The reason I loved English class is the reason my students hate it

I hope it doesn’t look like I’m on a teacher-bashing spree, because I have huge respect for teachers (who respect their students and their profession). But being “fresh” in the public education sector, I’ve been reflecting on my on-the-field observations and my own 12 years as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What’s on my mind today is how students learn their primary language, English.

My rather “extreme” personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but I see clear parallels here in Chicago.

I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore (the year was 1998), I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally. Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.

I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary school), and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite was its ability to prepare students to outsmart the system.

The concept of “good words” was again and again drilled in us. What made a word “good”? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.

Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don’t write “beautiful butterflies” if you can say “beauteous butterflies”, or “blue skies” when there’s the superior “azure blue”! No one told me that, and I don’t think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we’d need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying “I was surrounded by gargantuan trees” and “the math problem obfuscated me”? And what good comes out of “my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands” apart from chuckles for the grader?

You'd think this was a parody flashcard.
You’d think this was a parody flashcard…

I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false grasp of the English language by telling me how “good” my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: “Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good.” That’s how common and widespread this (mis)understanding of language was.

In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had “no choice” but to write a “simple” and “plain” essay about why homemade gifts will always be superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was “lovely”, and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn’t want that essay to be read by everyone! There weren’t enough “good words” in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to believe that this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.

A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-meaning (I can’t decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. “It’s clear that you’ve read a lot,” she wrote, “but it’s also clear that English is not your first language.” Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.

What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, it’s not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we’re talking about linguistics). It’s not about the “quality” of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words…), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it. 

I currently teach Math. But I don’t have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run would surely turn off any kid who isn’t one.

If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I’d be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so valuable that the words they pick to communicate them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe, if they also come to see how valuable their ideas and opinions are, they’d be willing to put in some effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills that would help them better convey them.

Does any of this resonate with your own experiences? Do you have other comments or thoughts on how the English language should be thought? I would love to hear from your experiences!


You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person

When a friend was hospitalized for appendicitis, people flocked to visit him at the hospital. When I was clinically depressed, some who knew it avoided me like the plague. But I completely understand — it’s natural for us to be afraid of the unfamiliar, including unfamiliar illnesses. And when it comes to depression, people are wary not because they are afraid it might be contagious (hey, many don’t even recognize it as an illness!), but because they are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.

A friend once apologized to me, “I’m sorry I haven’t been reaching out to you or being there for you. I’m not like J — I wish I were, but I’m not. But know that I’ve been praying for you, okay?”

At the time, I smiled and told him not to worry about it. I read between the lines and I read his facial expressions — I knew what he was saying was that he wasn’t good at empathizing and didn’t want to do or say things that might end up aggravating matters. We exchanged hugs and parted ways for the remainder of the academic year. But that night I wept in my room. I wasn’t sure why at the time; I cried over the silliest things after all.

I know why now. I felt abandoned by a friend. Sure, he wasn’t my best friend, and I did have other close friends who were walking the journey with me, but when an individual walks out on your life, his/her absence can’t be compensated by quantity. The next time I saw him, it would be the beginning of a new academic year, and I’d have already recovered over the summer. We hung out again and were friends once more. This was no isolated case. It happened again, and again, with different people.


But my friends are not bad people. They are wonderful people. They did not stop being my friend during depressive episodes because they were tired of me. In fact, I don’t think they even intended to stop being my friend. And I’m sure they believe they were doing what was best for me. From their point of view, they were temporarily stepping out of my life so someone more “qualified” could step in to take better care of me. Someone who would have the right things to say, someone who perhaps have gone through the same thing I was going through, someone who could give good advice. Basically, someone who could empathize.

And yes, I wished I had people in my life who fit the above descriptions, and I was indeed blessed with at least one such individual, but it didn’t erase the deep pain of being “left behind”. And one thing I’ve come to realize over a few cycles of depression is this: depressed people don’t need you to empathize; they just need you. A depressed person would rather have you say all the worst possible things, rather than not have you at all.

It is very difficult to understand what a depressed person is going through. That is an inescapable fact. But even a fellow depression fighter/survivor would not be able to understand completely, since disorders of the mind affect each individual as uniquely as his mind is unique.

But a general common theme is that the depressed individual experiences and perceives a reality different from that of the non-depressed individual. I remember despairing not because I didn’t know if I would ever recover, but because I came to believe there was nothing from which to recover. I didn’t believe I had a negative cognitive bias, but believed that it’s others who had a positive cognitive bias, while I saw my existence for what it truly was.

Loved ones of those who are depressed, you have a very tricky and very important task of holding their hand and walking together, even though you are walking in different realities, until you are once more reunited at the end of the tunnel. This is very important because they need to be walking with someone who can see the light at the end of that tunnel. If you choose to wait to greet them on the other side, what if they never make it there?

Someone very dear to me had no experience whatsoever with depression. He bought himself a book on the topic (The Catholic Guide to Depression, which I’ve recommended multiple times in previous posts) in an attempt to understand what I was going through. It’s safe to say that even after a year, he never came close to understanding, but what mattered was that he never stopped walking with me. He never got tired of me even when I got tired of myself. And he never stopped believing that God would deliver me even when I’d lost all hope. You have my eternal gratitude.

Depression taught me to love the developmentally disabled

The title of this post was originally going to be “How I came to empathize with the developmentally disabled”. Then I realized I had no right to use the word “empathize”, because I have never walked a day in their shoes, and will never fully empathize. But I’m writing this because I believe my depression offered me a small window into the world of those who know they are different from the majority, those who feel incapable of fully participating in society. My last two cycles of clinical depression taught me to have compassion for those for whom such struggles are part of an inescapable reality.

Depression affects everyone differently. A recurring theme for me is being robbed of many cognitive, social, and emotional abilities. While I haven’t figured out how much of it is real, and how much simply a matter of distorted perception, it all seemed to me like an objective, permanent reality (and there was no talking me out of it — just ask my therapist, my family, my then-boyfriend, and my close friends).

I distinctly remember what it was like being at a friend’s 21st birthday party. I excused myself to go to the bathroom many more times than necessary, all to avoid having to converse with another person. I don’t know how to hold a conversation. I wouldn’t know how to respond and react appropriately. All it would take is one sentence or one stammer and I’d be exposed. They would know I’m a freak. And then they would either walk away, or at best they might stay out of pity.

At the dinner table, I freaked out when an academic asked me what I was majoring in in college. I knew that the moment I said Sociology, he would follow up with a question that would expose my ignorance and my failure to understand my own discipline. And I dreaded how everyone at the party would inevitably ask, “Where do you go to school?” Because I knew what they’d expect when I told them I went to the University of Chicago. They’d expect me to be intelligent and insightful, and I would hopelessly fall short. I didn’t even dare to talk to the little children at the party, believing that I would be looked down upon even by those a whole decade younger than me.

There was one partygoer different from everybody else, an elderly lady with Down Syndrome. I quietly watched how she stared into space most of the time, and how her relatives coaxed her into standing in the right place when the time came to take a group picture. I felt a profound sense of affinity with her. Though I wasn’t sure how aware she was of her own disability, I yearned to commiserate with her. It’s okay, I don’t belong here either. I don’t know what these people are talking about either. I don’t know why they’re enjoying themselves either. This world is a strange and scary place. 

It wasn’t just in public. I found this picture of me (in green) and my sisters watching Midnight In Paris at my apartment.

You can’t tell from looking at the picture, but while my sisters both loved the movie (as do most who’ve seen it), to me it was torture. I couldn’t really pay attention to the plot or dialogue — I was too busy feeling tortured about not being able to identify with the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of the characters in the film. The credits rolled and I had no idea what the movie was about.

And here’s a picture taken on graduation day.

graduationIt’s an iteration of classic goofy shot I often took with my friends. Except this time, it wasn’t funny to me because all I could think of was how I would ever justify being a UChicago graduate when I was so “dumb”, when I could function neither in the classroom nor in the real world, when I believed my life was “over” because I’d never be able to get/hold a job or start a family in the future. Not long after this picture was taken, I began going around saying my goodbyes as if I’d never see many of these people ever again, as I was planning to go into reclusion for good.

And as I come out of depression, as my mental agility, emotional energy, and ability to relate to other people are coming back, I haven’t been able to forget how lonely and out of place I felt all those months. Those feelings of not belonging in the world, of not being able to live up to the expectations of society, of being defective in every way, of being a mistake amidst all of God’s perfect creations, will always remain fresh in me.

And this is the story of how God humbled me, and instilled in me new and deep love and compassion for those labeled by society as “defective”, or “different” at best. I invite you to reflect on how you’ve perceived or treated our brothers and sisters who don’t meet the constructed, arbitrary standards of beauty, success, and normalcy.

If you personally know what it’s like to have a developmental disability of any kind, or if you know someone who does, I would be honored to hear about and learn from your experiences.

Related post: Those with “special needs” can teach us a thing or two about humanity

Magic words to tell everyone around you

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 10.56.26 AM

I heard these magic words on February 13, 2013: “Karen, don’t let the fact that others may go through harder things allow you to make light of your pain. It’s never ‘just’ anything when it comes to hardship. You have just as much a right to the compassion and empathy of your brothers and sisters in Christ as anyone else with problems. Really, no matter what one is going through there’s always someone worse off, you can’t let that invalidate your suffering.”

Some context: For a few weeks, I’d been noticing signs of a depression relapse and was trying to come to terms with it all. My new friend, D, sent a Facebook message asking how I’d been lately. Now, our friendship had begun on rather interesting note. At a large Christmas gathering of Christian students at UChicago, D publicly shared, for the first time, about having struggled with severe depression for 7 years (and counting). That night, we talked for a really long time, exchanging stories of depression and faith.  So when I received his Facebook message, I felt I could tell him about the recent onset of mild depression. But I also added, “I almost feel ashamed cus I know that what I go through is really small compared to your depression.”

That was when he told me the magic words that would stick with me as mild depression turned into full-blown clinical depression, as I crawled toward recovery 8 months later, and as I began talking to others struggling with various issues (mental or otherwise).

Almost every person who’s opened up to me, at some point expresses shame about asking for help because there are many out there who are worse off. And I’d tell them about what D told me, that I care about them and what they’re going through. Period. We don’t allocate compassion based on relative magnitudes of suffering. God’s infinite love means infinite compassion. There is more than enough to go around.

At the well

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

When I told my professors about my depression


Last week was spent bedridden with a fever fluctuating in the 100-103F range. It also happened to be finals week, so I wasted no time in requesting deadline extensions. I was relieved, though not too surprised, that my professors were generous and understanding enough to grant extensions stretching beyond finals week. But it made me wonder why reaching out to my profs with this request was such a no-brainer, when I was so reluctant to do the same last year when I was struggling with depression. If you think about it, what’s a better excuse to ask for help academically? When your body is sick, or when your brain is sick?

It took me a long time to muster the courage to tell any of my professors about my problem with depression. My counselor, knowing how much the condition was taking a toll on my mental capabilities, had advised me to inform them as soon as possible. At first, I didn’t think it would be necessary (it also seemed like TMI — would they even care?). As the depression got worse, I wondered if I was just using depression as an excuse for my stupidity and laziness. After all, I was spending most of my time just lying in bed and/or staring off into space, or playing brainless iPhone games. If I would just open a new Word Doc, I’d be able to work fine, wouldn’t I? (Wrong.) I suppose that was around the time the depression began to convince me that I wasn’t really depressed. Eventually, for the sake of my grades, I did email my professors about this, even though I remained half-convinced that I was a terrible person for exploiting this “little” medical condition.

This was Prof S.’s response to my email asking for Pass/Fail (instead of a letter grade). She was the first prof I’d told about how depression was impeding my academic performance. Not only did she grant my request, she graciously offered a Pass without requiring me to turn in a final paper at all:

Dear Karen,

I have struggled with depression on and off all my life; it is genetic in my family. It will pass! I will give you a P for the course. Meanwhile I hope that you are receiving the proper medical help.

No need to hand in a paper. If I can give you a word of advice — please be sure to consult both a counselor and a psychiatrist. Some depressions run their course in 9-10 months even without medication. But often medication is needed, even if for a show period of time. There is nothing  wrong with taking antidepressants. It is tricky sometimes to find the right antidepressant but when they start to work, they are worth their weight in gold.


And this was Prof L’s response. I couldn’t afford to Pass/Fail this class because it was a requirement for my major, so instead I asked for deadline extensions:

Hi Karen,

An extension would be just fine. There is no need for an explanation, but I am glad that you are getting the appropriate medical attention. I know how difficult it can be to respond to treatment and to be open to people around you, so I am happy to see that you are taking the right steps. I’ve seen a lot of students who are too scared to get the help that they need, both medically and academically, when dealing with a mental illness, so know that you are handling this in exactly the right way. Let me know if you need anything, and also let me know if you’ll need some extra time on the final assignment.


The genuine empathy and concern in both professors’ replies astounded me. They assuaged my fears of coming across as lazy or weak. And more importantly, in my confusion about my own mental state, they gently affirmed that depression was a complex illness that crippled people in very real ways. I know some college students who don’t feel like they can or should inform their professors about their depression. I would strongly encourage anyone in that position to do so without fear of judgment. Nobody talks about depression in class, but this doesn’t mean our professors know nothing about it. If they haven’t personally experienced it, given the amount of stress in academic circles, and also the number of years they’ve lived, our professors are a lot more likely than our own peers to have personally known someone who’s battled it. Either way, they will understand.

Note: Taking  a leave of absence from school might be a better option for others, especially if you are having recurring suicidal thoughts. Do discuss your options with your counselor and people who know you well!

Hello, dear strangers on the same train!

How is it that of 300 or so subscribers to my blog, there are at least a hundred I haven’t met in real life? I definitely wasn’t expecting this when I first started this blog 3 months ago.

Last night, a good friend remarked that this recent post was a breath of fresh air. “It’s nice when you post about less heavy stuff once in a while,” he said. I suppose as blog followers began expanding beyond my little social circle, I subconsciously began cutting out potential posts that would be irrelevant to a readership that probably looks something like this:

blogreadership - Plain

There are other spaces for college rants and food cravings and other self-indulgent posts, I thought, like Facebook. But then I realized, for people who don’t know me in real life, I must come across as either (A) a super intense person,  or (B) someone who takes herself too seriously. Well, in a sense, B is kind of true — I take myself very seriously — but the same way I (try to) take others very seriously, and C.S. Lewis puts it really well: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendor.” Sorry, that escalated quickly. But seriously, though.

Let me end on a lighthearted note, with another random recording my friend Ben and I made over the weekend.

Colors of the Wind! What could be more lighthearted than Disney? (Maybe try to ignore the possibility that this song could be an environmentalist’s anthem, or an attack on white supremacy…)

But thank you, thank you for your interest in the things I write/post. It’s been a huge encouragement to know that I have thoughts and life experiences that are worth sharing. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading about yours too. 🙂 Even if we don’t know each other, I’m thankful for the common calling(s) we share, wherever you find yourself in that Venn diagram.