Without A Word For Ugly


I spend my days teaching children who recently immigrated to the United States how to speak English. They are brave and hilarious and make up words like “asker” (known to native English speakers as a “question”) and call me everything from Mrs. K (I think you mean Miss H, sweetie) to Miss Winter-Winter (Haltiwanger is hard even for English speakers, friend).

I love getting to show them their first snow fall and learn all the words they can use to describe it, and I love when they play with the language and surprise me with their open minded creativity.

But most of all, I love watching how the words they know how to use completely shape their world.

I have yet to have a student who does not already know the word “hamburger” before they arrive in the United States. We have achieved world-wide fame for that one, congratulations America. As a result, when I ask my students what they ate for breakfast, about half the time they say, “hamburger” with some modifying words. An egg McMuffin? Egg hamburger. Two pieces of toast with jam? Hamburger with fruit stuff. Sausage biscuit? Small hamburger.

I teach them how to greet others, how to describe themselves and the world around them, words for animals and foods and seasons and parts of a plant. One time I had a student tell me he didn’t like the way “cool” sounded and wanted another word to use, so I taught him to say “groovy” instead.

The power to give words is mighty indeed.

We recently finished a unit on describing people, where we learned blonde and brunette and curly and straight and tall and short and funny and nice.

And even though there are people in the world who are boring and mean and fat and ugly, we didn’t learn any of those words. It wasn’t really a conscious choice not to teach them, it was partially because I don’t ever describe people that way to my students, and partly because I didn’t know how to go about teaching that. I didn’t want to have to find pictures of immensely fat, ugly people in order to be certain they knew what I was talking about, and I didn’t want to have to act mean and boring to get those points across either.

I figured they’d do well enough with the word “not” as a modifier and left it at that.

Today, I came into class and one of my newest students (and therefore most hesitant English speaker) turned and stared at me. I motioned for her to turn around and get back to work, but instead she leaned back in her chair and whispered, just for me to hear, “You beautiful, Miss H.”

I smiled and said thank you, and told her she was beautiful as well. It was sweet and endearing and, honestly, with elementary school children, not an uncommon occurrence.

Not half an hour later, I ran to the bathroom between classes and glanced in the mirror and had to laugh.

I was wearing a loose fitting blue cardigan over a school t-shirt and jeans (because we celebrate casual Friday in style). My jeans needed to be washed, or at least needed a belt, and I had a long streak of some mess across one thigh. My mascara had been rubbed under my already-dark-with-bags eyes and I had coffee on my nose because my travel mug is a weird shape or I have a big nose or really who knows but it gets coffee on my nose and I always forget.

I felt decidedly not-beautiful and somewhat dangerously unprofessional.

And I had so many words to describe myself: messy, scattered, awkward, weird, flat-haired, bad-skinned, worn-out, big-toothed, poorly-styled, pushy, unkind, lazy, ugly.


When my lovely student looked at me this morning, I don’t think she saw those things and said “beautiful” because it was the only word she knew. She could have turned back around and said nothing, or she could have said, “not beautiful” or “not nice” or any of the other things I sometimes think about myself (and others).

Perhaps she saw more beauty than I did simply because she did know how to describe it. Perhaps she looked for beauty where I could not see it because she wanted to be able to name something, say something.

Perhaps we see only what we look for, and perhaps we only look for what we already know how to express.

You beautiful, dear friend.


“… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”


Photo by LaShawn Wiltz, via flickr.

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