I wish I were a little quicker on my feet sometimes. When I write these posts I have time to think. Time to create sentences. Time to weigh up words and their meaning and their impact. I can re-write and take all the time I need.
But on the spot, in conversation, I’m not nearly so verbose. I stutter when under pressure sometimes and when I reach for the perfect word it eludes me. When I’m teaching this isn’t an issue, i know what I’m talking about and my position means I can take my time and express myself as well as I can, but when I’m put on the spot, especially on issues that I care about, I struggle.
I had an incident like that today. There was an opportunity to maybe get one of my students to look at things a little differently, and I panicked. Words escaped my brain and I was stumped.
One of my students was reading a magazine and asked me about a woman in the magazine who had a visible chromosomal abnormality. Her face didn’t look like most of our faces. She looked different and to this 14 year old that meant she was ugly. She asked me about her and I googled her condition to try and explain why she looked the way she did. After I had explained it, her response was “imagine looking like that,” she paused and I waited to see if she felt empathy for this woman or disgust. The next thing she said was, “I think I would kill myself”.
I started to respond. “People are dealt all sorts of different hands and as a baby she wouldn’t have known any different” I started to say. She screwed her nose up and closed the magazine. “But she’s so ugly”.
In my mind I saw Eva with her eye that made people take a second glance at her, that made people say, “how sad” when they looked at her, the eye that I came to not even see when I looked at her, and I swallowed. I couldn’t respond with something clever in that moment. I couldn’t tell the student how the only difference between her and this woman was a chromosome. That it was down to luck and genetics and a spin of the wheel. That who knew what life held for her and I hope she was never in a situation where someone could say something like that about her. But instead I said, “don’t be so mean,” and stood up from where I had been sitting with her and walked away.
I don’t blame this kid for the things she said. As a teen I might have thought looking like this woman would have been a fate worse than death too. No body wants to be different. No body wants to be the person who attracts that kind of attention. Particularly not teenagers. Especially not in a world that focuses so much on appearances. I’m fairly certain I would have felt similarly when I was 14. If I’m honest, I probably still feel some of that, not to that extreme of course, but if given a choice I would still prefer to look as I do, than to stand out for looking so different, to have a chromosomal difference that makes people think I am not like them. I’m not proud to admit that, but I would wager most people feel the same. They can say whatever they like of course, because they know they have already avoided that genetic lottery, and short of an accident which leaves them injured and changed, they can be confident this will never be them.
I remember googling eye abnormalities before Eva was born and feeling my stomach roil at the thought that my daughter could look like that. Our faces are the window to ourselves. They are, to all intents and purposes, who we are. Or at least who people see us as. People judge us based on that appearance and what is says to them. While it might not always be fair or right, it’s the way we are wired. By that token, our eyes are so important in expressing ourselves and our emotions. I thought about Eva and how much having an abnormal eye would affect how people saw her and treated her.
How do we try to explain and develop understanding and empathy to ourselves and to others when this is the environment and world we live in? How do we change our view points and those of people around us, without forcing people to go through what we have been through? Is it even possible?
And then I think about Eva and how she couldn’t see and how that would have meant she never saw those differences. And I know it is possible to feel that way.
Maybe someone who was faster on their feet would have managed better than I did today. Maybe they would have took the moment as a chance to try and change this girl’s view. But I didn’t. I panicked. I left that lesson feeling like I had let Eva down. Let myself down. I always say I’ll have something prepared for next time, but there is so much about this experience that catches me off guard, that I doubt that will ever really be the case.