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?