January 19, 2012 8 Comments
It’s been a long time since I wrote about anything relating to the actual name of this blog, but a couple incidents in class this week begged to be retold.
Korea is so different from North America in so many ways, it’s impossible to talk about all of them, but I’ll talk about one. People go out of their way to avoid confronting you directly about issues that could bear some conversation, but will hasten to say things to you that just don’t need saying. Like the time one of my students intoned that I needed to go on a diet, or the time a random lady walking by me in a subway station looked over at me and made a gesture to indicate the largeness of my belly or all the other entirely un-subtle indicators I’ve been given that I am waaaay larger than the Korean idea of normal. And I’ve lost weight since I’ve been here. It’s just always open season here on letting you know that you could stand to drop a few. Younger, hipper Koreans won’t tend to do it, but the sorta old and the very young will. With my elementary students, the youngest ones will say things utterly guilelessly. The ones old enough to know better won’t dare say it to me, but I’ll tell you what they do.
In one of my classes on Monday, we finished the lesson a little early so I let them play Hang Man while I finished some marking. Usually I control such games in a pretty draconian manner but I decided to relax and let the kids run the game. One of the boys asked if he could write a whole sentence instead of just a word and I said sure, as long as he could keep track of the spelling. As the sentence started to materialize on the board behind me, I saw one of the girls’ names, Dina, was part of the solution. I realized blessedly quickly that it was going to be a disparaging comment about her weight, so I shut the game down and gave the boy who’d started the puzzle a bit of a verbal lashing.
The boys in that class constantly go for the jugular with Dina, calling her pig or just otherwise making comments on her size. In addition to being a little heavy (not much, mind you) she’s one of the tallest people in the class and is very likely to just lengthen out someday–assuming she doesn’t fall into some death spiral of eating her emotions and actually end up with a real weight problem. But for the moment, she’s significantly bigger than everyone in that class, male or female.
In another class that same day, I had the kids working on a series of chain stories. Each student wrote a sentence to begin a story and then left their notebook open on a desk. All the students then wandered the room adding sentences to every book to create a story. It’s one of the few times that the kids have an opportunity to be creative so I was letting them write down just about anything that popped into their heads. I participated as well and, incidentally, a lot of stories centered around my dying, going to hell, farting or otherwise coming off less than positively. As I wandered over to one book the boy writing clamped down his hands so I couldn’t see what was on the page. When he finally left, I took a look and it was a long sentence about one of the girls in class and how she is so big, with her proposed weight in kg and some indication that she’s a bad person as well.
This particular girl, Jenny, is one I actually worry about a little. I’ve had her in at least one of my classes for as long as I’ve been working at the school. She’s a bigger girl who’s a bit boyish. She’s got a sweet core but she’s a bit hapless and her way of coping with that is to be overly aggressive. In an essay about her best friends, she wrote repeatedly that her friends were all pretty and thin and that she was fat and ugly. Now every girl may feel this way in 5th grade but I get the impression she feels a bit more keenly because she gets that direct feedback from the other kids. In a bid to be “the teacher who changes her life” I wrote in the comments of that essay that I thought she was pretty. I’m fairly sure it had zero effect.
When I saw the sentence I erased it and told the boy it wasn’t appropriate. Even when the sentence was erased though, two of the girls hovered over the paper trying to make out what had been there before and as they were deciphering it, read it loudly enough for Jenny to overhear. She is usually hard to control in a classroom but that knocked the wind out of her sails for a while. Which just hurt my heart.
In both cases, the boys doing the teasing are not ones I consider to be the worst of the pack by any means. In fact, the boy in the writing class is one of the brightest, hardest working, most well-behaved, and nicest students I have. Also in both of these classes, there are boys who are a little fluffy around the edges as well but they don’t catch flack for it at all–maybe because they lack the height to stand out.
While I didn’t have a full on flashback in the classroom or anything, all this did remind me of the unpleasantness of my teenaged years being around a mother who had me terrified that I might get fat and convinced that nothing in life could be worse. I was actually a perfectly reasonable size for my age if incredibly buxom, but I managed to think I was fat for all the years that I wasn’t, until I actually got fat. Now as a fat adult, I deal with North Americans who have a purely aesthetic problem with fatness attempting to render their dislike righteous with a pretense at caring about the health of random fat folks and concerns about the beleaguered health care system that they suddenly have so much concern about, or Koreans who just don’t have any filter. I know what mental gymnastics I have to do to try to not eat my emotions, to focus on being healthy at my current weight (and not go on crash diets to become “acceptable”) and to like myself as I am. But I wasn’t equipped to do those mental gymnastics as a teenager, and as 11 and 12-year-olds, I highly doubt these girls in my classes are equipped to do so either. I have no idea how they’ll be affected by the taunts they’re dealing with right now. I hope they’ll fare better than I did. But whose to say? They are both beautiful girls and I really hope they figure that out if they don’t know that now.
A couple things are for damn sure: kids are cruel no matter where they’re born and it still isn’t safe to be a big girl.