Words Healing Wounds

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The classroom is filled with sounds of scratching pencils and rustling pages as seven people feast upon the writing assignment given to them by University of Washington (UW) professor Shawn Wong. But this classroom is not at the UW, it is in the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. And these eager students are not working to pass a class, they are using the words to heal their wounds.

The creative writing class is offered as a part of the Red Badge Project, a nonprofit founded by actor Tom Skerritt, an Air Force veteran, and his neighbor Evan Bailey, a former U.S. Army captain.

After hearing the statistic that in 2012, more soldiers committed suicide than were killed in Afghanistan, Skerritt and Bailey recruited Wong and two screenwriters, Warren Ethredge and Brian McDonald, to teach classes. The teachers help the soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord feel more connected to society by channeling their feelings into storytelling.

The soldiers living in the battalion are not all originally from the Pacific Northwest — many are from Southern states like Georgia and Alabama and were in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though there are other similar programs for combat veterans, the Red Badge Project stands out as one of the few programs teaching active duty soldiers. These men and women are still in the army, but no longer able to serve. During the time of the Red Badge Project classes, the army is not allowed to schedule mandatory activities for the soldiers.

The classes run every day for three weeks, with a two-week break between sessions. The battalion contains approximately 600 soldiers, and six to seven show up for each session. The classes are voluntary, though the teachers observe that the effectiveness of the class compels many of the students to return session after session.

With a class full of soldiers, Wong, who has been teaching for 42 years at various colleges in Germany, France, Italy and the U.S., admits that the dynamic of the class is entirely different from anything he has ever experienced.

“I’m neither a therapist nor a social worker; all I do is teach writing,” says Wong. “The biggest surprise to me was how much ‘therapy’ I have to do, but I do it through the creative writing exercises.”

The soldiers, who range from their early-20s to beyond 50, have suffered the deep struggles that come with amputation, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid schizophrenia or a traumatic brain injury.

Wong recalls the first class he taught, during which the soldiers were so withdrawn, they could not even make eye contact. By the third class, they were participating enthusiastically.

“They are dying to write, and when I give them a writing assignment, they can’t wait to complete it,” says Wong. “They are not trying to be professional writers, they are just trying to tell their story.”

The soldiers do not have to write about battle, but get to choose their own subject matter. A popular topic among the students is family. When an assignment does not mesh with the soldiers, Wong and the other instructors are required to think on their feet.

When Wong gave the seemingly thought-provoking prompt, “Describe a familiar street scene from childhood,” the soldiers were uninterested. Then he shared an ambiguous Anne Sexton quote that popped into his head, “Some women marry houses,” and asked them what it meant.

“They couldn’t stop talking about it, everyone said they knew exactly what it meant,” says Wong, laughing. “You can’t just take something you do in a UW class and put it in front of them, so you immediately make an alteration.”

When Wong teaches classes for the Red Badge Project, he shares his personal traumas more than in a regular UW class. By sharing his own experiences, Wong hopes that the soldiers will feel less isolated in their suffering.

As the soldiers develop a level of trust with Wong, they confide in him with their troubling pasts and stories. The majority of the soldiers want to come to class more than anything else they do, says Wong. They write everything from poetry to short stories and memoirs, and extend it to their free time.

“When somebody says to you that their comrade died in their arms, or that they looked at a suicide bomber in the eye before he triggered the bomb, or that they spent a year in a hospital bed trying to recover from injuries, it’s difficult to know what to say,” says Wong.

But Wong realizes that the soldiers do not expect him to say the right thing. They just want him to listen.

Originally published in The International Examiner

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Making Time For My Indian Culture

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At the bottom of a bookshelf in my room, there are about a hundred comic books, Amar Chitra Kathas, each containing a different story in Hindu mythology. When I was a toddler, I would bring one of those books to my mom every night, pestering her to read it to me. It has been more than a year since I opened one.

As children of immigrants grow up to become high school students, the books of their heritage sit idle, cobwebs collecting on the neglected pages, waiting for the day when they will pause their busy pre-college lives and set aside five minutes for their culture.

My parents moved to Seattle from Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in 1990 to study at the University of Washington. I was born seven years later, and have lived in North Seattle for my entire life. Growing up, my parents spent significant time and energy teaching our culture to me and my sisters.

Up until the age of six, I didn’t know that my father could speak English. He convinced me and my sisters that he couldn’t understand what we were saying unless we spoke to him in Tamil. To this day, I speak Tamil much better than most other American-born Indians.

My mother always took us to the temple, cooked delicious South Indian meals every night, taught us about different poojas (offerings to God), celebrated every Hindu festival and ensured that we were well-informed.

As a result of my parents’ toil, I was a very culturally aware child. I went to Tamil class, learned about all the states in India, and knew a multitude of stories about the Hindu gods. I even memorized and sang Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem, for my mother’s birthday. And I did these things because I wanted to – not because my parents told me to.

My Indian cultural values were clearly visible in my conduct. Respect for teachers was apparent through the flowers and gifts I would give to them at the end of every school year. I was courteous towards elders, and rarely ever talked back to my parents. I never spoke ill of anyone, and I never cheated.

But as I grew older and became exposed to more American pop culture, my efforts to retain my Indian heritage began to dwindle. English was mixed into the Tamil that I spoke at home, and the stories that I had carefully studied were pushed to the dusty, back corners of my mind.

Giving gifts to teachers received the label “teacher’s pet.” Respecting my parents made me an outsider to the mass of parent-hating teenagers. I watched as everyone around me gossiped behind each other’s back and cheated on tests. It became harder than ever to hold onto the morals that my culture had taught me.

With schoolwork, sports, extracurricular activities, hanging out with friends and worrying about the future, embracing and preserving my cultural traditions has been shoved down my list of priorities.

In my Human Geography class, I studied the waning of local culture and the spread of Americanization — a subject directly relevant to my life. If English is the language of the future, and the world is becoming homogenized at a breakneck speed, why should I spend my energy preserving my culture?

Resistance to assimilation, and acceptance of all cultures, is what will keep the world the diverse place it is. With diversity comes an array of perspectives, ideas and knowledge. America is not a melting pot, but a fruit salad, with each fruit retaining its own flavor and contributing to the overall luscious combination.

Those who resist homogenization can experience the joy of sharing their culture with others. Every year, my family hosts a Navarathri Golu, a doll showcase attended by all our American friends. The festival celebrates the three main Hindu goddesses and their representation of wisdom, wealth and power.

Every person that attends the festival leaves with a bit of Indian culture, as well as bindi and sandalwood to put on their foreheads and necks, some lentils, a fruit, and a gift such as a cone of henna or an embroidered bag.

My culture is not just a language and a religion. It is a way of life. It has nurtured into me values like being humble, valuing education and always doing my best. These are priceless lessons that I want my children and my grandchildren and my great grandchildren to continue to learn.

First-generation kids like myself can get swept away with the American lifestyle. But those comic books from my childhood will always sit there, gazing at me reproachfully as I bustle here and there.

Five minutes today of reading those forgotten pages will save me the guilt of abandoning a bit of myself tomorrow. So I brush off those cobwebs, and read.

Originally published in The International Examiner

Laugh It Off

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Happiness pic

Happiness is the most desired emotion in the world. Everything everyone does every day is because of happiness. Your eyeballs will run out of tear glands eventually, but smiles – smiles can last forever. Feeling your insides warm up, or feeling your tummy muscles sore from laughing, laughing, laughing until tears come out of your eyes and you have fallen out of your chair, gasping for breath, but you cannot stop laughing because you just feel so so happy.

And everyone around you is laughing at you rolling around on the ground, and that warm and fuzzy feeling spreads like an infectious disease, a disease that spares no one, not even the ones that like to bask in their misery, not even the ones that are reluctant to join your laughing. But no one wants to find the cure for this disease. They want it to engulf their entire body and kill them slowly so that one day, they will die from happiness.

Happiness is that little girl. She is crying for some reason that means the world to her, but means nothing to you, because she didn’t get to go on the slide during recess. But all you have to do is pick her up and swing her around in a circle and her face lights up and the tears on her face slide away. Because she is five and her white blood cells have not begun to fight off happiness yet. No, her immune system is underdeveloped and the happiness bacteria can invade her body with ease.

Think of that little girl, and cry. Cry because you cannot and will never be able to laugh as easily as she can. And after you have cried, you will begin to laugh at what you are crying at, at the absurdity of the whole thing. Because in the end, laughter always prevails.

Happiness is easy. Be happy that you smiled at a stranger and they smiled back. Happy that you ate lunch with someone that doesn’t usually eat lunch with anyone. Be happy about movies and words and bad jokes and gossip-free days and little kids who look up to you and talented people who are humble and friends who pretend they haven’t heard the story that you’ve already told twice.

And one day, you will think of all the times you have cried, and take a step back, and realize all the silly reasons that you wasted your tears, and how much easier it would have been to just be happy. That day, far away, when the realization hits you, you will laugh.

But why do you have to wait for that day? That day can be today.

Crazy Kids 101

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girls playing

Having taught dance frequently for the past few months, I have seen sweet kids, quiet kids, and annoying kids, but mostly lovable kids with enough energy to launch a rocket. I started out being unable to console a crying child, but have since grown to be able to comfortably handle a large group of rowdy kids. From my research (both as a teacher and as a student), I have compiled a step-by-step instruction manual on how to deal with the craziest of children:

  1. Embed class rules in the children’s minds through inception. Have them brainstorm the list. A trick as old as time itself. So every time a girl is being annoying, you can remind her that it was her idea in the first place to not to talk when the teachers talking (so she’s really just disobeying herself, not you).
  2. Assert yourself as the teacher. If you’re too informal, the kids will think you will be okay with anything they do. It’s important to make the distinction of you being the teacher and them being the students.
  3. Make them feel special. Having said that, remember that little kids love big kids who care about little kids. Before and after class, and during water break, ask them about their day. Follow up on details about their lives, even if you have to endure long repetitive conversations about What I’m Doing At Grandma’s House After Class. Be their friend, they’ll respect you for it.
  4. Empower the troublemakers. Does someone just refuse to stop wandering around instead of standing in their place? Ask them if they think they can handle being the line leader (100 times out of 100, the answer will be YES). Every time they start on an orbit around the classroom, remind them that with great power, comes great responsibility. Besides, you don’t know what’s going on in that student’s life – they’re all just kids after all.
  5. Reward the good kids. Well-mannered kids deserve some serious credit. The esteemed titles of “Special Demonstrator” and “Dot Picker-Upper” can be reserved for these stars.
  6. Emotionally blackmail the ones who want to sit out for no reason. Once one sits down with a “my foot hurts a little”, you’re screwed. Soon, the footache will magically transmit itself to every other child in the class. First, try “Let me look at it.” *examine inexistent injury* Proceed: “I think you can make it until the end of dance class, what do you think?”. If the child continues to refuse to dance, give them a few minutes to sit out. After this, if the child still doesn’t feel like dancing, link the inability to do the dance with an inability to partake in the fun game at the end of class. This usually does the trick. If a child is really injured, of course, let them sit out, but it’s easy to make the distinction.
  7. Play Frozen songs, all day, every day. Remember to cover ears before pressing play, in order to escape being deafened by a dozen high pitched squeals. (Note: after 3 weeks, you will never want to build a snowman again. Ever.)
  8. Know which battles to pick and which battles to leave. If someone wants to be partners with their friend for one game, let them be partners. If you were in a dance class, wouldn’t you want to be partners with your friend? It’s an opportune moment to get a rep as the nice teacher, and you can save your “no”s for a more significant problem.
  9. Get the boys to stay. Keep the Taylor Swift to a minimum, get boys to come with friends, don’t talk about pretty ballerinas all the time, and make references to the LEGO movie at every opportune moment. Boys like to dance too. Help them feel free to do it.
  10. Pick a favorite. If you feel that all hope is lost in the classroom, take a moment to zone everybody out and focus on this sweet angelic (usually kindergarten) child – a deviation from nature – who is probably at this time gazing at you with big round eyes as the rest of the class reigns terror. Renew your faith in humanity, then proceed.
  11. Never tell Mom that her child was naughty. It might be because, at 16 years old, I was recently a child. But that’s just low. What happens in dance class stays in dance class.
  12. Let them know they’re improving. When you’re dancing, despite how you look, you imagine yourself to be beautiful. This is even truer with children, who picture themselves being graceful ballerinas or suave breakdancers. Kids love hearing that they’re doing well and improving, and it inspires them to continue practicing and dancing.
  13. Stamps. Are. Magic. Kids would kill for stamps. One for dancing, one for listening. Works every time.
  14. Keep calm and carry on. Even if there are thirty kids and one of you, the children don’t feel like it’s chaos – they’re just having fun. They’ll just start thinking it’s funny if they see you getting flustered, and the pandemonium will escalate. Remember those poor substitutes from middle school? You don’t want to end up like that. If you appear cool and collected (even if you don’t feel it) you’ll gain respect.
  15. Love the kids. Children are my favorite kind of people. They don’t overthink things, hold grudges or judge others. Unlike adults, they’ll never tell you they’re too tired, too busy, or too bored for dancing. Their mouths are an incessant stream of funny quotes. They’ll give you big hugs and tell you they’re excited to see you. They’ll bring you hilarious crayon drawings and tell you all about their lives. They’ll look up to you, want to be your friend, and love you. Make dance class fun, and aspire to be that teacher whom the child remembers for the rest of their life.

Blame it on the Mirror

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Every year at my dance studio, we have a week called Love Your Body Week celebrated by students ranging in age from three to eighteen.

The little kids love it. You can tell just by their enthusiasm that fulfilling society’s idea of beauty is not high on their priorities. But in the pre-teen and teen classes, it is much harder for girls to discuss positive body image. The concept of beauty has shackled them to a wall of low self-esteem.

Why and when does this change happen? It all comes down to a mirror.

There’s a certain point in time when a girl starts looking at herself in the mirror and changing the way she looks to satisfy what she wants to see. Widening her eyes, making her hair glossier, tilting her head from side to side.

She pictures all the beautiful women she’s ever seen: the flawless model in her magazine or the girl in her class that everyone likes, and tries to arrange her face into something similar, molding this mask until she is satisfied that others will find beauty in it.

But think about this – you have never seen your own face before, you’ve only seen a reflection. If you’ve never even seen your own face, then who are you to measure the quality of your beauty?

I’m not saying physical beauty doesn’t exist, because it does. It is shaped by television, advertising, and how you were raised. It’s the clarity of your skin and the symmetry of your features, but it isn’t worth the hours and hours of covering your face with makeup, straightening your hair, spending hundreds of dollars on cosmetics, constantly fretting over “Am I beautiful, am I beautiful, am I beautiful?”

Why go through all this trouble? Wearing makeup or a cute outfit doesn’t change your beauty to others. I straightened my hair a couple of days ago. What’s the big deal? You know me already. It’s just Menaka with straight hair, or Menaka with a cute outfit. What makes Menaka Menaka isn’t what she wears – it is what she is.

Audrey Hepburn once said, “For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness.” Being kind and happy is more effective than a million bottles of mascara and lip gloss.

And I can prove this to you.

Imagine that you meet a girl who is missing a nose. At first, she is just strange-looking, deep down you probably think she’s ugly, but then you have a funny conversation with her, and the next day she does you a favor, and days continue on, until one day, you don’t even realize that she’s missing a nose. She is not “beautiful” on the outside, but her inside, her demeanor, the idea of her is beautiful.

Let’s learn from the three year olds at Love Your Body Week – they don’t put so much stock in physical beauty. They still look into the mirror and see their plain old reflection smiling back at them.