When I entered Suney Park’s class, the lights were turned down low and the kids were having nap/quiet time. I think this is an apt metaphor for her class; a bit of a dreamland for her students.
Suney teaches kids who are in a transitional period where they start losing the innocence of childhood and begin to take on cynical and sarcastic outlook. What made her class special was how much of the sweetness her kids retained.
Don’t get me wrong. Her students weren’t all angels. Some of the kids did act up. Some even had to be spoken to with a stern voice. When I first started the shoot, the students seemed like the typical rambunctious 6th graders. Then as the shoot progressed, I started seeing it; kids would tease each other but the teasing lacked meanness. Then I noticed how Suney would talk to the kids in a sweet and emotionally open manner. When the students did something nice, she’d compliment them. But when the kids did something not so nice she’d certainly keep them in line but also take the time to explain in a sweet way why their action wasn’t so nice and how they should act.
It seems our kids are being pressured more and more nowadays to be sexy, mean, cynical, sarcastic earlier and earlier. The length of time the kids are allowed to be kids seems to get shorter than a Minnesota summer. Suney seems to have found a way to create the environment where the kids feel safe to be kids.
During recess, one of the Suney’s former student stopped by. The two started talking and noticing the outfit she had on for the photoshoot told her, “Ms. Park, you look beautiful in that dress,” without a hint of self-consciousness or awkwardness. What 7th grade boy says that without being prodded by his mom!
It was a strange experience photographing Suney’s class. I felt like I just walked out of a Disney movie of the week due to the sweet sincerity and lack of any snark.
Now, Surely some of the students aren’t such angels outside of the class. No doubt others will develop the cynical attitude prevalent in our society, affecting the too-cool-for-school front. But for one year in Suney Parks’s classroom, these kids were provided a haven where they were allowed to grow and develop intellectually while retaining the innocence of their youth. And let’s hope that whatever battles these kids face in their lives that toughen their skins and harden their outlook, they’ll remember this one year and hold onto some of the innocence.