Monday, July 8, 2013

So, what if the hokey pokey was really what it's all about?

Some necessary background information:

1. I teach at an all-women’s high school.
2. South Korea has their final exams at the beginning of July, and then three weeks before the end of the semester. Don’t ask me why; I have no idea.
3. My main goal for this semester has been to bust through stereotypes given to my students merely because they were born as girls. I have tried my damndest to teach critical thinking, creativity, and empowerment. I have tried to teach them that they do not need to work within the binary of male or female, but under the umbrella of being a human.

We good? Okay.

So, today, I gave my students the options of watching a movie or practicing for their pop song contest on Friday evening. They unanimously voted to practice. I said, alright, have at it.

One student found an instrumental version of the song “Mercy” by Duffy. My students were sitting and singing beautifully and sweetly. I asked if they would want some pronunciation help or idea help—a little timidly, since I may or may not be a judge at the contest. They accepted, and I corrected some of their pronunciation (“beggin’” instead of “beggING,” etc).

Then, on a whim, I asked them if they knew what the song meant and what it means to them. They explained it to me in rapid Korean, which of course I didn’t understand. But, with their motions and the words “namja” (man) and “yeoja” (woman) and “upsaiyo” (not or no or without) showed up, I figured that they understood the basics.

My students sang it again, and their words sounded great, but they were still not really singing like they understood the gist of the song.  When they finished, I praised their pronunciation, then I asked if the singer was happy, sad, or angry about not being with her boyfriend.
They said, “Sad teacher. She is sad and angry.”

Then, together, we dissected the line, “Now you think that I/ will be something on the side. / But you got to understand that I need a man / who can take my hand.”

I asked if they knew what “on the side” meant. They shook their heads, so I created a metaphor with a chair and two desks, and that the chair was dating both of them at the same time. I asked if they thought that was okay. They shook their heads, but one student said, “Not really, but there must be a reason for him to do that. It is important to have a boyfriend.”

After I collected my jaw from the floor, I looked at each of my quietly nodding students and settled on her. I said, “No, honey, you do not ever deserve to be on the side.” I turned to the class, "You are so smart and so creative. You have so many qualities that are perfect, just as you are. You do not ever deserve to be less than your partner’s number one. And, frankly, you do not even need a partner. You are whole and important just by yourself. The only person you should want to be sexy for is you. When you love yourself wholly and truly, that is when someone will come along, and together you will grow into the best versions of yourselves. You are nothing less than amazing. Please, bring that attitude when you sing this song.”

It was their turn to drop their jaws. When we sang the song again, their voices were so much stronger. They started moving their bodies to the beat and giving meaning to the lyrics.  I watched this instantaneous transformation in my students. This realization of self-worth took me months, years to figure out. For me, it was slow and painful. But, in one minute, these children stopped being girls or women, but became human. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Afterwards I told them, “I have never been more proud in my entire life than I am right now. That was perfect. You are perfect.” I paused, “I want to teach you a dance—a dance that we do at weddings.”

“Teacher, can we show you our dance first, then we learn yours?”

As they ran through their routine, it started as “K-Pop Sexy.” By that, I mean to say, that is was about the provocation and sex appeal. But, then they kept practicing and speaking in Korean, pointing at me. They changed some dance steps and their posture, which made it much more about respecting their bodies and internalizing their “sexy,” not enticing the audience. The understanding of this change and what it meant to my students settled around me. It became a manifestation of empowerment and strength.

Afterwards, they asked me to teach them my dance. I lined them up in two columns, facing each other. I said, “Okay, this dance is all about self-expression. When it is your turn, you dance through the column with the person across from you. This is a safe space, and you are free to dance however you want. Then, go to the end of the column, and cheer on your classmates. Okay? Okay.”

Obviously, as a certified attention glutton, I went first and danced through the two columns of my students. The next two came, timidly, just walking through the columns. But, as I started dancing with them, they became more comfortable. As the song continued, the students danced through the columns. The lines sort of collapsed upon themselves, and it just became a dance party in the back of the classroom. One brave student came up to the front of the crowd and danced with me while her friends kept singing the song. I drowned in singing, dancing, and joy in its purest form. It was one of those moments that everyone was living 100% in the moment, dancing without abandon.

After class, a student, with whom I had never had a full conversation, stayed behind until the classroom was empty. She looked at me, carefully crafting a sentence; “Kathryn, I thinked a lot today. Thank you for telling me perfect. I will remember to dance only for perfect me.” I took her hand and squeezed it, because, in that moment, words could not express any of the emotions I felt.

So, what if the hokey pokey or dancing was really what it’s all about? What if I reached students on a level that no written or spoken word could obtain? What if together, my students and I, created a moment that has never been nor will ever be again? What if that was true perfection?


  1. I just read this to Laura and both of us were reaching for the Kleenex. Thank you for sharing that brush with Elysium. It's great to know high school girls here have a role model as worthy as you are.

    1. Thanks so much. They are a great group of students; I am really the lucky one.