Everyone can remember a certain stereotype that they fit into when they were young. The sporty one or the popular one or the boy-crazy one or even the name that everyone tried to avoid – the nerdy one. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been “the tall one”, and I haven’t had any trouble whatsoever living up to that name.
In elementary school, the photographer could have placed me in the back row for the class picture without having to ask me to stand on a chair. I was the girl who immediately stood out in the crowd – the physically awkward, gangly, long-limbed child whose pants were never quite long enough. Having reached the growth spurt of puberty much sooner than my male counterparts, I had no hope of fitting in with the “in crowd” – the kids who were, as I saw it, normal.
I sat at lunch with the boys from second grade onward, a group who didn’t care that I wasn’t in any way vertically challenged. The girls, on the other hand, would sneak glances at me from their own table before turning to each other to whisper. I didn’t have to hear what they were saying to know they were talking about me. But I had to count my blessings. At least I didn’t have to sit at a lunch table all alone. But I couldn’t talk with the guys about anything remotely girly, like my obsession with horses. Those topics were off-limits, often replaced by heated debates on the Power Rangers.
Later on, middle school rolled around and I was ready to move up to the next level and hopefully, leave all of those nasty looks behind. Within the first few days of sixth grade, I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I couldn’t walk down the hallway to my classes without another student having the audacity to not only stare, but also exclaim, usually at the top of their lungs, some derivative of “Wow, you’re tall!” Sometimes it would even happen more than once.
My first year of middle school consisted of attending one class and then promptly racing down the hall to the next. I figured that maybe if I ran fast enough, I wouldn’t draw any attention and by the time anyone said anything, I would already be around the corner and gone. That proved to be a failure, because trying to run down a hallway of middle-schoolers is a feeling akin to squeezing the last remaining bit of toothpaste out of a tube.
Over the next couple of years, I learned to develop a few witty responses to combat these proclamations, some of which I would practice in the mirror. “And the grass is green!” “Tell me something I don’t already know!” “Wow, really?” But after repeating the same comebacks over and over, I realized that it didn’t make me feel any better. In my mind, every look and every joke just seemed to reinforce the common thread that I was already repeating to myself every single time I looked in the mirror. In my head, I wasn’t normal. I didn’t feel normal. I felt like a freak. I wondered why I couldn’t be shorter like everyone else.
When I was at home with my family, it didn’t matter. My parents were taller than I was and so, in my own house, I always felt small. I felt normal. But in the daytime, at school, I pictured myself as Godzilla trampling through downtown Tokyo, watching the tiny locals point and scream. I started playing basketball in an attempt to use my height to my advantage, but even on the court, everyone seemed to notice. During one game, a coach on the opposing team had been getting increasingly frustrated after I had blocked a series of shots and in exasperation, at the top of his lungs, ordered his players to “Guard the big girl”.
The place where I finally started to feel relatively tiny in comparison was high school and I was incredibly anxious to start my freshman year there. Finally, a place where I could blend into the crowd and not have to worry about sticking out like a sore thumb. I looked at high school students, and I didn’t see immature sixth graders. I saw older, mature young adults – young women and young men (guys with facial hair, even!). I was hoping that my first day of high school would be just that – and at first, it was. No one made any comments about my height, but while walking to one of my classes, I tripped walking up a set of stairs – in front of a group of seniors, no less – and skinned both my hands and knees. Even though I had tried to forget about my height, I still had my size twelve feet and long legs to remind me about it.
I’m just shy of 6’2″ now, and to my relief, the doctors have assured me that I’m done growing. People always tell me how envious they are, how they wish they could be tall. I tell them exactly what they’d get with a wish like that. Rarely being able to find pants that are long enough, or cute shoes that are big enough, or having to choose a car with a roomy interior to counter the fact that my height is all in the legs. Sure, there are advantages too. I’m always able to reach something on a high shelf, hang something on a wall without a stepladder. And I’m alwaystall enough to line up for every ride at the amusement parks, despite my fear of roller coasters.
Today, I’m long out of high school with my college years fast fading behind me. I’m even far away from home as a transplant of suburbia living in New York City – in a city where no one seems to bat an eye, blending in comes as easy as breathing. Sometimes on the street, I’ll notice the occasional pair of eyes drop down to my feet to check and see if I’m wearing heels, and the surprised expression that follows when it’s clear that I’m not. But every so often I’ll be the surprised one when it comes in the form of a compliment, usually from someone I can actually look straight in the eye – no straining or craning involved.
For a moment, I allow myself to envy the girls with the taller boyfriends, who can shop in the brand-name stores and fit into everything, who have no idea what they’d be in for when they say they envy me.
With a smile, I respond.
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