To the Teen Who Thinks Looking Different Is Worse Than Dying
When I write, I have time to think and re-write and take all the time I need. But 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. This isn’t an issue when I’m teaching; 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 about issues 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 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 my daughter, 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 I came to not even see when I looked at her.
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 and walked away.
I don’t blame this kid for the things she said. As a teen, I might’ve thought looking like this woman would’ve been a fate worse than death, too. I don’t believe anybody wants to be the person who attracts that kind of attention, particularly teenagers. Especially not in a world that focuses so much on appearances. I’m fairly certain I would’ve 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. I’m not proud to admit that, but I would wager most people feel the same.
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 it 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 viewpoints and those of people around us, without forcing people to go through what we’ve been through? Is it even possible?
And then I think about Eva and how she couldn’t see and how that would’ve meant she never saw those differences. And I know it’s possible to feel that way.
Maybe someone who was faster on their feet would’ve managed better than I did today. Maybe they would’ve taken 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.
If I could sit down again and have a do-over, maybe I’d ask her this:
“What if it wasn’t you, but your sister, your brother, your best friend? What if something happened to them that made them look differently? Would your feelings for that person change? Would you stop loving them? How would you feel if you heard someone saying what you just said about them?
“How is this woman who was born that way any different? How is my Eva any different? Are they not deserving of love, respect and dignity, too?”
I always say I’ll have something prepared for next time, but there is so much about this experience that catches me off guard, I doubt that will ever really be the case.
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