Jerks! Resolve This New Year NOT to Be One


by Craig Bennett*


One of the things I found most interesting during my dozen years on the two-year college faculty at Valley Forge Military Academy and College was working with the many international students enrolled there. There were quite a few from Latin America and the Middle East (until 9/11/01); always at least a handful of Indonesians; a couple of Russians whom I recall, as different from one another as night and day; and usually several South Koreans, perhaps the hardest-working and most ambitious of the lot.

One year there was a Korean student who was a few years older than most of the other college students, including those from his own country. He was, I believe, about twenty at the time of his first year at the college, and he had already served his required term in the South Korean military. He was bright, pleasant, eager to learn, and wanted very much to improve his English. That, of course, is where I came in.

One of my courses was developmental writing, something that has become quite common on college campuses all over the U.S., especially those that enroll a substantial number of students from other countries. Because a facility with the national language is so essential to getting along successfully anywhere in the world, I became a little more than a mere classroom teacher to many of them. They would show up at my office door from time-to-time with questions not only about the week’s writing assignments, but also about the meaning of many words and expressions they’d heard their American classmates using that they had not encountered (not surprisingly) in their English classes back home, or some American customs or traditions with which they were unfamiliar, or some other aspects of contemporary American culture that they weren’t able to understand so well as they wanted to.

But one evening when I was in my office during quiet hours in the barracks, the aforementioned Korean student showed up unexpectedly. He was a little hesitant when I asked him what I could do for him, and I could see that he was clearly upset about something. After I invited him to have a seat and he’d had a moment or two to collect himself, he began to open up.

It seemed that he had been granted some unanticipated liberty that afternoon and had gone down into Wayne to enjoy a civilian lunch at the local diner. While there, however, he had been treated pretty badly by a couple of young ladies who were also there at the time. And he had done nothing whatever that could have offended them. It was only because he was obviously not a white, European-type American as they were. They ridiculed him as a foreigner and called him some derogatory names. They made fun of his Oriental features and his tenuous grasp of English. They even insulted his country.

I was a little surprised at how visibly upset he still was over this. He was not a child, and he’d most likely seen at least a little bit more of life and the world than his fellow college cadets, including the other South Koreans. But it was clear that he was deeply hurt. And I soon came to realize that it had not only hurt him in a purely personal way; it had also completely shattered a rather idealized image he had of the United States as a land of invariably kind, helpful, and hospitable people, welcoming to immigrants from all over the world and eager to show visitors from abroad the best things about their country. That, I had to suspect, may well have been what cut deepest of all.

To begin with, I felt that he was certainly owed some kind of apology. I told him that the behavior of these young ladies toward him made me feel deeply embarrassed as an American. That some of my fellow citizens would treat someone who was a guest in our country this way—a guest who had done nothing at all to invite such treatment—was something of which any decent American should be ashamed. And then I paused.

Where could I begin, I wondered. What could I say or do to salve the unconscionable hurt, insult, and bitter disappointment that this thoroughly decent young man, in our country for the first time, had received at the hands of a couple of locals who were anything but the kind of people he believed Americans to be? After a moment of thought, I asked him, “Do you know the word ‘jerk’? What it means when someone is called a jerk?” He nodded, indicating that he did.

“Well,” I said, “it sounds to me like these girls were just jerks. And, unfortunately, this country is not the only place in the world where there are jerks.” I was trying, I guess, to help him to understand that these young ladies were not typical Americans; they were just examples of a human personality type that can be found anywhere.

“I’ve traveled a lot over the years,” I continued. “I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been to many different countries. And something I’ve learned from that is that there are good people everywhere, all over the world and in every country… and there are jerks everywhere and in every country. I believe that if you think about it for a minute, you can remember a few people you knew back in your own country who sometimes acted like jerks.” He seemed to reflect briefly before nodding in agreement.

“And whether someone is a good person or a jerk,” I told him, “has nothing to do with what he looks like, where he was born, what language he speaks, or anything else like that. It’s mostly just a matter of how he treats other people. If he treats them the same way he himself would like to be treated, he’s a good person. If he treats them differently—especially if he treats them worse—he’s just a jerk.”

I went on to assure him, as well as I could, that the young ladies’ treatment of him had very little do with him personally. What caused them to behave that way was their own need to feel superior to someone else because they felt so inferior themselves. As someone from another country who looked different from the average American and was less than fluent in English, he was an easy target.

But I was a little surprised—and quite touched—by how grateful he seemed for the conversation we’d just been having. I could see in his face and hear in his voice a degree of relief, a much less hurtful way of understanding what had happened to him, and a level of gratitude that seemed out of proportion for what I had offered. But it certainly made mefeel good.

And I’ll always remember the last thing I said to him because it’s both good advice and a certain amount of consolation for encounters such as the one he had just experienced at the local diner. “I’m afraid,” I told him, “that there’s not much we can do to change the two girls who made fun of you. They will have to change themselves—from inside. But we can at least try to keep the number of jerks in the world from increasing by just taking care not to act like jerks ourselves.”

I stopped there. But I could have added that we are all members of the same species and share the planet together, and our differences are far outweighed by what we have in common. May each and every one of us bear that in mind whenever and wherever we encounter people who are different from ourselves. After all—how would we want them to treat us?

* -Craig H. Bennett, author of Nights on the Mountain and More Things in Heaven and Earth, available at,, and the Firefly bookstore in Kutztown,

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