Now that I’ve passed all of the conventional rites of passage into adulthood, I’ve met more and more people who have commented on how much they miss the childhood we’ve both left behind. Often these conversations turn over the loss of free time, or miss not having to manage money in some way. They imagine going back to camp, or reliving family vacations long past.
I too possess my fair share of nostalgia, but I always find myself looking at them in a way that would pair well with crickets sounding in the background.
“What are these people thinking?” I wonder. “I don’t understand them.” For my own part, childhood was a thing to run away from in leaps and bounds.
I wasn’t a kid you wanted to be close to. People always comment on how cute little girls are, and in most cases they really are. But not me. I was uncomfortably small, the kind of small that didn’t communicate “petite,” but suggested “she’s a little behind.”
I was so short that my feet never touched the ground in the small classroom chairs. And antsy, as I always was, I would let my legs swing frantically, pulling at my matted hair and chewing on pencils. (This was to be expected from the boys, but to see this in a six- or seven-year-old girl was a little unexpected to many of my teachers.)
Take that nervous energy to the playground, however, and I was instantly outdone by all of my other classmates. It wasn’t that I was the fat kid on the playground, but I was short, and my classmates—many of them tall and Dutch and Aryan-looking—could just run. Like, gazelles run. Any game that involved any sort of sprinting or chasing was always instantly in their favor. Especially tag.
I hated tag. Hated it. And it was the game that everyone always wanted to play.
It’s not a complicated game, but because I was so easily caught, I was constantly “it” and would spend whole recess periods desperately chasing other kids—not catching any of them. When I learned about bullfights, I sharply remember identifying with the poor bull, doing its best to catch all of the fancy matadors who are always just a little bit beyond the bull’s reach.
After a while, in part as a small mercy to me, but also to keep the the game going, we decided to have two “its.” My classmates would run around and chase each other, and there was me, short and out of breath, running hopelessly behind.
The only thing more humiliating was dodgeball. Invariably, whenever we were forced to play in gym class, I was the last kid left on my team. Those were terrifying moments, like something out of a war movie. The dread of realizing that the student you were hiding behind has been hit, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. The kids at the side would start screaming. “Meg! Throw the ball! Throw it!!” I would desperately dodge one throw, screw up my courage, and aim at one of the opposing teammates. This had to be my victory, my moment in the spotlight. I thrust my arm forward, gave a Serena Williams shout, and threw the ball with all of power my tiny body could command.
The ball would land, pitifully, halfway across the court.
The opposing side would pause to laugh before pelting me with every ball they had.
Gym never got better. With every passing year, my hatred of it grew. It felt like some terrible enemy, a thing that was always coming towards me, but that I could never escape. It was in gym class that I learned it was better to act disinterested than hurt. To try and communicate with every part of your body that you are “fine”—hands in pockets, shoulders relaxed, eyes cool and aloof. I started to hold myself like this in situations outside of gym class as well.
For instance, there was also the problem of math. I was terrible at math, which was a fact reinforced on a social level by my teachers and classmates.
Math would usually come right after writing and reading, which were topics my heart was tuned to. Focusing then, on numbers that told no stories at all, was an impossible struggle. I remember one day when we were given a sheet, and told to fill out as many even numbers as we could. The other kids started writing. “0….2….4…6…” I just stared at my paper. I wondered “What is the point of this? Why do I need to know this?” I started swinging my legs and thinking about the shapes of the numbers instead. I liked how the number 5 looked, and I was disappointed it wasn’t an even number.
The teachers who should have caught my disinterest in math didn’t notice, and I started to fall behind. Eventually, I was taken out of the classroom and worked with an interventionist an hour a day in the same room where kids with learning disabilities and dyslexia were taught. I would practice my times tables by the sand trays where they would draw letters with their fingers.
I did this almost up until middle school. An hour a day I was pulled out of the classroom, separated from the other students and working with the “different” kids, completely miserable and humiliated.
Maybe it helped my math grades, but that’s not what I remember. I remember looking at the kids who learned “differently” and wondering if I was different myself. Walking back alone into my regular classroom, and seeing all of the kids finishing their own math problems in small, laughing groups, I certainly felt different. This thought got so ingrained in me that I remember looking up different mental illnesses late at night in an illustrated encyclopedia I owned, wondering if any of them described me.
I know now that there was nothing “wrong” with me, as I thought then, but in some very practical terms, I was different. My family didn’t live in the suburbs like everyone else. We lived on an old farm, at least a half hour drive away from school. In third grade, we drew maps of our town, and highlighted the route we each took to school every morning. Most lived only a few blocks away, but my map? My map stretched over three pieces of paper, with my highlighted route running out of Grand Rapids and into a completely different town entirely.
My home was something that made me unique, and I loved the land I was raised on, but it made many things difficult. After school activities were hard to coordinate with my other siblings, which usually meant we didn’t do them, and in the winter driving to school was a harrowing experience that often made us miserably late for class. My clothes were almost always hand me downs, so horribly out of fashion at this point that kids would ask me about them. Besides this, I was growing up in a generation where pop culture had never been more accessible. This was the time of American Idol, Survivor, the rise of new musical technology and methods of accessing all of it.
Out where we lived however, accessibility to the TV or internet wasn’t easy. Our internet was horribly slow, our TV didn’t get many of the main channels, and there was always a fight for the remote. As a kid, I spent more time reading and wandering in the woods by our house than anything else. Early on, I remember innocently asking one of the more popular girls in class who Hilary Duff was, and still remember how my face flushed at her reaction.
“You don’t know who Hilary Duff is? Oh my god.”
She never really answered my question, but I was embarrassed. Here again, I was somehow behind, trying to catch up in an area where I clearly never would.
“Do you know who Britney Spears is?? Hannah Montana?” the other girls chimed in.
These conversations chased me throughout elementary school. In gym, I learned to appear disinterested, but it was clear that was exactly the reason I was being teased. Clearly, I was supposed to care a lot about pop culture. So I learned a different lesson. I decided to be just as passionate about TV stars and celebrities and the latest fashions as the other girls were—only in the opposite direction. It was easier for me to pretend to hate what I didn’t understand than admit that I didn’t know it. Like I said, I was not the girl in class that you wanted to get close to.
By the time my class entered middle school, my reputation was set. I was either disinterested, or disdainful.
I will always carry those tendencies with me. When faced with things I don’t understand, my first reaction is always to sneer or simply ignore it. I think everyone has childhood hurts that they carry with them, and these are mine.
But here is what adulthood has given me.
Now, I can look back and understand why the things that hurt me so much in childhood happened. I was a shy kid, who was kinda scrawny and didn’t know how to handle events that were out of her control. I looked different from other kids. I spent a lot of time alone. I had some bad teachers that didn’t know what to do with me. I had some amazing teachers that still needed to see my math grades improve and so continued the humiliating math lessons.
It was an awkward start to the first season of my life, and I don’t remember it fondly.
But it means now that when I walk into my church youth group, I notice the kid who needs me to notice them, but doesn’t know how to say it.
It means that I understand the kid who feels “different.”
I know how to share the stories that helped me. I can say with confidence that things get better, and maybe I can even help make things “better” now.
That’s an amazing gift.
When people need me to be close to them, I know how.