Sunday, March 26, 2006

Short People Got No Reason To Live

During this recent period of non-employment, I intended to give considerable thought to my future. But I’ve wound up thinking at least as much about my past.

According to actuarial tables, if I walk into a room full of men these days I'll be taller than 75% of them. If it’s mixed company, I’ll be taller than at least 85% of the room. But it wasn’t always like that. Shortness, in fact, was the overriding and overwhelming fact of my childhood. From ages 6 to 13 I attended Shady Grove School, where I was the shortest kid—boy or girl—in a class of about 60. In third grade, I got into a fist-fight with the second shortest boy, and he won. In fourth grade, a girl told me I was too short to be her boyfriend. In fifth grade, a 6’4” teacher punished me by dropping me into a tall trash can, and the top came up over my eyes. In sixth grade, when we had “sex ed”, we were asked to write anonymous questions about sex on slips of paper for the teacher to answer. I wrote, “When am I going to grow?” The teacher didn’t know. By eighth grade, some of the girls towered over me. The tallest girl, Jill, was very popular. I always thought of her as a giraffe—gentle, kind, beautiful, and oblivious to what was going on at ground level.

One corollary of being short—with the added benefit of wearing glasses—was that I sucked at most sports. Shady Grove mandated three sports for boys: soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, lacrosse in the spring. No options. For me, sports equaled hell. I couldn’t run fast enough, throw or kick far enough, or catch well enough to be anything but a liability to my teams. And neither my classmates nor our gym instructors made much effort to hide their wish that I would just make myself scarce. So I did my best, which oftimes meant just staying away from the ball so a more-gifted teammate could have it. I can still remember the screaming abuse when I would try, and fail, to actually make a play.

I came to dread gym. My anxiety manifested as somatic symptoms—horrible after-school stomach cramps that left me bent over in agony. Constipation. Heart palpitations. Shortness of breath. I saw pediatricians about some of these things. I remember having to swallow mineral oil. I don’t think the real cause occurred to anyone.

There were some sports I liked and wasn’t half bad at—skiing, biking, tennis, sailing, paddling. But these weren’t on the Shady Grove roster, and by the time I left there, the damage was done: I had developed a profound aversion to any competitive sport. Competition had become synonymous with embarrassment and ridicule. I chose a high school that greatly de-emphasized sports, and fulfilled PE requirements there by a combination of recreational biking, recreational sailing, and a computer error in my favor. I picked a college without any regard to athletic opportunities, moved to Pennsylvania, and didn’t ski, sail, or paddle for four years. I again managed to scrape together some PE credit by biking with College Roommate and playing (with trepidation) one semester of intramural volleyball. I was a photographer for the college newspaper and tried to get pictures of sports events that captured their evil nature. I’ve never been on any sort of team since. I became a long-distance cyclist, a long-distance sailor, a backwoods skier, a solo hiker. I tell everyone I’m not a racer. I don’t compete.

What’s made me ruminate about all this lately was hanging out this week with Stay of Execution and her college sailing team. For two days I watched them pile in and out of their two-man dinghies like happy ducks, whizzing like dolphins around the bay, play-racing each other and practicing to for real races to come. I saw their joys (and frustrations) in working as a team, competing for the fun of it, and perfecting physical skills. I saw the delightful results of having a coach who encourages, pushes, teaches, reassures, critiques, and ultimately just cares about you. I envisioned the benefits these kids would reap, for the rest of their lives, from their involvement with this activity. And I rued that I had missed out on all this. I wished I could go back in time and do some things differently—pick a college with a sailing or ski team, for example, and try to wheedle my way on to it. Even if I was at the bottom of the lineup. Just so I could learn and overcome.

I don’t blame my grade school, or anyone else. I made the choices—in this aspect of life, I decided to take the path of avoidance over the path of risking further fear and shame. I’m just now getting over it, a little, and wondering if it’s too late. I looked into a sail-racing school.

A couple years ago, I went to a 20th reunion cookout for my Shady Grove class. Jill hosted it at her home, which had been her parents’ home, just down the street from the school. When I arrived, she answered the door, I found myself eye-to-eye with her, and experienced a sudden rush of confused, childhood emotions. “I’m so glad you’re not taller than me”, was all I could manage to say. By her half-sad smile I suddenly realized what had never occurred to me before: that being the tallest kid in the class may not have been such a picnic, either.


Anonymous hilllady said...

Ultimate frisbee is the answer. You, too, can be saved, if you would just let the Disc into your heart.

3/27/06, 12:12 PM  
Anonymous Norm said...

You should blame your grade school. The behavior of the PE teachers and coaches, while not uncommon, is still deplorable. There is hope, however. Not only are there good coaches like SOE out there; there's a whole movement of people intent on making sports fun. Google the Postive Coaching Alliance if you're curious.

3/27/06, 1:20 PM  
Anonymous girltuesday said...

ah ultimate frisbee. h., you're a true vermonter.

it's rumoured that the concept of playing frisbee was born at my undergrad alma matter (also in VT). there is a bronze statue of a dog jumping to catch a frisbee to commemorate the (supposed) fiftieth anniversary of the frisbee.

according to one site: "five undergraduates driving through Nebraska in 1939 suffered a flat tire. As two boys changed the tire, a third found a discarded pie tin from the Frisbie Pie Company near a cornfield and threw the circular disk in the air. [College] President . . . told Time magazine, 'Our version of the story is that it happened all over America, but it started here.'"

3/27/06, 2:17 PM  
Anonymous girltuesday said...

ps. wait, so how tall are you?

i'm 65" tall--most everyone seems tall to me. (then again everyone else of my generation in my family is about 70" (+).)

3/27/06, 2:21 PM  
Blogger Turboglacier said...

I am 71.5" tall. Both FAOB and FAOS-in-law are slightly taller than me. So FAON is likely to be a real giant.

3/27/06, 2:34 PM  
Blogger charlsiekate said...

I am 5'8, and I weigh roughly 145 pounds. And I have been the same height and weight since I was in the 6th grade. I TOWERED over everyone, boy and girl. Up until 6th grade I could beat every one in my class - boy or girl - in a foot race, save one boy. I was routinely mistaken as a teacher. And although I wasn't self aware enough at the time to realize how much I stood out, I knew I didn't fit in.

I never knew what it was like to be picked anything but first for teams, but even that has its own drawbacks. In high school I could bench press my weight, and the football coach, who taught my PE class, would make me complete the football drills in class and then make the boys who didn't do as well as I did do it again in practice (like box jumps, etc). Which wasn't very fair to me or to them.

And now, more than ten years later, I am not considered particularly tall, and I am naturally thin by most any standard, and I am more than pleased with my body, but I still have a secret fear of being the big girl.

My best friends in law school are 5'10, 5'7 and 5'11, so I don't even have a chance to be the tallest.

But I think you are right that Jill was just as glad as you were that she was not still taller than you.

3/27/06, 2:57 PM  
Blogger charlsiekate said...

Oh yeah - and one more thing - my brother is 6'5, and my dad is 5'9.

3/27/06, 2:58 PM  
Anonymous girltuesday said...

71.5". just think of all the things you can reach that i can't.

3/27/06, 3:37 PM  
Blogger Katinka said...

I think it was the cliche` "sports culture" that turned me off competitive team seemed like such an alien thing for an artsy type to get involved in.

Perhaps if they'd incorporated a range of less traditional sports I would have been more interested as a student. (eg. At the school I teach at they do swing dancing, curling, hiking, scuba diving,and iceskating) Maybe more art/drama/lit/ teachers need to be seen teaching PE...?

(Kat: 5"4 and A HALF)

3/28/06, 2:19 AM  
Blogger Katinka said...

(oh, and the grade 8's go sailing for a week)

3/28/06, 2:20 AM  

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