After 27 years, I’ve gotten used to being one of the shortest people in any room. Heck, my six-year-old cousin is catching up to me in height and all my younger family members consider it a right of passage when they become taller than me. I’ve been the same size (somewhere between 4 foot 8 and 4 foot 9) for the last 13 or so years and on a daily basis it doesn’t bother me that much.
Sure, I have to climb on the counter to reach the kitchen cabinets, and the visor in my car is virtually useless. But I think I get along just fine. I seldom think of how “small” I am, until someone takes it upon themselves to point it out. While I don’t mind a ribbing from my friends, most of the people who comment on my lack of height are complete strangers.
Patients, customers from the local grocery store where I worked in college, and waitstaff at restaurants all love to comment on how “cute” I am and inquire about how tall I am. This baffles me! I was always taught that you should not call attention to people’s differences. I certainly would not highlight someone’s graying hair or celluilite or even their impressive height…it’s rude! I often make self-deprecating jokes about being short and I’ve gotten used to people’s teasing, but I do not tolerate people’s ignorance of other people’s feelings very well. While I don’t wish to encourage violence of any kind, I’ve never regretted what unfolded in the following story….
My twin sister was born with Cerebral Palsy, a movement disorder with varying degrees of severity and associated problems. In my sister’s case, her muscles are made stiff more easily, which effects her stamina and her ability to carry heavy weights. Mostly, her gait is just a little different than other people’s and it takes her a bit of extra time to get to and from the many places she wishes to go. Children are naturally curious about the things that make us individuals and my sister was (and still is) more than happy to answer people’s polite questions about her condition.
When we were in the first grade, my quick-witted, sharp-tongued sister told me about a boy in her class who had taken to harassing her every day at recess with calls of “how’d you get like that? How’d you get like that?” For the first few days, our group of mutual friends formed a protective circle around my sister as he shouted at her, all the while asking him to leave her alone. I had never experienced anything like it before – what was this boy getting out of poking fun at someone so smart and funny…just because she walks slower than the rest?
The ground was just starting to thaw as some spring sunshine tried its best to poke its way out from behind the clouds above the playground. The children racing each other out onto the grass still wore their winter coats and it would’ve been a nice day to play on the swings had it not been for that boy incessantly badgering my sister.
He ran alongside our gaggle of friends, trying to wedge his way into the circle to get a closer look at my sister as she stormed away from him and toward the other side of the open field. “How’d you get like that, huh? How’d you get like that?” he repeated, his mouth curved in a satisfied smile. There came a chorus of “go away” from the girls in our clique but his mocking continued.
Just then I felt something strange bubble up inside me, it made me feel warm all over and I felt both short of breath and the urge to scream all at once. I tried to swallow whatever it was that was rising in my throat. “Leave her alone!” I said, but of course he ignored me. “Go ahead, say that again” I warned him flatly. We were all still walking, that pestering boy moving backwards as he went.
“How’d you get like that?” he asked my sister again. My sister says at that moment something in my face changed, like whatever usually holds my rational, calm disposition in place had unexpectedly dislodged – and that boy whose name is no longer important became aware of it too, but about three seconds too late.
I remember screaming and giving chase to the boy who was sprinting down the hill towards those coveted swings. Imagine a boy brave enough to bully his peers speeding away from a three foot-something girl in a floral patterned coat and saddle shoes! Although it took me a couple extra strides, I finally caught up to the little brat and jumped up to seize the collar of his ugly Miami Dolphin’s starter jacket (great example of 90s boys fashion) and tugged hard. “You leave me sister alone!” I growled, all my weight pressing on his shoulders, my feet dangling in the air. The next thing I knew, all thirty five pounds of me had been tossed onto the dirt below us and that once brave bully was tearing towards the safety of the jungle gym away from me.
It did not occur to me until later that an attempted strangling on another student could have gotten me into lots of trouble as a six-year-old and I admit now that I should have only used my words to reason with the boy. It should be noted that the boy never spoke of the incident to a teacher or his parents, perhaps because he knew he was deserving of some form of retaliation.
For my parents’ part, when I confessed what I had done, my mother assured me that if there were repercussions for my sudden bout of violence, she would not punish me beyond what the school saw fit as long as I promised not to go around bullying others as that boy had done. She also encouraged me to think of what kind of life that boy might be living and what would make him want to be cruel to others. I realized I had never seen him surrounded by his own group of friends and thought maybe he just wanted some attention from his classmates, even if it turned out to be the wrong kind.
Many years later, I was working at the solution center (aka “the service desk”) at Stop and Shop when a young man about my age came in to ask about how he might go about getting a replacement courtesy card. I informed him that I could look up his old card number through his telephone number and transfer his rewards. The young man recited his phone number for me to enter into the computer, saying “you can keep that number if you want” and gave me a very sloppy wink. After he handed me his driver’s license for proof of identification, I rushed through the rest of his transaction and sent him on his way.
“Wow, that guy has zero game” my coworker quipped, shaking his head as the customer made his way down one of the aisles.
“Figures the only guy who flirts with me is one I almost beat up…”
“You beat someone up, Kerrin?!”
One of my favorite authors, Mark Twain, says it best, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” But I had a much different lesson to learn.
From that schoolyard experience, I discovered not only could I stand up against someone and try to stop them from hurting others but that people’s feelings and insecurities are much more complicated than just bully versus victim. Looking back on it now, I have come to appreciate that I was wrong to give into anger. After all, “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher” or so the Dalai Lama says.