How Mr. Bert Got Triggered by Third Graders

In third grade, we had a homeroom/math teacher in our small, multigrade-classroom parochial school. His name was Howard Bert* and he was a career teacher in the public school system. Perhaps as a last hurrah before fully retiring, Mr. Bert decided to offer his services to a tiny Christian school attached to the church he and his family had recently joined.

He was a balding man with a suburban New York accent who wrote math problems in neat, and precise penmanship. He was also prone to add an “r” sound at the end of words/names that ended in “ah.” My little friend Hannah was quite often called “Hanner.” For the most part, he was a pretty solid teacher. Of course, in the early 1980s, his generational sensibilities didn’t quite align with our fixation on the toys and TV that ruled the day. Our obsession with the popular culture icons of the times—Madonna, Mr. T, and Michael Jackson—didn’t help either.

Our little school had a great population of Korean-American students, many of them first-generation immigrants. Their families were members of the Korean-language congregation associated with our English-speaking one. As such, their families also supported the school.

Mr. Bert was a strict teacher and one who appeared to be on a short fuse. When we got “out-of-hand,” yelling would ensue. Yelling as in so-loud-other-classrooms-heard-him-and-sometimes-another-teacher-would-come-running, loud. But with that yelling also came tirades from a very different place in Mr. Bert’s soul.

I have not concrete evidence of this, but on reflection, I think the significant number of Korean kids in our class triggered something in Mr. Bert who was a veteran of the Korean War. The anger that erupted from him, the screaming, the sweating, and the spitting as he bellowed at the class wasn’t just normal irritation with a rambunctious crew of 7-9 year-olds. But I’ll never forget this one incident. On this occasion, and I can’t remember what tripped it off, but he launched into yelling that brought several of the girls to tears. In his rage, he singled out the Korean students and started screaming about how he fought for their people and saw many of them—children included—get their heads blown off. Inappropriate much?

We had no idea what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was back then. This was also the era where returned Vietnam Vets were just a few years from their wartime hell and their trauma was not well understood.

As a history nerd interested in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the topic of PTSD has been one I’ve delved into over the years. And now, almost 40 years past being in Mr. Bert’s class, I believe he may have been fighting PTSD, and teaching in a classroom filled with lots of Korean children was a massive trigger.

Mr. Bert retired after just a couple of years with the school. It was probably tough in that season of his life to deal with our silliness with the energy and patience required of it. Perhaps finding his anger triggered by innocent children of Korean heritage was not something he counted on happening as well. My family moved out of state not too long after he left and our families didn’t keep in touch, so I don’t know when he passed away, or if he might still be alive. But the experience stuck with me.

PTSD isn’t limited to wartime experience, however. Any source of trauma—abuse, accidents, loss of loved ones, even being in classrooms taught by teachers who shouldn’t work with children, leave scars. Thus, if there are things in your life that cause strong reactions, it’s worth talking to a mental health professional to better understand what is setting you off. Often the insight that you have indeed been traumatized and that you aren’t crazy for feeling as you do can make a world of difference in your ability to find a healing path forward.

I don’t know if Mr. Bert was in touch with the VA or if psychological help was something he sought out or cared to seek out. But I do not doubt that he certainly had things he needed to work through. Back then, mental health wasn’t something many people considered to be important to overall well-being. Mr. Bert also belonged to the generation that returned from war and either sucked it up and moved on or developed destructive ways of coping.

But today, we have no reason to not seek out help when there are memories and experiences from our lives that have left deep scars on our souls. The people we care about need us to be ok. We need to be ok. And with the right help, we can.

*Howard Bert is a pseudonym

Photo by ahmad gunnaivi on Unsplash