shadowed her class?

I shook my head. To be honest, I feel like less of a teacher when the homeroom teachers are present, though it definitely helps keep a lid on things when they are. The kids can be extra goofy and playful with me when the watchful eye of their main teacher is turned away.

Still, throughout the afternoon I felt a phantom squeeze in my chest from watching my own student suffer, and for partly being the cause.

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