My wise potted pals  

There’s a little garden in the middle of the school where I teach, and there resides my three potted pals. I’m starting to think their presence is a must in any garden.


I’ve walked past them about a hundred times now, yet they never fail to put a smile on my face. While they may look rather spacey, those vacuous eyes belie great spiritual wisdom. “Why are you frowning? Be silly, be kooky. It’s a lot of fun!”

They jolt me out of any sense of self-importance that creeps in as the day goes by. I’ve learned that when we stop taking ourselves too seriously, it frees us up to take other people more seriously. Which is important in many vocations, and so good for the health of our souls.

Thanks for the daily reminder, little friends! ūüôā

Learning to love my name again

Since day 1 I’ve observed how students love doodling their own names. That’s the first thing many of them do given any downtime, boys and girls alike. Along the margins of their notebooks you’ll find their names in¬†cursive, block letters, graffiti-style…

More recently, my colleague had the¬†brilliant idea of creating an “Honor Roll” board to put up the names of students who are getting the target minimum B in their regular Math class. Everyone got busy writing their names on individual notecards. Boy did that activity take much longer than expected. For the first time, some were meticulously using their best penmanship, even decorating the borders and background, and asking to start over on a fresh card when they messed up. A far cry from the pages of their Math notebooks (you’d think they’re deliberately trying to veer as far from the margins as possible…).

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I mentioned¬†this “phenomenon” to my RCIA instructor, who pointed out that name-writing is a powerful form of self-identity and self-expression . It makes sense that this impetus would be particularly strong during formative and experimental teenage years.

Your name represents you. It’s how you represent yourself to others, as well as to yourself, and is something people associate with you.¬†While deep in depression, I developed a profound shame of¬†my own name.

I wasn’t too surprised by how I hated¬†seeing myself in the mirror — that happened the previous two time I was depressed and was a natural consequence of an unhealthy¬†self-esteem. What was new this time round was how I hated seeing¬†my name, hearing my name, and worst of all having to say my name.

While deep in depression, I had neither¬†the mental energy nor agility to understand why this was happening. It’s clear to me now. I had come to attach my name to everything I have done, but most of all my failures and mistakes.

I had come to despise my own existence. And your name, after all, is like footprints of your existence¬†— it’s attached to virtually everything you’ve done: essays, standardized tests, consent forms, report cards, college applications, job applications, diplomas, awards, text correspondences, email correspondences, credit card purchases…

Since I was so plagued by overwhelming shame for everything I have ever said and done, I naturally began to be ashamed of my name. It is nothing less than soul-crushing to come face-to-face with your own name, one with which you’ve lived for more than two decades, and find that you’ve done nothing but sabotage and tarnish your own legacy.

Meeting new people was torture because it meant having to¬†introduce myself. I’d reached a point where I’d begun to feel alienated from my own name. Saying my name had become like saying the name of an enemy! I hated having to wear my name tag at work. I squirmed in the inside whenever I had to introduce myself to colleagues and students. It made it hard to be fully present in any situation when you’re subconsciously trying to dissociate yourself from your name, your identity.

But as I make my journey toward full recovery, I am learning to be kind to myself. I am learning that there’s a depressed Karen, a non-depressed Karen. A proud Karen, a humble Karen. An insecure Karen, a confident Karen. A selfish Karen, a selfless Karen. A Karen who makes mistakes, a Karen who does things right. A hypocritical Karen, a genuine Karen. A Karen who wasted many opportunities, and a Karen who is learning from her mistakes.¬†A Karen crippled by doubt, a Karen who walks by faith.

I am not perfect. I don’t mean to say that to suggest that I’ll just have to live with that.¬†Instead, I am saying this: every up and down, every failure and success, is an¬†important part of my journey toward becoming the Karen Zainal that God created and ultimately desires me to be.

Hear me, coastlands,¬†listen, distant peoples.¬†Before birth the LORD¬†called me,¬†from my mother‚Äôs womb he gave me my name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

My name is Karen Zainal and I am proud of it.

I will end with this beautiful passage taken from The Inner Voice of Love, the “secret journal” of Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who went through a debilitating cycle of depression:

There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgent, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. You can tell your story from the place where it no longer dominates you. You can speak about it with a certain distance and see it as the way to your present freedom. The compulsion to tell your story is gone. From the perspective of the life you now live and the distance you now have, your past does not loom over you. It has lost its weight and can be remembered as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding toward others.

Can you identify with any of this?¬†Have you ever attached shame to your own name? What’s the story?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me “an innocent in hell”

My students knew I was depressed before my colleagues did

During our training, we were told that students are far more perceptive than we’d expect. Students can tell if you don’t care, students can tell if you’re fake, students can tell if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. These are all true, but who knew they’d also sniff out my depression?

They didn’t exactly read it from my face, but there are plenty of other signs they could pick up.

I was in the hospital visiting a student who’s recovering from a traumatic injury (and overall near-death experience), when I decided to tell him about my history with depression. It thought it would be a good way to start a conversation about how we can commit to learn and grow from life’s tragedies.

But before I could elaborate, he cut me off: “Oh, I knew that. I saw that book you were reading.”¬†He’s referring to¬†The Catholic Guide to Depression (How many times have I referred to this book on my blog? You’d think I was getting paid to plug it…). I have a rather messy workspace in the classroom, and would leave my non-class-related things at random corners. Now I wonder how many students saw my little orange bottle of antidepressants.

On a separate occasion, I was letting my students know ahead of time that I wouldn’t be in school the following day. I didn’t expect anyone to bat an eyelid, but one of them began “badgering” me.

“Why?”
“I need to see my doctor tomorrow.”
“Oh, during the day? What’s wrong with you?”
“We can talk about this after class.”
“No, just whisper it to me.”

While his desk mate was paying no attention, I casually explained, “I will be seeing a therapist tomorrow. The first appointment has to be during the daytime. Don’t worry, I won’t have to miss school for this in the future.”

Of course, he wanted to know more, this time with a hushed voice and a look of concern in his eyes.

“Wait, so what’s wrong with you?”
“Just finish your work, and we can talk more after class, okay?”

The sweet boy just wouldn’t have it, so finally I whispered, probably against protocols of appropriacy, “I was diagnosed with depression. But don’t worry, it’s under control.” I did not expect him to whisper back, “Oh, I think I have that too.” But I’m thankful he did — otherwise,¬†I wouldn’t be able to support him as comprehensively as I now can.

Sensing that there is much potential for this “secret” to be “used” for good in the classroom, I told another student. This particular student wasn’t struggling with anything particularly atypical of a high-schooler, but he struggled a lot with motivation. He found it hard to want to do anything that was difficult or unfamiliar, which you unfortunately encounter a lot in Math. I was getting a lot of “I don’t want to do this anymore” and “I’m calling my mom” from this boy.

One day, I sat him down and told him about how hard it was for me to go through college while depressed. I shared this not to guilt-trip or shame him, but to explain how things would have turned out much different had I lived according to the mantra of doing only things that are easy or comfortable. I also shared how my deepest regrets from my younger days are exactly that: forgoing many opportunities for growth simply because they weren’t within my comfort zone. “You know, that’s why I still can’t ride a bike today.” That drew a chuckle, but I knew I finally had him in a way that would last a longer than my previous ‘life lectures’. The message was clear: we won’t grow if we’re never uncomfortable.

I believe there is room for vulnerability (in appropriate doses and at appropriate times) in the classroom. It makes you more human, a concept many students find difficult to grasp.

And it helps establish genuine relationships. Some believe it’s better to keep things “professional”, but I doubt that’s universally applicable. These relationships, in turn, will¬†help you teach. Not just classroom material, but lessons in life and virtue.

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A candid shot taken by my colleague

Related post:¬†My students are helping me recover from depression, “It all started with tea.”

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!

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Please don’t be a teacher if you’re not going to love your job

At the beginning of the academic year, I noticed a few high school freshmen ¬†getting confused between¬†simplifying algebraic expressions and¬†solving¬†algebraic equations. It took just 15 minutes to get to¬†the root of the problem:¬†they don’t understand the concept of the equal sign. You know, our ubiquitous and seemingly benign friend: “=”. And then I saw the same problem in some sophomores, and then even a junior.

My first instinct was to wonder if they had a learning disability of some sort that’s hindered them from grasping basic mathematical concepts all these years. But then I see that they read just fine, write just fine, count just fine…so what’s the problem here?

Well, I’m inclined to think that if a teenager enters high school not understanding the equal sign, some certified “teachers” out there have been doing them a big¬†— no — monumental¬†disservice (and continuing to do so for many other kids).

They say it takes a village to raise a child. If parents/guardians are the village chief, teachers rank a close second on the hierarchy of influence, considering how much time¬†kids spend in school. The average American child spends¬†1,260 hours¬†in school per year (let that sink in…). Teachers simply cannot afford to not care about their job.

Well, maybe they can afford to. But kids can’t afford to have their teachers¬†conducting half-assed lessons. Parents can’t afford to have their kids be exposed¬†to an awful role model every day. And our society can’t afford¬†the results of¬†classrooms operating like this:

A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don't have that technology, but this depiction isn't too far from the truth...
A 1910 prediction of what 21st century classrooms would look like. We don’t have that technology, but this isn’t too far from reality. This is lazy, homogenized education.

As a teacher, you cannot afford to not like your job. There are plenty of other jobs where you can excel without¬†being particularly fond of your duties. That’s because Excel sheets/Powerpoint slides aren’t going to be ruined because you whipped them up in an hour when you were supposed to do it in three. You can always print a new set if you spilled coffee all over whatever it is people carry in those leather-bound folders, and your clients will never have to know it happened. But children and teenagers are human beings, for goodness’ sake. You¬†leave permanent imprints in their minds, their characters, their ideals, values, aspirations, their¬†whole lives.

For every dedicated and engaged teacher out there, there are going to be a few who are “bad” just because they’re not particularly gifted at teaching, or because they are overburdened by a bureaucratic and unsupportive system. That’s unfortunate, and should definitely be fixed, but the scarier question is this: for every teacher who does a good and thorough job, how many are lazy, entitled, and uncaring? I don’t think there are official statistics for this, and I’d be too¬†afraid to find out the answer anyway.

I had a 7th grade History teacher who napped at her desk while we copied notes off the screen. 13-year-old me decided I hated history and never took another history class. Then there was an 11th-grade Economics teacher who would roll her eyes at our questions, which made me determined never to ask another question in class. But I was lucky that the number of good teachers I had outweighed the number of bad ones, so I turned out quite okay overall.

I hope all teachers love their job. What does loving your job mean in the context of teaching? I don’t mean you have to feel like sunshine and rainbows all the time, because it’s obviously hard work with many ups and downs. I don’t (yet) have much experience in the education sector, but I believe loving your job quite simply comes down to:

1. Recognizing the responsibility and privilege you have to be able to do life with your students.

2. Recognizing the value of every young person your serve on a daily basis.

And of course, acting upon those recognitions.

If I can have my way and if future circumstances allow it, I’m homeschooling my kids. And if I can’t I pray and hope they never end up with teachers who let them get away with not understanding the equal sign.

“It all started with tea.”

A while back, I wrote about one of my students, Omari, who is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A big thank-you to readers¬†who have joined me in¬†praying for him and his family, as well as assisting them financially by contributing to Omari’s recovery fund.

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When I visited Omari today, we were finally able to talk about how he’s feeling about the incident itself, as well as where he plans to go from here. One of my worries had been that he’d be traumatized and never want to return nor associate himself with the¬†Chicago South Side ever again, though that would be understandable, considering his close brush with death (this 17-year-old boy was shot in the face). I made it a point to pray specifically that God would somehow use this whole fiasco to grow this young man¬†in very profound ways.

Well, today, Omari told me that he aspires to be an undercover detective in Chicago, specializing in gang injunction and indictment. I almost cried right in front of him.

When I pressed him further for a back-up plan, he said he’d want to start an organization that helps at-risk youths graduate from high school. God knows how I managed to keep it together at that point. I couldn’t be more proud.

Omari is one of only two students with whom I have shared about my history with clinical depression, and how that has completely changed me and redirected my life trajectory. This 17-year-old African-American boy and this strange Chinese lady now have something in common: God is redeeming and transforming us through the darkest moments of our lives.

Today, I also made sure to tell him about how I knew he was different from many of my other students, in that he recognized me as a fellow human being (as opposed to a slave-driver or a grading machine) right from the beginning. And that’s a huge part of why we’re able to have a meaningful¬†relationship as teacher and student.

At that, he reminded me, “It all started with tea.” I teared up at this point, recalling how he was that one student who thought¬†to ask about the weird Chinese tea I drink every morning, and to actually ask to sample a cup. There’s now a giant bag of said tea sitting next to his hospital bed.

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Related posts:¬†Let’s support the Mott family,¬†My students are helping me recover from depression

“Special needs” kids can teach us a thing or two about humanity

As an aspiring special education teacher, I wanted to learn how to interact with kids with more profound developmental disabilities. I found KEEN, a nonprofit that¬†pairs volunteers with special needs participants (kids and young adults) in a time of free play. I started two weeks ago; and as it turns out, there wasn’t much to learn at all — though there was much¬†to unlearn.

My buddy, Charles, is an African-American male in his 20s. Because of his intellectual disability, he behaves like a young child, and would often repeat himself. His favorite lines are “How you doing?” and “What color is this?” Charles is also incredibly friendly, and would shake hands with anyone he meets. Sometimes, he would pick up your hand and sniff it (it’s his way of showing affection), which tends to startle people meeting him for the first time. He loves shooting hoops, which I happen to be terrible at, and¬†thankfully doesn’t bother him.

When I first met Charles, I was¬†keenly aware that under “normal” circumstances, we would unlikely be friends. Charles and I have close to nothing in common — not gender, not race, not age, not occupation,¬†not skills, not interests. But it quickly became so clear to me that we have one very important thing in common — we’re both God’s children.

There is unparalleled¬†beauty in simple interactions. When I talk to Charles and other participants at KEEN, there is absolutely no pretense. There’s no need to be smart, or witty, or funny, or interesting. No judgment, no expectations. Simply put, these are interactions in the purest form. No one’s trying to impress anybody, and no one’s trying to gain anything from anybody. I felt freedom.

Occasionally, I take a step back to just marvel at what’s going on in this basketball court, and I realize that this is an oasis in a clockwork society that expects so much of every¬†individual.

One time, Charles wanted to take a walk outside of the basketball court, so I took his hand and we ventured out for 5 minutes, during which we ran into a few college students. Charles being Charles, promptly walked up to them and asked for all their names, before shaking and sniffing their hands. I was enraged by the grimaces and general discomfort plastered all over their faces. That was the moment I realized the extent to which¬†we’ve created a society so hostile to those who are “different”.

It’s no surprise that we’re seeing more and more “wrongful birth” lawsuits filed by parents who declare that they would have aborted their baby if they’d known he/she would be different. And then we have the likes of Richard Dawkins who’d go so far as to say that “immoral” not to abort unborn babies with Down Syndrome.

I, too, am guilty of perpetuating an elitist, ableist world. For four years, I immersed myself in the intellectual bubble that is The University of Chicago. There, I learned life-changing critical thinking skills that I am incredibly thankful for. Unfortunately, it also instilled in me a poisonous pride in my ability to engage in “intellectual” conversations, and hence a preference for a certain type of interaction. It took a major bout of depression that robbed me of many of my cognitive abilities for me to be humbled once more.

I love the work organizations like KEEN does, but it saddens me that we actually need to recruit volunteers to fulfill social and emotional needs that wonderful people like Charles are often deprived of.

I encourage you to try spending some time with people like Charles. They will always teach and remind us about what it means to be fellow human beings, and it will be good for our souls.

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Charles gave me a slip of paper with his name on it so I wouldn’t forget him over the course of the week.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‚ÄúWho then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?‚ÄĚ And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‚ÄúTruly I say to you, unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. ‚ÄúWhoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 18:1-4)

 

 

Also published on The Mighty.

Related post: Depression taught me to have compassion for the developmentally disabled