A long time ago, in very cold and blustery North Dakota, there lived a ten-year-old girl who was physically far beyond her years. She longed to have a flat chest like the other girls in her grade. She desperately wanted to have long skinny legs. Instead, she had breasts (she hid those girls under three sports bras) and muscular legs that were anything but skinny. On top of everything her classmates could see on the outside, she felt so insecure because she had started menstruating.
The little girl was very loved at home and had many friends. She couldn't help but feel insecure because her body was so vastly different from the other girls in her grade. She stood out from the rest of her classmates. You see, every girl in the fourth grade still looked like a child. Not her; she started puberty and stuck out like a sore thumb. She was in that puberty chubby phase. She had pimples. She was a foot taller than everyone.
She looked different from the other girls; and because she was different the boys in her class took it upon themselves to make sure she knew she was different.
They teased her and called her names like "fat" and "chubby". Quite some time went by and the boys who called her fat and husky broke her spirit. Every day they'd call her names and every day she'd quietly ignore them. She did nothing to make them stop and allowed them to call her names for she knew it was the truth: She was different.
But it wasn't long before she decided enough was enough. She was bigger than those boys. She was stronger than them. She was taller than them. She could defend herself if she wanted to.
One day, after hearing the same names being said behind her back she turned around and asked the boy to say it to her face.
He looked at her in the eye, "Fat," he said, "F-A-T, you are fat." What did she do? She used the only thing she thought she could use. She valiantly used her strength to make him stop.
This wasn't the kind of fight scene you see in the movies. There were no punches thrown; she didn't know how to punch. No bloody noses or black eyes. She pushed the boy down, held his head to the desk and told him to stop calling her names. The "fight" (if that's what you want to call it) came to an end and the adults ran into action. What happened next is where our story gets really interesting.
A trip to the Principal's Office
Once the teacher and his aid caught the scuffle in action, they demanded everyone stop. She held her composure and stood up tall. Should she be ashamed? Maybe; but there's only so much hate-filled speech a person can take before they have two options: Fight or flight. She fought. Oddly enough she was proud of herself for fighting.
Both children were sent down to the principal's office. They sat on opposite sides of the office looking at their feet. She didn't dare look into the boy's eyes; she was still reeling from the feeling of power and control she felt. Any word that came out of the boy's mouth would be like throwing gasoline onto an already lit flame. She was ready to explode.
A defining moment
"Elizabeth?" the school secretary said, "Mr. Z will see you now." Her stomach dropped and she slowly made her way into the principal's office. She entered the office and sat down in a gray padded chair. Mr. Z wanted to know her side of the story: Why was she getting physical with this boy and why didn't she tell an adult before things became physical? She explained to him that she thought if she ignored the boys' teasing it would go away but they just wouldn't stop.
Expressing herself to her school principal was cathartic and slowly Mr. Z's eyes began to soften. Expecting Mr. Z to dish out a stern punishment, the girl finished and quietly waited for the worst. Mr. Z looked into her eyes and said something that will always remain with her,
Getting physical is never the right response but standing up for yourself is more important. I'm warning you now that you cannot let this happen again and you have to tell your teacher if anyone says anything mean to you. You may head back to class.
Teacher's Words of Wisdom
The girl headed back to class, her principal's words echoing in her mind, "...standing up for yourself is more important." It was almost the end of the school day and the class was quietly sitting at their desks waiting for the school bell to dismiss them.
"Beth, please stay for a bit," the girl's teacher said to her.
Great. I'm in trouble now, she thought,
- Photo Courtesy of Eric and Mary Ellen
She sat at her desk and waited for her classmates to leave the class room. Her friends gave her sympathetic looks as they exited the room. He nodded at her and slowly she got up from her desk. The classroom was small but the walk to the teacher's desk felt like it was a million miles away. Reaching the desk she looked down at her feet, "Yes?" Her teacher looked at her with kindness in his eyes; she recognized the look because her parents looked at her the same way at times,
You have to tell me when people are being mean to you, Beth. I know you are stronger than the other kids and I know that your actions today were provoked. I'm proud that you stood up for yourself but from now on you have to let me do it for you. That's my job. I'm going to call your parents but you can head home.
A lesson in speaking up for yourself
That little girl in the story, "Beth", yes, that's me. Shocker. This is a real story and while some of the conversations that happened may not be entirely accurate, the events and principles are true. I mean it was over 20 years ago that this all happened.
I was teased as a child because I hit puberty a few years before everyone else and I responded physically. Actually, that year I turned into somewhat of a 10-year-old girl vigilante. If there was a boy teasing one of my girl friends, I'd step in instantly and my size alone would make the bully stop.
The power of a teacher is far reaching, beyond books, mathematics and chalkboards: Teachers have the ability to shape our lives and our character. Their influence over us can be defining and it was for me. I will forever be grateful to Mr. Z and my fourth grade teacher for giving me permission to speak up as a woman against injustice. That year two male authority figures gave the best thing a girl could be given: Permission to stand up for myself and the injustices I see happening around me.
- Photo courtesy of Anders Lejczak
I want to thank Mr. Z and my fourth grade teacher a thousand times over for instilling a sense of confidence, ownership and a voice in me. The confidence I gained that year as well as the permission to stand up for myself has carried me throughout life.