Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Doing What You Love: What A Seven Year Old and Sailor Moon Taught Me

Today, a student inspired me. It was pretty unexpected.

I was teaching an after school session to 1/6. I gave the students a worksheet (I've found six and seven year-olds have a hard time doing anything else after 5pm) and told them that when they finished they could fill in one of two coloring sheets. One was a picture of a cartoon dragon and the other was Sailor Moon, a girl anime character. As you might expect I chose these sheets based on an assumption that the boys would prefer one and the girls another. When I showed the two different pictures to the students, they got excited. A boy in the back raised his hand and when I called on him he smiled and said 'Teacher, I like Sailor Moon!'.

I don't usually teach 1/6. In another class, with another boy I knew better, I probably would have assumed he was joking. But somehow, this kid's energy and enthusiasm seemed very genuine.

I waited at the front as the students worked through their exercises. After about thirty minutes of writing and circling, they started to finish and grab their coloring sheets. In time, the boy who raised his hand came up and turned in his work. As soon as I gave him the ok, he grabbed a copy of the Sailor Moon sheet and returned to his desk.

Some of the other students quickly noticed which sheet he had picked up. Though the kids I teach are only six and seven, they've already been programmed according to gender roles. All the other boys, as far as I could tell, had grabbed the dragon sheet. All the girls (save one) had grabbed the Sailor Moon sheet.

As I walked to the back of the classroom, I started to hear comments from other students directed at this boy. I couldn't understand enough Thai to know every word but I think anyone can recognize ridicule, no matter what language it's spoken in. Words like khatuy (ladyboy), pooying (girl) slipped from these children's smiling lips.

I worried the boy would get upset. I was afraid I'd have to deal with a fight or a sobbing break down. Both these things have happened in other classes of mine over smaller issues.

As I sat down next to the boy and his classmates though I was surprised to see that he was still happy and smiling. He sharpened his colored pencils calmly and smoothly, seemingly oblivious to any of the comments swirling around him.

While he shaded in Sailor Moon's air, I talked to the other students in a combination of broken Thai, English and pantomime to try and make a defense for the taboo the boy had broken.

Interestingly one girl who had been making comments had chosen to color the dragon and seemed to have missed the irony that she was also breaking a barrier.

I took her sheet and held it up to her, getting the attention of some of the other students.

Our conversation went like this:

Me in English: (Do you like Dragons?)

She beams.

Her in English: (Yes, I love Dragons!)

I point to her.

Me in Broken Thai and English: (You a boy? Yes/No?)

Her in English: (No)

I turned to the other students, showed them her dragon all while pointing at her.

Me in English and Thai: She likes Dragons. She is a girl (pooying) She is ok. This is ok.

I turned to the boy, who was still smiling and coloring and held up his paper. I told them he was okay for liking Sailor Moon too.

As a foreign teacher in a Thai school, your ability to have more meaningful conversations with pupils is often very limited. I consider myself lucky if a third of my kids can understand basic instructions. Yet judging by the looks that some of my students gave me I knew at least a few got the gist of what I was trying to say.

Others didn't, and throughout the rest of the period I heard more comments, eventually prompting to give another short, broken sherade filled speech to a couple boys.

In the end though, I wondered if I really needed to do any of this at all. As I took a step back and watched the boy fill the empty outline with more and more vibrant colors, I saw that his enthusiasm didn't diminish because of anything I said or they said. He colored, he shared his pencils with other students, he showed part of his picture to a classmate who smiled with him not at him. By the time the session was over and I walked out of the classroom he was still coloring away.

Despite drawing odd looks and questioning words from his peers, this boy continued to do something he loved and enjoyed. I envy the assurance and certainty this child displayed. I admire how his enthusiasm for something he loved eclipsed the doubts of others and perhaps even prompted a few of his classmates to accept that passion.

As a teacher, your students teach you as much as you teach them. I feel honored to have been taught a lesson by this boy.

Be who you are, love what you want to love. Have the courage to raise your hand and say 'I like Sailor Moon!' if that's what you feel. 

The Sailor Moon Coloring Sheet

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