Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

One of my students came to see me recently about her absence from class, a week before finals. “Chantal” had dutifully kept me informed of the medical problems she battled during her absence in the last half of the semester. When “Chantal” came to see me with a doctor’s letter detailing her symptoms, I understood her situation better and listened with sympathy.

Apparently she’d been experiencing some manic-depressive symptoms and had had some blood and joint related problems. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was suffering from Lupus or some other similar autoimmune disease or illness brought on by stress. I sincerely identified with her struggle since I have personally dealt with the effects of hyperthyroidism and upon further understanding and reading, I have learned how stress contributed to the onset of my illness and about the psychological and emotional effects of thyroid diseases. It’s given me a unique, personal perspective on the mind/body health connection and on autoimmune diseases.

There’s something about Chantal that reminds me of myself. She’s a conscientious student, a giving soul with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and obligation to others. On the first day of class I usually do a basic exercise of self-introductions or peer-introductions to warm students up so that they get to know each other. At the end of the first day of class Chantal came to speak to me as the students were filing out and pointedly asked me if the first class was representative of the level at which the class was going to be taught. If that were so, she suggested that I was teaching at too basic a level.

A few weeks into the semester, I noticed that Chantal would occasionally linger behind after class to converse with me and expressed her humble appreciation for my teaching, which she felt “came from the heart.”

Now she stood before me to discuss her prospects for passing the class. I heard the determination of her words and saw the struggle in her eyes as she expressed her difficulties in keeping up with her schoolwork, and her resolve to continue with her studies even if it meant repeating some courses. Though it was advised that she try to minimize her stressors, she still planned on continuing her studies with a full regular course load next semester. I offered my support and encouragement and sensed that she needed someone to listen.

Soon she began telling me about her personal difficulties and adjustments. It was a classic case of college growing pains. When one goes off to college, some of the greatest lessons are not in the classroom, but in becoming completely self-accountable for one’s own life. You have no one to answer to, and no one to blame if you are unable to keep appointments, maintain proper hygiene, eat proper meals and so on. She recounted how her roommate never cleaned up after herself; she had extremely substandard personal hygiene habits, which I really don’t want to describe this in detail, but let’s just say that there were some things that should have been disposed in the washroom which were not. As a result the room was filthy. Chantal would mop the floor and clean the best she could but later she contracted some sort of skin infection on top of her other health problems.

Chantal continued by describing her roommate S’s bossiness. Her roommate bossed her around about cleaning their room, doing her homework for her; they shared the same classes and assignments since they were in the same program. Here’s where Chantal’s overdeveloped sense of responsibility came into play. What started off as well intentioned help with homework and assignments led to a sense of entitlement on S’s part and obligation on Chantal’s. S began to guilt and blame Chantal for making her fail by not helping her. Chantal bought into the blame game not realizing that S’s academic performance was not her responsibility to accept. S launched a hate campaign telling anyone who would listen (even the school guidance counselor!)- that she couldn’t get along with Chantal, who was so selfish and difficult and that Chantal wouldn’t help her out with any schoolwork.

All of this seemed quite ludicrous and I thought… how could Chantal just let this happen? “Just say NO’” I told her. “It’s not your responsibility.” It seemed so simple. But I knew all too well the paralyzing trap of emotional blackmail.

Why do so many of us, especially women, so easily accept responsibility for another person’s happiness? We have been socialized to make everyone else happy before taking our own needs into consideration. Good girls are supposed to be liked by everyone. It was not until my late 20’s that I learned to set boundaries and to put my own priorities first. It’s the nagging sense of obligation because you feel indebted to someone or responsible for someone’s happiness or self-esteem. There’s a sense of urgency or fragility- we don’t want to disappoint someone or their world will “fall apart.” That person could be a parent, relative, friend, someone you highly respect, or even someone who has been generous and gracious in your time of need. The point is that although someone may be demanding or putting pressure on you, you and you alone must accept the responsibility for allowing yourself to give in, allowing yourself to give a part of yourself away when you should be working on yourself. I realized that I had to be responsible for my own happiness and well being first. Even if you want to put the interests or happiness of someone else first, it a futile cause because ultimately, it is up to each person to find happiness for him or herself.

Chantal fit the mould. She just wanted to be a good friend and caved into S’s demands and emotional blackmail but no matter what she did S would not be satisfied. When she started refusing S’s demands, S began her hate campaign. At one point, S had the guidance counselors and other instructors in the academic affairs department sympathizing with her. Chantal was talked to about her uncooperativeness and poor “attitude.” Later, the guidance counselor and Chantal’s instructors saw that S was as transparent as her empty accusations. But I don’t think Chantal was ever apologized to nor were any concrete, helpful solutions or advice offered. I know this because I asked Chantal what advice the guidance counselor offered and what the counselor’s involvement was.

This concerns me because I’m sure that there are many such disputes among students. I wonder if students are being educated on how to manage the new relationships and living situations that they will experience. There needs to be more open discussions or workshops to offer suggestions or to start a dialogue with students. There are so many important social lessons to be learned. In general there is not much mental health awareness in Taiwan. Only recently has it been made illegal for employers to deny reemployment to employees who took leave for mental health reasons.

I found myself in the conundrum of being Chantal’s teacher and objective listener, and a friend who truly empathized with her due to my own personal experiences. The tears came streaming down and I gave her a tissue and reassuring words, but I just wanted to give her a hug. But I didn’t. Taiwanese people rarely hug each other, even the closest of friends. I wasn’t sure what to do because there’s a different set of social norms in Taiwan. And being that she was still my student, I also had to be careful to remain impartial in my grading and evaluation of her and all my students.

In the past so many things have been done through favors and personal relationships in Taiwan (only in recent years have previously rampant vote buying practices been staved). Now there’s a hyper vigilant sense of justice and fairness that has spilled into all aspects of life including schools- where teachers who used to routinely use corporal punishment have made an about-face; now they barely even discipline students for fear of accusations of abuse, cheating on entrance exams, standardized tests and in schools is not tolerated, teachers are trying doggedly not to show any type of favoritism.

I told Chantal to take care of her health and suggested that she try not to be so hard on herself and to consider lightening her course load next semester if necessary in order to minimize her stress, for her health’s sake. I told her that there’s no shame in slowing down her pace if that mean safeguarding her health and most importantly that if she ever needed anyone to listen her problems, she could come to me. Somehow, I have a feeling that that’s a lot more than any of her teachers have offered her.

In the end, I developed supplementary test for Chantal to take in addition to the final exam in order to determine if she met the minimum proficiency required to pass my class.

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