I’ve started telling my girls that they’re beautiful. When I find one of them alone during break time, I pull her aside and whisper it into her ear, asking her if she knew that. The surprised expressions on my students’ faces tell me they didn’t before their words do.
“What? How can you not know that?” I ask each of them.
“I didn’t know. I thought I was ugly. My friends at home tell me I am,” Elsie said. “I thought I was the ugly duckling.”
“Elsie, that’s not true! You are more beautiful than the most beautiful swan,” I told her.
“I didn’t know!” she said gratefully.
“I don’t think I’m beautiful because of this,” Immaculata said, pointing to a scar that cuts down her right cheek. I kissed her scar and assured her that the scar doesn’t matter, that she still is very beautiful.
For my Ghanaian-German student, Makeba, I tell her in our secret language: “Hu bist hübch.” (Special thanks to my dear friend Franka in Berlin for teaching me how to say “You are pretty” in German last last summer!) Makeba just shakes her head, but her smile tells me that maybe she is starting to believe it.
“Miss Kate, I’m not beautiful!” Nana Ama said when I told her. “Miss Kate, I’m ugly! I know it every time I look in the mirror!”
“Nope, you’re wrong. You are such a beautiful girl! You’re my shining star!” and I remind her of the time I went out to my roof here in Ghana and looked up at the stars. I saw one little star, shining so determinedly, that made me so happy to see. For some reason, when I saw that star, it reminded me of little Nana Ama. I told her about the star the next day in school, how that little star made me think about her, and I remind her of it often. “Nana Ama, you’re a beautiful shining star!”
“No, Miss Kate, I’m not beautiful,” she insists every time I tell her. I still have work to do with her.
It breaks my heart how many of them don’t realize how beautiful they really are. It is very important to me that they know. I want all of them to feel good about themselves and to realize their worth. I do everything I can to raise their self-esteem, because I know what wonderful things could happen if they have confidence in themselves.
You see, one of my inspirations in coming to Africa was Oprah Winfrey. One Christmas, she went to South Africa and gave presents to some orphans there. When I saw on TV how happy the children were and how happy Oprah was, it made me really want to go to Africa and volunteer somewhere working with children. That desire never left me, so I came to Africa to work with children the first chance I had.
Beyond that, I remember something Oprah said in another show years ago that has stayed with me for all this time. She had a special guest on her show. I don’t remember the guest’s name or who she was, but she was some slightly famous person, like a public speaker or an author or a politician or something. Apparently, she was giving a speech or something in Oprah’s town when Oprah was just a little girl, and at the end, young Oprah had the chance to meet her. This lady took Oprah’s little face in her hands, looked into her eyes, and said two simple words: “You’re beautiful.”
Years later, after Oprah had grown up into the amazing woman she is today, having achieved fame and fortune, this lady came Chicago to go on Oprah’s show as her special guest. Upon seeing her and hugging her, Oprah was filled with so much emotion that she started crying. She tearfully explained to the audience that she always thought she was ugly growing up, and when this lady gave her that affirmation and told her she was beautiful, it changed her life. No one had ever told her she was beautiful before then. She began to see herself differently and to believe that she was beautiful, and this gave her the confidence to go after her dreams of becoming a TV personality. When she had finally made it huge, she had the privilege of thanking this lady who had made the difference in her life on national television.
What about these girls? My girls? Who will give them the self-esteem that possibly could make all the difference between their selling plantains on the side of the road and their becoming the next Oprah Winfrey? Who will tell them they’re beautiful?
I will tell them. I won’t tell them because I expect any sort of reward or praise. It is unlikely that any of my students will become world famous billionaires, but they are daughters, sisters, friends, and one day may become wives, mothers, aunties, teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, businesswomen, etc. They can become anything they want to be. I don’t know if my telling them they’re beautiful will make a difference or not, but I will tell them anyway. I will tell them they’re beautiful because it’s the truth. I will tell them because they deserve to know. I will tell them because I love them. I was once a little girl, too.
“Asabea, you’re beautiful! Did you know that?” I asked.
“Miss Kate, I’m not beautiful; I’m ugly. I’m an ugly rat,” Asabea said.
“That’s not true! Who told you that?” I said.
“What?! Which teachers?”
“The maths teacher, Sister Suzy,” she said. Immaculata and Maame were standing nearby and overheard.
“Miss Kate, it’s true!” they said. “Sister Suzy tells us we’re ugly.”
“When she comes into the classroom, she says, ‘Look at all these ugly faces,’ and she always says, ‘Your ugly face, your ugly face. Your face is ugly like mine.’ It makes us think we’re ugly.”
Can you imagine how outraged I was to hear this?
“It’s not true!” I declared, and carefully hugged each girl. “You are all so beautiful! Don’t listen to her.”
But, really! What normal adult tells nine-year-old boys and girls that they’re ugly? That is so unchristian! I haven’t yet confronted Sister Suzy about this, but I will. She is seriously such a wicked witch. I say she should turn in her veil for a pointy hat and her rosary for a broomstick. I can totally picture her flying around Haatso surrounded by flying monkeys and terrorizing young children. She’s off to a good start, you know. She already lashes them when the get the answers wrong in maths class and tells them how “ugly” they are... all she needs now is a broomstick and warts, and she could be the wickedest witch of all.