I Respect Myself: A Safe Space for Self-Empowerment
respect -(ri-spekt)- the esteem for a sense of the worth or excellence of a person
Almost 15 years ago, I worked at a youth theater arts summer camp. I joined the staff as an assistant teacher just for the summer not knowing about the existing programs and routines. One of the things that I noticed was that they had this unique ritual everyday of saying a password. The password could be anything of the students and staff’s combined choosing. However, there was one strict requirement. This password was to affirm something beautiful and empowering for everyone present. The password was a requirement for everyone. Everyone meaning the entire student body and each staff member including the executive director of the program. This ritual was a bit foreign to me. I was not used to shouting out personal affirmations. I grumbled and complained initially, but what ultimately happened was the power of verbalizing these affirmations everyday took center stage and in my heart and in my mind, I began to embody all that I affirmed for myself each day.
Fast forward to September 2016 where I am to begin my EFL session at TYO. Here we were provided with a curriculum but also given the freedom to incorporate a wide range of activities to suit the interest and the skill set of the students. From the first day I could sense that each person in my class harbored special kind power. Each and everyone harbored a specific tenacity, fervor, and joy. At that moment, I reflected on my experience so many years ago and how the process of speaking daily affirmations became essential to accessing some of my hidden strengths. I then decided to incorporate the password, “I respect myself,” into the lesson plan so that everyone in attendance from the quietest to the loudest, from the shortest to the tallest, men and woman all had to make the same affirmation to start class each day.
As an EFL teacher of a beginner level class, the interesting caveat here is that initially I am quite sure the majority of the class did not fully understand what they were saying. Perhaps they knew that the phrase held so much positive weight because my response was always, “You are beautiful.”
That became the ritual. Every day before we started class, one by one everyone’s name would be called and they were required to stand up and say the password, “I respect myself,” and sometimes even the entire class would respond with me and tell the one individual, “You are beautiful.”
The amazing thing that precipitated from this affirmation everyday as requirement for a beginner level English class was that students not only began to understand its meaning, but also began to expand and embody the phrase itself. By the end of the last week of the session, there had evolved quite a few variations of the password. On the final day of class I called on everyone to say the password and one student said, “I love and respect myself,” and another said, “I very respect myself,” and finally students without prompting from me began to say, “I respect myself and I respect you too!” I realized that this daily password which may have started off as something awkward, unintelligible, or weird had tapped into something truly special hidden in each and everyone one of my students.
After 3 months of an intensive 4 hour language session, I could clearly see each student’s individual evolution. Some of the quietest students now had the biggest voices. The ones that used to sit slouched in there chair now assumed such a powerful space and presence when speaking English. After the testing and our final performance, it was truly difficult saying goodbye to my students. I reflected on the bond we had built together as well our collective journey of self-empowerment through the daily password. I thought about how in the end I want for my students the same things that I want for myself. I hoped that they could access and refine some of their hidden strengths as I did some time ago.
– Mecca, Fall 2016 EFL Fellow
The English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program is part of STEP! II, a youth employability, empowerment, and community leadership initiative supported by Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.