Last week I was reading this book review posted by a friend. It was the story of a fat girl who is bullied and mocked for her weight. The reviewer then went on to point out how she was fat-shamed as a girl in school and hence could relate to the story at a personal level.
The review left me stirred up. I felt sorry for her. And it got me thinking about my school life. My boyhood was mostly very happy. I made great friends, had some unforgettable memories and always look back on that phase with a lot of fondness.
There is one aspect of my childhood, however, that I don’t often discuss. Not in detail, anyway.
I have been very tall for as long as I can remember. Today I am okay with it; I take it in my stride, in fact.
But that wasn’t always the case.
I was unusually tall as a kid; the tallest in my class for the entire length of my school life. In fact, I had touched almost six feet when I was in the fifth standard itself. And those were very embarrassing days. For instance, in middle grade, we had to wear half pants, and courtesy of my rather long legs, they would feel embarrassingly short. My growth rate was alarmingly fast and after every three months, I would outgrow my new shorts causing much frustration in my family.
I had to endure some really snide remarks about this for a really long time. I had no way to cover my long legs and would just put a smile on my face and nod as those hurtful comments (mostly bordering on “Looks like you are wearing a chaddi!” and “You have legs like that of a female!”) were hurled at me. Sometimes even the teachers would join in on the fun. It was unpleasant but there was nothing I could do about it.
Then there were the endless finger-pointing, giggles, whispers behind my back and some kids openly mocking and laughing at me every single time I would walk down the stairs or stand in a line at the assembly. I used to hate going to school at one point. And felt extremely uncomfortable being alone in a crowd. I was given horrible nicknames and my height was mocked with such regularity that it just made me an incredibly shy kid, unable to respond to those jibes.
School wasn’t the only place where my height was an issue. I couldn’t escape taunts about my height anywhere I went – the neighbourhood, relatives’ homes, buses, trains… everywhere. I had learned to quietly smile and ignore all the mockeries about my height but after a point, it started to wear me down. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone to share this with.
While I was reading that review of the book earlier, one particularly horrible memory came back to gnaw at me. I had shoved this memory very deep inside and never allow it rear its ugly face. But for some reason, it was let out today.
This was back in the sixth grade when I was attending an inter-school sports day in a huge stadium. To avoid the crowds, I located a secluded balcony in one of the top tiers of the stadium and positioned myself in a corner so as to enjoy the activities and avoid any crowds. I had spent a good half an hour there when I heard some commotion from behind me. A teacher from some other school was walking up to me, a bunch of boys behind him.
The man was well-built, wore a tight-fitting white polo shirt and had a bushy mustache. He snorted on seeing me first. Then, eyeing me curiously, from top to bottom, asked me what I was doing here. I mumbled “Nothing” and tried to get away. But he blocked my path and then, just out of the blue, he suddenly began taking digs at my height.
“What did your parents eat to make you so tall?” he said loudly. It wasn’t really a question; he had a slight sneer on his face when he said so. His students roared in laughter. More rhetorical and nasty comments about my height followed. And there was more raucous laughter from behind him. I could feel myself burning hot in the face and the man kept checking me out, his eyes wide in demented glee as if I was some strange animal in a zoo.
As I tried to make my way past them, the man suddenly turned around and slapped me on the back of my head. It wasn’t a light slap. It was a full-on thwack and it hurt. I moved my head around, stunned at the impact, and saw the boys cackling loudly while the man just stood there, beaming. To avoid further embarrassment, I simply scampered away from the spot, not daring to look back.
This might have felt like a scene from a cheesy film, but it wasn’t. It happened. And I have no idea why.
I remember boarding the school bus back home that evening and being very quiet. A couple of my friends asked me what was wrong and I just said that I had a headache. I didn't have the guts to tell anyone what had happened.
Did I cry? No. I was too ashamed. Too humiliated. Too scarred. I kind of retracted into a shell for a few days. And I guess from thereon my habit of closing myself out from the world from point to point began.
I have never shared that incident with anyone in my life. Not even my mother. This is the first time I have typed it. It didn’t feel good. I don't like remembering that memory. It makes me feel small. And that’s quite ironic, perhaps.
I am not writing this to gain anyone’s sympathy. It is too old an incident to fret over now. But, yes, writing it out made it feel real and, perhaps, I can now accept it and have some closure.
Maybe I should have reacted differently on that day. Maybe not. That is not the point, anyway. The point is that it shouldn’t have happened. But it did. No 12-year-old child deserves to be treated that way. No 12-year-old boy deserves to be treated differently from the others just because he is taller than the rest.
I hated being stared and pointed at all the time. I hated being asked questions about my height every single day. I hated being mocked and laughed at because I was so tall. I hated standing out in the crowd all the time. I just wanted to be myself. But not many allowed me that privilege.
Things got better eventually, of course. I grew out of my shell and discovered new facets of my personality that were unrelated to my height. I made some great friends along the way who never bothered about how tall I was. And as I passed my teens, my height, I realized, aided my personality. And, yes, sometimes I secretly enjoy the attention my height gives me these days.
I also take regular digs at my own height these days. I enjoy doing so. I guess it was some sort of a defense mechanism I developed much later in life. Also, that experience from my childhood has made me more empathetic towards children. I have felt that whenever I interact with any child who is a little shy or different and somehow I just know how to break the ice with most of them.
Regardless, it wasn't easy being unusually tall as a young boy and being the constant butt of crude and snide remarks. For what felt like years I hated myself and my height. I guess it is a human tendency. They see a gangly, shy and ungainly teenage boy and they take cruel digs on him because he is tall and doesn’t know how to react, not realizing the damage they are inflicting on his psyche.
So the next time you come across an overweight or dark or tall or different-in-any-way kid quit staring and throttle down that urge to pass on any witty remark. Those actions can have a long-lasting damage. And not every kid has the ability to cope with it.
I have mostly made amends with this particular aspect of my past life. But some parts of those days have had a permanent effect on me and I don’t think those scars will just go away. Because even today, when I notice someone giggling behind my back and pointing at me, it makes me cringe a little and immediately brings back a flood of those not-so-memorable memories. It makes me remember me hurrying down the stairs of my school with the other kids sniggering and pointing behind me. It makes me remember the eyes of that man on that stadium after he hit me and the laughter of his students. And it’s not a good feeling.
It will take time, I guess. Hopefully, I would outgrow that part of my life, just like I did with those half pants.