Back-to-school jitters

About this time last year, I humbled myself to type out an embarrassing account of my first week as a college freshman. I wanted to assure former college freshmen that they weren’t the only goofy kids on their campus, and I also wanted to leave no doubt in the minds of upcoming college freshmen that they will be just as goofy.

It was humorous and all in good fun.

As grade school starts back up in my region, I’m reminded of a host of emotions surrounding young kids returning to the class room. For me, there was always the thrill of new colored pencils and notebooks and empty folders (Lisa Frank, naturally) waiting to be filled with my hard work. And, my goodness, the excitement of moving up a grade, signaling getting older and gaining more privileges. It was like a birthday before my birthday. Add to that a new teacher whose approval I desperately wanted to earn, and you had yourself a student ready to learn.

But in fourth grade, specifically, a new emotion started to take hold. Call it embarrassment, call it self-consciousness. However you might describe it, it was an intense awareness of my physical appearance and size, and how I noticeably differed from all the other skinny, wiry girls and boys in my class. Although I had already struggled with body image for about four years by this this time, I had enjoyed being taller than my friends.

But I remember the moment I realized that with my height came mass in all directions on my body.

It gets hot in Kentucky in August, so I had sensibly worn shorts to school. They were my favorites: white jean shorts with roughed-up fringes along the bottom. Cutoffs, basically. As our teacher enlightened us about American Indians and their burial mounds, my eyes strayed from my glossy textbook to my bare legs. They were getting stuck to the plastic seat, making me uncomfortable. I shifted to relieve the pinching. I watched my thighs droop when I raised up and splay out when I rested them on the chair again.

It didn’t look right. So I looked at the girl sitting next to me. She was also wearing shorts, but her legs looked different. Her thighs didn’t even touch the fabric. Her knees were knobby and her ankles tiny. In fact, her legs were straight and skinny all the way down. It hit me that her legs were the norm among all the other 9-year-old girls in the room.

Trying to suppress a sudden surge of tears, I looked back at my own legs with fear. Large thighs bulged against the white denim. My knees and calves were full and my ankles wide. Like stout tree trunks. And worse still, my quick growth spurts at a young age left me with something else none of my classmates had: stretchmarks.

I was different. I didn’t look like anyone else. Even the boys were wiry. I felt like an enormous anomaly among my peers.

I yanked and pulled on my shorts, trying to conceal my imperfections, trying not to cause a scene. Pay no attention to the Fourth Grade Sideshow Freak.

The memory of my legs in those shorts – which I wore maybe two more times before banishing them to the bottom of my drawer – stayed with me until college. For almost a decade, I refused to wear shorts unless they were long or roomy, but preferably both. After dropping some weight my senior year of high school, I finally felt brazen enough to wear shorts in public.

The point is, little kids internalize stuff. They’re often hard enough on themselves without us grown people saying something we think is harmless. Your child, your child’s friend, your niece or nephew, your grandchild or your friend’s child could be dreading a certain outfit or running into a certain kid at school after being safely away from him or her all summer. There could be a lot going on in these kids’ minds that they don’t tell anyone about because they don’t know what they’re feeling or how to express it. Nine-year-old me didn’t know that I was harboring a mental image that would stay with me for the rest of my life. It certainly didn’t help matters when some family members started occasionally making comments about the food on my plate or my size.

Back-to-school time carries with it a lot of jitters, both good and bad. I don’t have children, but I sort of remember what it was like to be one, and it’s hard sometimes. Please be kind with your words.

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