Pokemon Shaming

Poke Ball

“Your son is a beautiful child. He’s just so emotionally young, the youngest in his class by far.”

Mrs. Barnes pulled out a folder A, my 6 year old son, had made, and placed it on the table. It was full of his artwork and assignments.

“We instructed each child to draw a cover for their personal folders. Many children drew their families or farm animals or a picture of Earth. But look at what your son drew here.”

I looked at the cover and saw a huge green dragon, covered in spike, breathing fire. The dragon had a fierce expression on its face and its wings were spread wide. A had drawn it in crayon.

“It’s a dragon!” I said, with a hint of excitement in my voice. “One of his best, I’d say. He’s practiced hard.”

Mrs. Barnes nodded. “Well, yes, but we don’t really do dragons in this school. We try to stick to realism. All of the children are asked not to wear cartoons on their shirts and to not have screen time during the week, no television or video games. I know you are doing your best to abide by that, but everything for A must be an adventure, an epic quest. Everything is story-telling to him.”

I nodded, struggling to understand the concerns. “A is my storyteller. He’s brilliant. He remembers details and puts together elaborate adventures. He loves when small creatures save the day, Lord of the Rings style. He is also a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter in that he has particular affection for the most ferocious of creatures. I do understand that he is emotionally young. He hates transitioning from one thing to the next, he hates eating vegetables, he hates coloring within the lines. But he only turned 6 in July, and school started in September. Many of the kids in his classroom turned six several months or even almost a full year before him. He’s the smallest guy in the classroom, and he’s obsessed with everything being fair and balanced.”

Mrs. Barnes smiled, nodding and taking a few notes. “You certainly know your child well. Here at the charter school, we try many activities that focus on the five senses, healthy play, and physical movement, while putting them through the education. It is a wonderful method of learning. Here, the children plant plants in gardens, they learn about animals and mythology, language skills, hand-eye coordination, plants and culture.”

“I love your methods here. I have loved it for my sons and they love it also,” I said honestly.

“But A is really struggling. He takes a longer time to adapt than the other kids. Particularly in the afternoons, and especially during transitions. It takes a long time to get him to focus on tasks that he isn’t already good at. He takes a lot more attention than the other kids. And that’s okay, because we want to individualize the educational process for each child. But that is why we called this meeting, so we could strategize ways to help your child succeed.”

An older woman sat to the left of Mrs. Barnes, likely in her mid-60s. She was thin and wore a blue skirt and a dark blue top, both of which fit her well but were somehow billowy at the same time. Her hair was gray. She had discerning eyes and had been listening to every word carefully.

“Chad, I’m Meadow,” she said, extending a hand. “I haven’t actually met your son, but I’m one of the founders of this school.” Over the next several minutes, she analyzed A’s artwork, showing me how he was struggling with complex concepts. If he was shown a coloring technique, like say making a tree trunk with a broad stroke using a chalk-like crayon, he would instead take a regular crayon and draw the outline of the tree, then shade it in. She reviewed many of these concepts, and talked about methods in the classroom to help him, and ways we could practice techniques at home to reinforce expectations.

“He is a beautiful child, like all children are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about these adventures A loves? Where does he get these concepts?”

I proceeded to tell her about a typical afternoon with my sons. “They will choose to be some kind of animal or creature, and we go on epic quests all around the park, or swimming pool, or neighborhood. They have to collect pine cones on the hill, solve riddles to pass the old witch, find a little girl hiding in a park, dig for rocks, and create potions to save the world. A is very focused on fights, like Batman or Spider-Man style, so I always try to incorporate physical activity. He loves pretending to have super powers, so instead of laser eyes or giant fists, I try to give him powers to change colors or grow plants or see through things, and help him use his reasoning skills to get through the quests. He adapts well. It gives us a lot of ground to work from, and it is fun quality time with him. We do things like this often.”

Meadow clicked her tongue. “So he gets his story-telling from you and your interactions?”

“I’d say so.” I was smiling.

“And yet he is obsessed with adventures.”

“Well, growing up, he has had a healthy diet of kids’ cartoons. He loves super heroes. He loves Pokemon.”

“See? That.” Meadow had a disappointed look on her face. “Pokemon. He needs less Pokemon and more time outdoors. Children his age need to milk cows and slop pigs. They need to count sticks and smell pine trees and dip their toes in the water. They need to jump over rocks and learn how to catch themselves if they fall. They need what children in previous generations had.”

I was nodding, enthusiastic. “I love all of these ideas. And I’m definitely open to them.”

Prairie looked me right in the eyes. “And yet someone introduced him to Pokemon in the first place.”

There was a heavy silence in the room, filled with awkward tension, and I felt she had just told me that I’m abusing my child. She kept eye contact with me as I felt ashamed briefly. My brow furrowed in confusion. Suddenly, I was angry, but I kept it tightly contained. What kind of name was Meadow anyway?

The meeting continued and we discussed strategies to keep A invested in the classroom, to practice skill-sets at home, and particularly to help him with transition times in the classroom.

Mrs. Barnes turned toward me just at the end of the meeting. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. A isn’t eating the school lunches. I’ve tried but we just can’t get him to eat. He just kind of picks at his food. I meant to send you an Email weeks ago, but I’ve been busy with work and family. Maybe you should pack him a lunch from now on.”

And then I was furious. “He’s been telling me that he’s been eating. But if he isn’t eating, no wonder he is struggling! When he doesn’t eat, he acts more like a young 4 year old than a child his age.  His cheeks get red and he can’t focus! He needs food! He’s been super hungry when he gets home but I thought that was normal!”

Mrs. Barnes placated me. “Yes, well, let’s have you pack a lunch for him from now on and see if that makes a difference. Pick foods that he likes that can sustain him.”

I walked away from the meeting, a mixture of determination, embarrassment, gratitude, and rage. A woman who had never met my child clearly had very strong feelings about Pokemon, and another who knew him well had failed to mention that my child wasn’t eating, and failed to connect that to his struggles.

The next day, I packed A a lunch, and when I picked him up from school, Mrs. Barnes commended him on how well he had done with transitions that day. Then A and I went home and played. We jumped in the backyard, we smelled leaves, we gathered sticks, we climbed a hill, we watched the sun and clouds.

Then we went home and watched Pokemon.

Physical Obesity

Obesity snuck up on me, slowly and surely over a period of months and years. I certainly knew I was overweight: I was winded and sweaty all the time, standing could be difficult and so could climbing stairs, I bought giant baggy shirts to fit over my ample stomach, and my face was fatter and rounder. I consumed bags of microwave popcorn, large bags of peanut butter M-n-Ms, liters of Pepsi, and bags of sugared mangos in between meals, and I ate seconds and thirds for dinner and had three or four bowls of cereal for breakfast. Once when I sprained my ankle, I was on crutches, and getting myself from my car to my office became a struggle.

Still, the word obese never crossed my mind. It was a dangerous word, an ugly word. In fact, the only thing worse than obese, when it came to weight, was morbidly obese, a word that implies someone is near death.

My son was flipping through photo albums recently and he looked up with surprise and his usual candor. “Dad, you were really fat when I was a baby. But not anymore, right?”

I remember the day I learned I was obese. It was at a family Christmas party, and my sister Sue had a Wii system. Wanting to engage in some fun family Wii competitions, she had a few of us create character avatars to play with on the game. I designed a little man to look like me with brown hair and clothing, and I entered my height. Then I stood on the little scale for the Wii to take my weight. In front of my entire family, the avatar on the screen suddenly ballooned out to beach ball size, accompanied by a cartoon sound effect, a rubbery boing noise. Giant capital letters flashed on the screen, followed by exclamation marks.

YOU ARE OBESE!!!

And that simple humiliation began my personal transformation and, in many ways, marked the first steps toward living rather than just being alive. It didn’t take long to realize I was eating too much and too quickly, so I began by lowering quantities of food, drinking more water, and learning a bit about what I was putting into my body. I began monitoring what I ate, what foods my body needed, and how many Calories exists in foods.

I had felt abjectly out of control of my life for years at that point, trapped by religion and culture, trapped in the closet, trapped by self-expectations that I had to work 60 hours per week and serve in the church and that it was selfish and ugly to do anything for myself.

So I began walking at lunchtime, and then I began working on the elliptical trainer at the gym during my lunch break. I started lifting weights in the mornings, something I had never done. I began dropping pounds swiftly. At my heaviest, I was 255 lbs. (I’m a 5 feet 11 inches tall). Before long I was at 240, then 230, then 220. I started gaining a bit of confidence in myself, enjoying the gains I was making and seeing the results in myself.

I learned a lot about myself at that time. I learned that weight comes on slow and steadily over time, one half pound at a time, over a period of months and years. I learned that losing weight is a relatively simple science, boiled down simply to burning more energy than consumed. I learned that the human body is forgiving, that it is eager to be healthy and will work toward health when correct decisions are made. I learned that old habits can be hard to break, but that the alternative is simply gaining more and more. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that change takes time: If it takes a year to gain 50 pounds, it is going to take more than a few weeks to take the weight off. I adopted the mantra of slow and steady growth over time.

Once I hit 220, I plateaued for a while. The weight came off more slowly and was more difficult to shed. But as long as I stayed consistent, and was patient and kind toward myself, it continued going down 1-3 pounds every few weeks. 220 became 215, then 210, then 200.

By then, I had taken careful stock of my life. I realized that I had had zero nutrition or exercise knowledge instilled in me growing up, in a family that often struggles with obesity. I realized I was participating in a religion that vilifies coffee and alcohol, but says nothing about obesity and physical health. I realized I was surrounded by people in my life who cared about me, but who completely enabled my dangerous habits and said nothing about my weight or my unhappiness; in fact, some of these people resented me or called me selfish when I began transforming myself. And I realized that it wasn’t just physical weight I had put on, it was mental weight, it was emotional weight, and it was spiritual weight. I had become obese in every sense. Dropping pounds was only the beginning of a years-long transformation ahead of me.

Four years after I began losing my weight, I hit my lowest adult weight, and the most fit time in my life, at 175 lbs. I had lost a total of 80 pounds. I looked and felt better. I felt cleansed and strong and confident. And it was then that I began focusing on shedding the other types of weight I had to lose. I take care of my physical health now on all fronts: exercise, nutrition, sleep, hydration, and overall wellness. It felt, and feels, wonderful.

As I type this, I line up two photographs of myself, one from 8 years ago, and one from last summer. The first, I’m dressed in white at a religious event, literally standing in front of a painting of Jesus. My lips are curved into a smile that doesn’t match my eyes, which seem as heavy as my face, as heavy as the expectations I placed upon myself. In the second, my smile is genuine, my eyes are alive, my arms are strong and I’m alive. It’s difficult for me to reconcile these two versions of myself.

And then two simple thoughts come to mind: life is meant to be lived, and I refuse to spend another moment miserable.

 

(Blogs on spiritual, emotional, and mental obesity to follow).