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.