What it was like to be the back brace kid

In many ways, having a back brace in high school was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

…is how this essay might go if it were the kind of essay I wouldn’t read the rest of. Or click on, or get through a paragraph without kicking my computer across the room with all of the agility of a girl who was too stiff to make the soccer team because of nearly four years spent back brace, the Magnificent Contraption that turns a twelve-year-old girl into a temporary pariah.

This essay starts like this.

The scoliosis specialty wing of the Children’s Hospital in Boston is inexplicably on the bottom-most floor of the building, a subterranean dead zone where receptionists too craggy-faced and inefficient for the higher floors leave years-old issues of Golf Digest on sticky tables as a slow march of patients receive not fatal, but certainly inconvenient news. In 2003, my mother and I make our first visit.

“Has anyone ever talked to you about this?” my gym teacher Mrs. Franklin (changed last name because she’s on Facebook omg should I add her probably not, aside over) asks, running the tips of her finger up my back as I hold onto the tips of my big toes. She’s the world’s tiniest woman, and has to hunch over to reach the top of my spine.

“What?” It would be hilarious if I farted right now but I’m twelve and it’ll be years before I decide girls are allowed to.

Three weeks later, I’m sitting on a waiting room chair that makes a thick smacking noise when I try to stand up, basically flytrap paper made of ass sweat and an unwillingness to clean. My spine is shaped like an “S,” it turns out, like “stupid” or “shut up, it’s not a plastic hip” or “sorry I’m such a disgrace as a person, I’ll figure it out later.”

Being a back brace kid is a decent go-to years down the line – it’s one stop way to explain why you’re socially unpalatable half the time. Most people need to search for the right words, dig through their psyche, uncover some dark “I think the trouble really started when my mother went back to grad school” stuff that can’t be explained with a cursory, surface-based statement. For me, all that needs to be said is that I used to live inside of a plastic cast, no further question.

For many, this pubescent novelty was often paired with some combination of glasses, braces and extraordinarily bad hair (hat trick!) or can result in surgery and months of recovery—for others, the problem can be resolved using a series of braces to be worn nearly every second of every day until your body decides it’s finished growing. I’m treated to a fun combination of the two – a thick blue back brace that curves to the left for nights, and a white one that keeps you standing, sitting, existing in a straight upward line during the day.

It’s a twenty-two hour deal, and the two hours a day you have to move freely are paradise. Memories of these hours, usually stretched to their very limit, are fuzzy but specific. Unstrapping the thick velcro straps to put on ballet shoes and feel a little closer to the rest of the able-bodied universe marked the best 120 minutes of my week, scored to The Immaculate Collection (natch).

Then there were the body socks, skintight cotton shirts that ran from your collarbone, over the tits that can not yet grown past the plastic protruding from your torso all the way down to your hips to prevent the hideous chafing that would take place beneath what I am told was “the best medicine the country has to offer.” There were little flaps under each armpit to stop the contraption from poking your shoulders upward but were more decorative than anything else – they left bizarre, out of place indents that didn’t fade for a few months after. Once peeled from my impossibly sweaty torso, these body socks would smell in a way that caused my parents to constantly question their love. There were only two of them (cotton shirts and parents, that is), and we couldn’t afford to get more. The wealthy crooked gal could have many, with patterns and colors, but mine were marked with ketchup and holes. Cute!

To accommodate the Magnificent Contraption, certain wardrobe concessions had to be made. Most of the time, I’d wear one of massive Tweety t-shirts like a plus-size mom who can’t get out of her damn chair at the pee-wee soccer game and you’d feel bad for her but she heckles, she heckles tiny children wearing t-shirts with the name of an oil company on the front so you don’t feel bad for her, not really. That kind of shirt. My skinny arms poked out like prickly-haired Italian afterthoughts.

Kids in junior high and high school teased me offhandedly, but for the most part the strangeness of my appearance lined up with the hobbies and company I kept, an on-brand teenager if ever there were one. The easiest coping mechanism was to furnish people with as many angles to make fun as possible – imagine a fan of cards with phrases like “BACK BRACE,” “OBOE,” “SCHOOL NEWSPAPER,” “STILL HAS A FLIP PHONE,” “PERPETUAL VIRGIN” – and they’d usually just give up upon being presented with a veritable gourd of uncoolness.

I was stuck in the Magnificent Contraption for three and a half years, right up until the end of my sophomore year of high school. When the brace disappeared so did the questions, and I was free to blend back with the other vaguely personable weirdos in with the concrete high school walls that were so impossible to heat within that they sometimes didn’t bother.

That’s not to say that there isn’t that treacherous explanation for everything bubbling right beneath the surface, but no one’s ever gonna ask, and that almost makes three and a half years of sustained semi-hell worth the hassle.