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Speaking English in an Elementary School Gym Class

Kong Pha
Kong Pha
Sep 17, 2018 · 6 min read

Dear Mrs. Harris,

I want to thank you for what you did to me back in elementary school. I was a nine year-old fourth-grade student at Parkway Elementary School when I met you. You were my gym teacher. This was actually my first year in the Saint Paul Public Schools. I first came to St. Paul from Appleton, WI where my family first resettled when we arrived in the U.S. as refugees from the Secret War in Laos. I was born in Ban Vinai refugee camp and our house in St. Paul was already the fourth house my family had lived in since arriving in this country. Parkway was the third school I had attended and was one of the six schools I attended from K-12. Needless to say, my education was already quite unstable as a Hmong American refugee kid. I was excited to come to St. Paul, but I was sad to be leaving many friends behind in Appleton. I was sad because I did not know what would await me in my new life.

Parkway was only seven or eight blocks away from my house on the east side of St. Paul. My brothers and I would sometimes walk to and from school by ourselves. My upbringing, especially my educational experience in the early days, was mostly blissful and uneventful. I loved school because I was always a curious kid who had a lot of questions about things, such as why my parents worked so much, why we didn’t have cool bikes or swimming pools in our backyards, and why we didn’t always get nice toys during Christmas. Education allowed me to make sense of my world even at this young age. This was why I loved school and eventually pursued school all the way to the end!

I was so happy to have many Hmong kids at Parkway! We could speak our Hmong language to each other, hang out during recess, and even walk home together after school. This was when you entered the picture. You see, during gym class, our activity for that day was dodge ball. I loved dodge ball because it allowed me to interact with my peers on an intimate level. We had to throw the ball at other kids to try to hit them. If our team was able to hit all the kids on the other side with the ball and send them to “jail,” then our team would win! Additionally, if one person on our team was able to throw the ball and hit another person on the other team, then one person from your team would be allowed to be released from “jail” and enter the game again. This cycle continues until an entire team is in jail. I realize now that “jail” is such a horrible term to refer to the sidelines that students are placed after being hit by the ball.

Of course, I was also a clumsy kid who cannot quite dodge the ball. I was hit by a ball and was sent to “jail.” You were sitting on the sideline where “jail” was located and was monitoring the game through your whistles, screeches, and clapping! It seemed you were happy to be partaking in the fun along with a bunch of nine and ten year old kids. I was so wrong!

As one of my teammates passed by, I exclaimed to him in Hmong, “Tsuag tsuag pov lub ball kom raug lawv es kuv thiaj li tawm rov qab los play!” This translates to “Hurry, throw the ball and hit them so that I can be released to come back and play!” Dodgeball was serious business for us kids back then! It was the only time we had in school to have this much fun with each other. I never took gym class for granted. This game of course was no exception.

As soon as you heard me say this to my teammate, you immediately scolded me. You said to me, “You cannot speak Hmong in this classroom. This is a country that we only speak English. Do not ever speak Hmong to each other again in this class.” You proceeded to indefinitely remove me from the game altogether and put me in “time out” zone at the corner of the gym room. As I come to think of it now, using the vocabulary of incarceration as we often did in gym class, this was pretty much the same as solitary confinement for those who are in jail.

I was crushed and confused as to what happened. How did the cheering of my teammate lead me to be banished from dodgeball altogether in a matter of seconds? I didn’t understand what you meant when you said “this is a country that we only speak English.” One can only imagine my confusion as a nine year-old in this situation. I actually cried a little bit after gym class just to myself. Why was I being put in time out for cheering on my classmate? Why was I punished for speaking my own language? Why is all this happening during a dodgeball game? More and more questions are entering my head as I tried to make sense of this situation.

Education enabled me to analyze what was happening in this instance. Your fear of Hmong kids in gym class lead you to punish me for speaking my own language to my peers during a game of dodgeball. You were not ready for kids to be empowered through physical activity as much as you proclaimed. Your own racism and lack of empathy and insight clouded your judgments. You simply did not let me carry on the game, but instead, had to remove a student entirely from the game because you did not understand the language I was speaking. What did you think I said?

Years later when I finally had the vocabulary and critical thinking skills to make sense of this instance in my life, I realized that I had faced many situations like this throughout my education. It was white women teachers like yourself who often commented on my racial, linguistic, sexual, and physical differences to make me feel like an outsider, like an outcast, like an other. I further realize now that these were all teaching moments for me to reflect upon in order to prepare me for the life ahead of me in the U.S. where racism and discrimination is rampant, even in micro spaces like an elementary gym classroom in a diverse urban environment. Of course, English is not the only language that is spoken nor is it an official language of any sorts in this country. I am confused as to how you did not understand this basic fact, but now I realized many people share your views.

Racism and xenophobia affects the mental health and psychologies of very young children. It still affects me to this day. Yet, I am fortunate to be able to pursue my education so that I can be empowered to move past this violent moment and grow from it as a more compassionate human being. I am fortunate that I can now pinpoint what you did to me, so that I can help my own students grapple with their own experiences of racial micro and macroagressions in the classroom and educational spaces.

So for all of this, I want to thank you for giving me a childhood memory I will never forget. I want to thank you for being that unfortunate blemish in an otherwise uneventful and rather pleasant childhood. I want to thank you for showing me the true colors of this country. I want to thank you for showing me the harsh realities of this world which has ultimately made me the person I am today.


A student who is now all grown up


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