I’ve been much too aware of my shortness since childhood. All along and in every situation, the guys around me have towered over me. Being the shortest guy in the room can be disappointing at times, but I’ve become used to it. I won’t claim to have never felt bitter about my circumstance. I can say I’ve had a series of interactions that changed my perspective about my circumstance.
I worked in education for fourteen years. For most of these years, I taught high school English at the same school. I started at this school after moving to a new city. Living there didn’t make me feel great about myself. The city seemed to be filled with young, fit, well-groomed men, all of whom were taller than me. I had established myself in my career and had developed an identity, but I still lamented being so short.
Teachers sometimes inspire their students. Less often do people think of students inspiring their teachers, but it happens. I found such inspiration early in my tenure at this school. During my first year there, a pair of my students happened to be of unusually short stature due to an inherited trait. They were cousins separated by one grade. Born with slow and abnormal bone growth, each stood no more than about 36 in their teens. Mobility was strained for each of them. One used a wheelchair most of the time. The other occasionally wore leg braces. They lived with frustrating and sometimes dangerous breathing difficulties. Despite all of this, their circumstances didn’t define them. Their personalities did.
The older cousin was one of the brightest students in his class. He certainly was among the wittiest. I quickly forgot about his size as he distracted me with his humor and skill. The younger cousin was a firebrand. She was loud, brash, and didn’t take anything from anyone. Although arrogant and somewhat difficult to deal with, she backed up her cockiness with wit rivaling her cousins, strong aptitude, and boundless creativity. Each had a presence. Knowing the neighborhood they came from, I guessed they needed this.
I came to find out they weren’t alone in their family. The girl’s mother had attended the school and also was of short stature. Another cousin with the same condition had graduated a few years earlier. Additional siblings and cousins were on their way. A few years after teaching these two, I got to meet some of them.
First, I taught the girls younger brother. He played multiple instruments and was a ball of positive energy that oddly complimented his sister’s antagonistic essence. His talents became renowned throughout the school. He had this curious mixture of humility and confidence that commanded respect. After him, I taught another younger cousin. This guy was the wittiest of the group. He was smug and almost overly confident, but also the most poised of the family. He was another musician who regularly performed with some kids from his neighborhood. Although he was by far the smallest of his extended family, he was a sharp dresser and a fitness nut. He made others forget his size. I frequently played music with him and thought of him as a peer while we held instruments. He dated a girl who was more than a foot taller than him. He defied his height at every turn.
These kids didn’t let their stature limit them. Without a doubt, they had limitations. Their size created various health and accessibility issues. Regardless, they didn’t sit around moping over any of this. They had friends who respected them for who they were. They formed relationships that were reciprocal and meaningful. They let their attitudes and abilities show others who they were. They stood above what others expected from them based on mere size.
Here I had been feeling bad about myself for being 55. What was my excuse for feeling this way when the kids in this family were nearly two feet shorter than me? They managed to live life on their terms. They had so much more to overcome than I did that comparisons were ridiculous. They had genetic anomalies that impacted their health. I was just short. Working with them taught me as much about myself as I taught them about grammar or poetry. They might not have realized it, but they helped alter my perspective at a time when I needed to shake out of a self-imposed funk.