Sunday, January 29, 2012

Student Wish List, Teacher Heartbreak

I'm in the midst of a marathon essay-grading day, but I have to stop and write about this immediately, because it has to be one of the saddest things I've ever come across.

This year, one of the classes I'm teaching is Language Arts in Spanish. It's not a Spanish class, but a class on reading and writing skills taught in Spanish for students who are learning English in other classes but also need language arts credit. For the semester final, I gave the students a collection of prompts taken directly from the state's example state test writing prompts, just translated. One prompt asked students to imagine they could switch places with anyone in the world and tell the story of what would happen. This student lost track of the prompt during the outlining process and ended up turning in a list of things she wished she could change about herself. It's absolutely heartbreaking.

She starts by saying she'd like to be taller, because she's sick of being called a midget. Then she says she'd like to be prettier, because she's sick of being called ugly. She capitalized Ugly, as though people use this in place of her name. Then she wished she had blue eyes, that her hair weren't so black, and that it weren't so straight. She also wished she could be a bit fatter so people would stop calling her Skinny. She wished she could do well in school so that someday she could become a lawyer. Then she wished she were more intelligent. She wished she could speak English better so she could speak to more people at school. Finally, she wished she could get a job so she could help out her family and contribute more to her household.

I certainly can't reveal this student's identity, but I think I can share this essay because there are a half a dozen girls in that class who could have written this list, and dozens of boys and girls in my other classes who could have written a variation on it in English. Here's what I can't figure out how to say to her, and to all those students, male and female, carrying around all this self-loathing: "These values you aspire to are cultural constructions. You want to be fatter because you get called Skinny, and some of the other girls are risking their health and maybe their lives because they are so afraid of being called Fattie. You want blue eyes because that's the color of the contact lenses the models plop in before the photo shoot. You want curly hair while the girls (and boys) with curly hair want straight hair. And those desires to reach an unattainable standard of beauty (a standard that has been intentionally designed to be unattainable so you will buy lots of expensive and unnecessary beauty products to look any way but the way you were born to look) will eat away at you on the inside until you are filled up with anger and pain. And then you will lose the best thing you had going for you, your kindness. That warm smile you wear when you come into my classroom will fade and be replaced by a sneer. That great, quiet, nervous laugh you have will become a derisive snort. And someday you will see someone who looks just like you, or just the opposite, or anywhere in between, and you will call her Ugly. Please, oh please don't let that happen. Do not accept the behavior of the kind of asshole who would even consider calling you Midget or Skinny or Ugly or anything other than your given name, and don't replicate that behavior yourself. And don't internalize that kind of person's judgement, or you will find yourself in relationships with people who hold just as low an opinion of you as you do. Don't let that happen. Please. I'm begging."

But I can't say that (and only partly because I shouldn't be using the word "asshole" when talking to my students, even when I'm referring to someone that fills me with rage). I'm going to try to get her an appointment with one of our school's counselors, and I'm going to have a talk with one of her other teachers, a smart, successful Spanish speaking female teacher I think this student will more readily accept as a mentor. But I also can't have the conversation because there are two competing voices in my head, and they both make me so angry that I'm in no position to calmly share my fears with this student. I hear these voice coming out of my TV, I read them in the comments sections online, and now I can't get their echoes to stop. Here's what I'd like to say to those two voices.

"Hey, doofy, naive, post-millennial 'liberal' voice, shut up. No, I'm not going to tell her that she'll be a super model one day. No, I'm not even going to tell her that she can be anything she wants to be, and that, if she tries really hard, she can become a lawyer. She can hardly speak any English, and unless she stumbles on a pot of leprechaun's gold, she's going to go to work to help out her family rather than continue her education long enough to make up for the deficiencies in her English skills. Your ridiculous notion that everyone can be exactly what they want to be is well-intentioned, but also hurtful and stupid. I'm not going to tell my kids to settle, but I'm also not going to tell them that they will have it all. Self-esteem like hers is a real problem, but a self-concept that is out of touch with reality is just a gateway to narcissism, or to a crushing disappointment when she finds out that the people who told her she was perfect were liars. She is good and kind. Why isn't that enough? And why do you want me to lie to a good person?"

"And you, callous, privileged "conservative" voice, you can just shove it. I hear what you're muttering under your breath. One minute you're saying poor people need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The next you're whispering about illegal immigration and English-only education. I know nothing about her legal status, and neither do you. The difference is that I don't want to know, because I know that we're all better off if everyone in our country is educated, while you want to pass moral judgements based on an over-simplified view of a deeply flawed system you don't understand. I do know a bit more than you do about teaching people English, and I know that if I'd dropped you into a Chinese or Iranian school when you were a kid you would not have been a big fan of Chinese-only or Persian-only education. Guess what? You probably wouldn't have learned Chinese or Persian as quickly in an immersion model, either, but you would have been so focused on learning Chinese or Persian that you would have fallen years behind in science and math and never caught up to your Chinese or Iranian classmates. So don't tell me my business. Now, as for your pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps BS, here's a perfect example of why that's garbage, and only somebody who starts out with some advantages (white, male, intelligent, or wealthy) can possibly let those words come out of his mouth without sarcasm. She's right in front of you. She's a human being. She has all kinds of disadvantages, and she won't just catch up no matter how hard she yanks on her bootstraps. Don't you look away from her! She's hurting right now, and your entitled disregard for her pain is disgusting."

So you can see why I'm the last person in the world who should try to console this poor kid. There's too much shouting going on in my own head. But she handed this wish list to me. What does that say about the rest of her world?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Disappointed by Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and Myself

Yesterday I was scolded on Facebook by a former student, and it’s been bugging me.

Here’s the situation: I tweeted, “Magic Johnson's catchphrase for Kobe: ‘Nothing but special.’ If I could only be one adjective, it wouldn't be a synonym for short-bus rider.”

Her response: “As much as I think you rock, that comment was uncalled for and down right degrading to people who are disabled. Not cool, I'm disappointed. :(”

That stung. Especially the frowny face. So far, I’ve come up with five reasons why that’s bothering me so much.

First of all, when I would mess up as a kid, my dad would sit me down on the couch in the living room, then sit down in a chair on the other side of the coffee table. He didn’t shout at me. He didn’t hit me. He didn’t make grand threats about prolonged grounding schemes. He’d just sit silently for a while, then say, “I’m disappointed.” That worked!

Second, I like this former student. I respect her opinion. We agree on most things, and when we disagree I take her seriously.

Third, I like to be liked. Too much. It particularly hurts me as a writer. I can’t write with the kind of conviction necessary to be successful because I’m too worried that people will be put off by what I write. It makes me a hypocrite when I explain effective advertising to my students and grade them down for targeting the ads I make them write to overly large demographics. “If someone tried to make an ad to sell clothes that both you and your grandma would like, they would fail,” I say. “Neither you nor grandma would buy those clothes.” Then I come home and try to make sure that whatever novel I’m working on won’t offend anyone. Clearly, my tweet failed to amuse as much as it offended.

Fourth, I stand by my criticism of Magic Johnson’s choice of words. I don’t think that insults the mentally disabled. I’m not saying anything derogatory about them in saying I wouldn’t want to be described as “special.” I lament the fact that the word “special” has become a euphemism for mentally handicapped. But it has. Instead of attacking the problem at the root and criticizing those who use mental disability as an insult for those who are not mentally disabled, we just keep coming up with new euphemisms. I’m not even sure “mentally disabled” is the right one anymore. Mentally handicapped? I’m usually not one to knock PC re-labeling. All too often, the root is cultural insensitivity, white men grousing that they are being inconvenienced by having to learn a new term. I do not buy into the “white-guys-have-it-so-rough” argument. My frustration comes from my position as an English teacher. “African American” might be a new thing for everybody to learn, but it’s accurate. “Special,” on the other hand, took one word with a certain definition, gave it a new one, then corrupted that one when people used it as an insult. The same thing happened with “retarded.” Instead of well-intentioned people standing up and saying, “Stop making fun of people who are ___x____” and continuing to use whichever word was most accurate, they just switched and hoped the problem would go away, thus loading up our language with a handful of terms that refer to mental retardation. I’ll bet I’d raise eyebrows if I told some parent that their child’s habit of not turning in his work retards his ability to learn the material in my class. That’s completely accurate, but I have to avoid it because the word has taken on these new connotations due to the association with the mentally handicapped. In the same way, Magic Johnson should be careful with “special.” That’s what I was trying to say. (Furthermore, I hate the “nothing but” part. How is it any kind of compliment to describe anyone as “nothing but” anything? When this student says I rock, I appreciate the compliment. If she’d said I do “nothing but rock” I’d think she was accusing me of something.) Magic Johnson’s attempt at a compliment was catch-phrasy, but dumb. That was my point.

Fifth, I’m a hypocrite, because I then participated in the very behavior I was criticizing! Instead of saying “mentally disabled,” I wrote “short-bus rider.” So I’m picking on his thoughtless use of what has become a euphemism for the mentally handicapped while using a different one. I can’t even blame Twitter, because “mentally disabled” is only two characters longer and I had some room to spare. I still wasn’t mocking the mentally handicapped, but, by using a euphemism carelessly, I was participating in the same behavior I was criticizing in Magic Johnson.

So that makes me mad at myself, but not for the reason this former student was mad at me in the first place. And that makes me mad at her. And at Magic Johnson. And, ultimately, at Kobe Bryant, whose only crime (in this particular case) was dropping 40 points on a mediocre Utah team.

See what you’ve done, Kobe? You’ve caused me to disappoint my former student! You know what I have to say about that?