So I can’t exactly remember why, but in the fourth grade I found myself at a day-long workshop with a handful of other kids from each of the fourth grade classes.
I don’t remember exactly what the context of this workshop was, but thinking back on the activities we did, I’m torn between wanting to call it a “leadership” workshop, or a day-long intervention for kids with low self-esteem.
I’m hoping it was the former.
Anyway, there were a bunch of us kids there, with some parent chaperones, who guided us from the elementary school to an empty local church. I remember a teacher, or maybe it was a counselor, leading some discussion, and there being breakout sessions and whatnot, but one activity stood out to me the most.
I was a horribly awkward kid. Those three painful descriptors are simply the most accurate way to put it. I consider myself to be now, a mostly socially acceptably awkward adult, for what it’s worth.
But in the fourth grade, I got glasses.
And not just reading glasses. I’m talking Coke bottle lenses, soccer career hindering, social stigma inducing glasses.
Oh, and even better than the diagnosis of my nearsightedness, was returning from the optometrist and having my teacher reassign our class seating arrangement. My life before glasses in Mr. Wyant’s class was primo – I had a middle of the room assignment, despite my last name, so I’m thinking his was not an alphabetical arrangement.
Nope, not only was I coming back to class with a fresh set of four eyes, but my class waited while I dragged and scootched my desk up to the very front row. I’m sure my teacher felt like being in the front was incredibly helpful, but I was mortified.
My glasses felt like a punishment.
Fourth grade was a weird time for me in general.
I was in the gifted program, meaning I got to leave class 3 days a week so that was another source of constant teasing. I told myself they were just jealous that they didn’t get to solve cool logic problems or do deductive reasoning exercises, because c’mon, who wouldn’t be? Also, we ran a profitable popcorn business, which I was super proud of.
I turned 10 that year and spent a great deal of time feeling conflicted about my mortality, realizing that I was bound to live in double digits for the rest of my existence, and that felt like a very short time for me. Also, there was a lot of talk at the time about nuclear weapons, and even though the Cold War “officially ended” that year, I spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying about how Boris Yeltsin just didn’t look like a dude who could be trusted.
Fourth grade was also the year in which the boys and girls in my class were systematically herded into separate arenas and informed about the impending havoc our pituitary glands would wreak on our defenseless bodies. Stark realities about my body were forced verbally and visually into my reality, and what’s worse was, I had to sit next to my mom the whole time.
In a room full of other girls and moms! It was the worst.
So yeah, fourth grade? Not as great as third grade. Also, fifth grade seemed much better too, as I recall. Oh yeah, I was a co-captain of my flag-football team…that was a good year.
But fourth grade? Basically it was the first year I felt simultaneously hideously ugly and pariah-esque awkward. And because I was 10, I had little hope that feeling would ever change.
That day at the self-esteem symposium, we had to do an ice-breaker. Everyone got a sheet of paper with their name (and I want to say we also traced the outline of our hands?) taped onto their backs. Then, each person had to go every other person and write something nice about them on their sheet, including our chaperones.
It was kinda fun. I remembered trying to be thoughtful but not weird in my compliments. Which was, okay….is hard for me. But somehow, I managed to still have fun.
But then at the end, after everyone had written on everyone elses’ backs, we had to read them. I didn’t want to read mine. I was scared to. I remember folding it up and pretending to just be normal.
It was well into the day when I finally unfolded the page with my name on it and read what people had to say about me. They were all nice things. I mean, some were generic but I didn’t care. One comment stood out on the page, like it was written in Sharpie and it was the only one:
“Jennifer, you have a beautiful smile! –Karen”
Okay you guys, confession time.
Karen was a chaperone.
That’s right, she was someone’s mom. Actually, she was my friend’s mom. And my own mother’s coworker at the time.
But I also thought she was one of the most beautiful ladies I had seen in real life.
And she told *me* that I owned something *beautiful* and it was on my *face!?*
I had to have beamed. And why not? Someone thought I had a beautiful smile, despite the fact that I looked like one of the Hanson brothers with frizzier hair and virgin eyebrows. Oh, and can’t forget the glasses.
I am so grateful for that day, even if it was intended for children with social anxiety disorder or painfully low self-esteem. Because I was both of those things.
And all it took to turn my day around, well let’s be real, probably my whole week depending on what was happening in Bosnia at the time, was one person’s compliment.
It was sincere, didn’t cost her anything, and she probably has no memory of it whatsoever. But it meant everything to fourth grade me.
And in low times that would follow, I’d pull that folded piece of paper out, and read back the nice things people had said about me. And for a little while, I’d believe them.
And you bet I would smile.
Liked this post? Follow this blog to get more.