Fat

All women are fat . . . in their own minds.

I’ve been officially fat since the 8th grade. I can remember the moment when I slowed down in the hallways of Milam Jr. High just long enough to notice. Painful adolescent self-awareness. Girls, with long flowing hair snuggled up against their football player boyfriends hanging on lockers. Giggles erupting at the precise pitch of annoying. Their tight rolled jeans hugging their thin and fluid shapes, subtly disguised underneath giant 1980’s sweaters. They were the perfect, guy-catching weight. This girl . . . well, not so much. Looking down painfully, I noticed my near white Ked’s and tight rolled Jordache jeans that made my legs look more like drumsticks than boyfriend bait. Thinking I belonged just moments before, I now felt gawky and strange in that alien place. I think I ate my first rice cake that afternoon.

Cue my first diet. Multiply that by 100. Now, you know every woman’s story in brief. At that moment I joined the only veggies, only fruit, eat cabbage, smell like cabbage, low-fat, low carb, liquids only, planned meal, eat only foods that God made in 7 days of creation, Atkins, Nutri-System, Weight Watchers, Dexatrim, dieting club with a side of exercise addiction.  Now, technology has given us Fitbit and Fuel Bands so we can obsess over every STEP WE TAKE!!!  Like I didn’t have enough to worry about already.  We also have My Fitness Pal so we count every calorie like a food bank account.  Somehow I manage to write checks I can’t cash in that application as well.  I have a clothing size that I refuse to give up, even if I have to shop at 12 stores for 5 hours to find one pair of pants in that size that fits.  “Yep,” we think smugly once we located the holy grail of extra fabric in said size, “I’m still a size fill in the blank.”  I have never taken a picture in my life that I didn’t merit its approval by the size of my hips and thighs.  I’ve mastered every conceivable contortion of the body, every trick of lighting, and every angle by which the camera is positioned in order to appear less fluffy than I am.  This, my friends, is a full time job.

Now, as a teacher, I get to witness this on-going cycle daily.  Young girls, awkwardly clawing at their tucked in shirts, shying away from the spotlight, lest it highlight an undesirable body part.  Laughter and sarcasm hide the pain.  Reading their writing can be searing, as their awareness of their body image becomes more real when double-spaced in size 12 font.

So, who should we blame?  The women who aren’t really fat, but think they are?  Boys?  Culture?  Movies?  Magazines and models?  Emotional overeating?  Preservatives and chemicals?  Menopause?  McDonald’s French Fries?   Genetics?  I don’t know.  Take your pick.  At the end of the day, we all think we’re fat.

 

Consequently, here is my prescription for all my friends of the female persuasion:

1.  Put the brownie down.  Not every brownie.  Just the “one every hour” brownie.  Or just eat the brownie without ice cream, whip cream and chocolate syrup.

2.  Enjoy that picture that you took at the beach when you felt like a hippo.  In 10 years when you look back at it, you will be the skinniest person you have ever seen.

3.  Throw out the clothes you kept from your “skinny” phase.  They just hang there and haunt you.  Who are we kidding?  We will never get back there.

4.  Go for a walk.  A long one.

5.  Go to the beach.  Sit down on a towel or beach chair.  Observe.  Feel better about yourself.

6.  Go to Wal-Mart.  Stand in the ice cream aisle with a grocery cart like you are shopping.  Observe.  Feel better about yourself.

7.  You know the super skinny friend you have who always complains about her weight?  Yeah, slap her.

8.  Join a gym.  Never go.

9.  Bake a cake.  For somebody else.

10.  Whenever thoughts of your body image consume you, get moving.  Do for others.  Stop cataloging dimples and cellulite, and start investing in the eternal.  We just have these earth suits for a short time, whether we agree with the product packaging or not.

And the best part of the story is that the super slim junior high beauty that I observed leaning against her locker in adolescent love?  She thought she was fat too.

 

Fear

Truth be known, I’m afraid.  Deathly.  You name it.  I’m afraid that the spot that just appeared on my forehead is cancerous.  Afraid that I will have to loan my son money for the counseling he will need after I get done with him.  Afraid that I will nag my husband one too many times.  Afraid that I’m an ineffective teacher.  Afraid that I will miss an opportunity, that no one will show up at my funeral, or that worse yet, someone will discover me for the fraud that I think I am.  Afraid that I won’t check Pinterest enough to be “that” mom at parties (the best I can manage is to bring Double Stuff Oreos).  Afraid that I have fake MS, that my heartburn is heart failure, or that on the next plane flight I take that God has assembled all of the people whose days on this earth have expired for that one final ride into the sunset.  I’m afraid that one day I will be found in some cheesecake induced coma on the side of the road.  I’m afraid of germs, spiders, and anything faster than I am, which is EVERYTHING.  Afraid that I said too much or not enough or not the right thing.  I’m afraid of Al Qaeda (mainly because there is no “u” after the “q”), changes in healthcare, and the future that I am leaving my son with.  I’m afraid of roller coasters (I lose my Christianity on them), heights and fast speeds, changes of any kind, and clowns.  I’m afraid of making the wrong choice, cabbage, and betrayal.  And to add insult to anxiety . . . sometimes, I’m afraid that I don’t matter.

Luckily for me, I live in an existence where the majority of my fears live quietly under the surface of my day to day, minding their own business, fraternizing with one another, planning their next moves.  Clipping along at a quiet, steady, mundane pace, I rarely feel the throbbing, pulsating tremor of scared that lives in the depth of my subconscious.  And then, BANG, one or many rear their individually ugly heads just in time to shake my foundation.  I love it when it happens at night, after a fitful three hour sleep.  There is nothing like fear in the dark.  The stranglehold seems tighter in the wicked shadows that dance on the wall.  How can we co-exist with such anxiety, fear and worry?  We are a culture that is driven by those forces in ways others have never experienced.  We have a pill for each one, neatly packaged and prescribed.  We have yoga, deep breathing, meditation, massage, spa treatments, and relaxation techniques all designed to dull the anxious and numb the nervous.  Don’t get me wrong, I am an advocate for any medical advancement that can treat the imbalances that we face, but it does lead me to an interesting question.  What are we all so afraid of?

I played competitive tennis for over a decade.  I started in USTA tennis tournaments every summer, fall and winter as a 10 year old, played high school tennis in the spring as a teenager, and continued my career in college.  As a senior at Union University, I still remember my last competitive tennis match in our final conference tournament.  I cried like a baby when it ended.  That period of my life was marked by buckets of sweat, white hot tears, unspeakable joy, withering pressure and a multitude of life lessons.  One such moment occurred my sophomore year of high school when I was facing my district rival, Anne Howell, from Starkville, Mississippi.  That year, the newly remodeled tennis complex on the campus of Mississippi State University would play host.  Unfortunately, that site was in the heart of Anne’s hometown.  Most certainly the underdog, I had made it to the 5A District finals versus Howell, securing a trip to the State Tourney.  In fact, since both of us had secured our berth to State, we were really just playing for seeding and bragging rights.  However, to me, that match meant everything.  I wanted to win so badly I could taste it, and the butterflies set up permanent residence the moment my feet hit the concrete that morning.  The complex at MSU was beautiful, with an elevated seating deck, overlooking the court where Anne and I would play.  I felt like Chris Evert taking my position in a venue so grand.  The stands were filled with Howell supporters, and my small contingency consisted of my family, my coach, and my teammates.  Anne and I had met twice in the regular season.  She had beaten me handily at home, and I had stunned her with a victory at home.  The stage was set for a highly competitive match with the potential for fireworks.  Anne came out on fire, dismantling my ground stroke attack and putting me on the defensive.  She took the first set easily pushing me into a position I liked to play from- behind.  Slowly but surely, I gained ground.  Counter punching and mixing up my shots, I found myself inching back into the match.  Sensing her frustration only fueled my momentum, and we went into the last few games of the second set neck and neck.  Exchanging point for point and game for game, I ended up playing for my life in a second set tie-breaker.  The crowd became very vocal, shouting encouragement with sudden whoops of joy over a well played shot.  Set point came next, giving me a chance to even the match and fight on in a third and final set.  And that’s when everything slows down.  I can almost remember every stroke of that rally, ball placement, newly opened tennis balls on the turn giving up small yellow wisps with each ball strike.  A heated exchange, I can see her attempt to end it with an aggressive cross court backhand veering dangerously close to the sideline.  Ball bounces and I shout confidently, “Out!” The set is mine.

At that moment the stadium erupted in boos, shouts and whistles, aggressively debating my call.  The fight grew even more intense when Anne Howell quickly approached the net, urging me to change my call and calling me a cheater.  I knew the rule clearly.  If the ball touched any part of the line, it should be ruled in.  If I were in doubt about the appropriate call, I would have to concede the point to my opponent.  But I wasn’t in doubt.  I had evened the match, and all the joy of that moment was shrouded in suspicion and controversy.  I can still remember my parents yelling at everyone to be quiet, urging them to let us play, but their small voices were no match for the angry crowd who were enraged for my opponent.  I walked off the court as fast as my legs could carry me for the ten minute break before the match resumed, holding the pivotal question in my mind.  Seeing my coach’s face, I knew the answer before I asked it.  “Was the ball out” I whimpered, praying for affirmation, urging her with my eyes to agree with my call.  “No,” she said quickly and evenly.  My heart sank, my energy drained, my morale evaporated.  Her honesty was necessary, and my pride was too great to relent.  After all the insistence that my call was correct, I had only one option left . . . to walk onto the court in the final set having not really earned the opportunity.  My mind took over my body, my game fell away, and I left in disgrace, losing miserably in the third set.  Anne Howell left that day the champion, her fans vindicated by my burning conscience.

Thankfully, in that moment, all that was at stake was a tennis match.  A fuzzy yellow ball, a Wilson racquet, and a teenager’s pride.  Not the future of mankind or the life of a friend.  However, the power of that pain took hold in my heart.  It stung.  And, on some level, isn’t that what we are all afraid of?  Standing in the middle of the court completely unmasked.  A gallery of spectators witnessing that seminal moment of shame.  The jeers.  The “I knew they couldn’t do its.”  Our tragic losses.  Our inadequacies. Our insecurities. Weaknesses exposed.  Failures final. Our parenting is called into question.  Our loyalties blur.  Our marriages fail.  Our business models unravel.  We over-commit and under-prepare.  Habits become vices. Temptations overwhelm us.  Our mouth writes a check our abilities can’t cash.  Isn’t that what keeps us running, managing our images, refueling our social media sites with the best of who we are, perpetually updating our resumes?  Isn’t that what keeps our stomachs churning, our blood racing, our faces masking the truths we avoid in public.  And even more devastating, isn’t that what keeps us from our knees, from falling before our Father, afraid that are true unworthiness exempts us even still from an eternal flood of grace.  Even after a promise from the creator of the universe.  Isn’t that fear of ultimate vulnerability what confounds us, frustrates us, unearths us?  Because on the off chance that we aren’t just alike on the inside, we would be the one left holding the bag of “I’m not good enough.”

I have learned many truths since I once inhabited that unsteady, uncertain, insecure high school sophomore’s body.  I even learned a powerful truth from that moment of shame.  I lived through it.  It didn’t wreck me.  Far from it, it changed me for good.  After I took my lumps, I owned it and I moved on.  I reminded myself, as William Faulkner once said, “that the basest of all things is to be afraid” and after teaching my heart that truth, “to forget it forever.”  Forget the fear so that insight and wisdom can find a home there instead.  And as I have grown, I have found something else true indeed.  We all are just alike. We are all blithering idiots wrapped in unmerited and oftentimes obnoxious self-confidence.  May we find solidarity in that simple truth and be transparent in our frailties.  Past failure, there is freedom.  Past shame, there is strength.

Ten Things I Have Learned About Kids

This year I begin my 20th year in teaching.  And fortunately, I have been able to teach all 20 in the same place . . . the same amazing, insane, enriching, mind numbing, rewarding place.  During that 20 years, I have taught almost every grade level from 6-12, but my passion is for high school students; yes, for the dreaded teenager.  It’s been quite a journey, and in honor of that road, I have decided to compile the ten things I have learned about kids along the way.  So, here it goes.

1.  Start with the lie and move to the truth.  All students have a touch of the classic image manager. In fact, they are a reflection of most adults in this way.  As a result, they will downright lie at first when questioned over an issue that could have potential negative consequences for them.  The excuses can be elaborate and well thought out.  They can also be hilarious.  Years ago, my friend and co-worker assigned an oral history essay. Students had to interview a parent or grandparent about a time that person lived through in the past and then write about it.  One student failed to turn it in.  When my friend contacted the mom about her son’s delinquent assignment, the mom indicated that she had a problem with the essay requirements.  When my friend asked why, she stated, “My son told me that you wanted them to interview a hobo, and I will not have my son speaking to a hobo!”  Talk about finding a clever way out of work.  The old “dog ate my homework” excuse has evolved into “lightning struck my internet.” “I emailed it to you. Did you not get it?” “My printer ran out of toner, and a car struck the transformer by my house.” “I emailed it to myself and now I can’t remember my password.”  I can literally count on one hand the students who have demonstrated immediate transparency in work related or disciplinary situations, and even then, I didn’t believe them at first glance.  The upside is that you can lead a student to the truth.  It just takes a good deal of patience and a little bit of time.

2.  Students crave structure. They also hate it.  With a passion. “I love our new dress code,” said no student ever.  You can hear the strains of discord echoing through the hallways, in the lunch room, and on every social media outlet.  Rules infuriate.  Policy changes mid-stream send students to the ledge.  Yet, a curious thing happens when students watch rules enforced.  Their eyes light up when that perpetual dress code violator gets nailed in the hallway.  They get tingly when that student who never comes to school on time gets sent to Saturday school.  They cry foul when the rules aren’t followed.  They ask and re-ask about final exam schedules because they don’t want to be late.  They can quote the policy handbook verbatim and deny its very existence when it is conducive to them.  Over the years, I have taught the protestors who were apt to stage boycotts and “sit ins,” and I have also taught the social justice seekers and policy makers who tried to find a way to work with the system to change perceived injustice.  Probably the most frustrated students are the rule followers.  They see inequity everywhere they look, but we need them desperately, because eventually, they are most likely to fight for right everywhere they go.

3.  Middle school students have no souls. And they smell like metal.  They are metallic.  If you are a middle school teacher, you are on some grand expeditionary force to rescue the souls of humankind.  Good luck with all that.

4.  They look at their phones too much.  I am convinced that the medical technologies of the future will have to cure carpal tunnel of the the thumbs.  Recently, I drove by the middle school next door to where I teach while recess was in progress.  What I saw were a few kids playing a game with a ball.  The majority of kids had found the shade of a tree to check their Twitter.  This is the dark underbelly of the smart phone. It does so much good and provides so many useful tools for our children, but it is singlehandedly robbing them of skills- skills like eye contact, complete sentence exchanges and the ability to endure solitude and silence.  On the flip side, students of today are far more sophisticated than the students of 20 years ago.  They understand subtlety and nuance, innuendo and subtext in ways that are astoundingly adult-like.  And that’s not all bad.  The beast has been unleashed.  There is no going back even if that were the best idea, and it isn’t.  So, we must continue to remind them and ourselves to look up once in awhile.  We might be missing out on a God opportunity right before our eyes because we can’t stop looking down.

5.  They still love vandalizing the bathrooms. Mostly, the boys. Girls see the bathroom as their office space, much like Fonzie in Happy Days. This is a place they can escape during class to answer that urgent text, do their hair, paint their nails, pierce each other’s ears, etc. Boys, not so much.  I have never understood this.  So, you are sitting or standing there answering nature’s call.  And your next thought is a Sharpie to the wall?  Unrolling every toilet paper drum into the floor?  Flooding the sink?  Overflowing the toilet?  Boys are, respectfully, dumb.

6.  Teenagers are just smart enough to be self-aware and just dumb enough to think they can change the world.  And I love it.  Old people, like myself, lose our way in this department.  We get stuck in our complacency, in our views, in our routines.  We lose the will to dream because that will is replaced with the responsibilities we shoulder.  The mundane takes precedence over possibility.  Students have a luxury of time and space that is needed for dreams to thrive.  We can all take a lesson from their openness to the opportunities in the world around them.  Maybe we have shut a few doors that need to be cracked open again.  Maybe we have closed a few windows in rooms that need airing out.  Living amongst the young reminds you of that truth daily and convinces you that you really can change your three feet of influence.

7.  They know when you are lying. Instantly. Teenagers can see through to your ignorance, your inconsistency, your forgetfulness, and your flaws. When you stand in front of them in a classroom or raise them in your own home, you become extremely vulnerable. I have very little self-esteem left and even a smaller amount of dignity. I have been told I looked pregnant in a jumper dress I wore in the 90’s. I have been told my sweater color looked like vomit. I even had one student imitate the Mary Katherine Gallagher “Superstar” move from SNL when I tried to wear something a little out of my comfort zone (thanks, David Kitchen). I have accidentally put on the same shoe in two different colors and worn them to school only to be called out by first period. They tell me when my hair needs a highlight or a cut. They know when I am about to cry, or when I don’t know the answer to their question. They know when I am ready to be silly and when I am ready to get down to business. They remember what stories I have told them three times already, and they let me tell them again so it takes up class time. They know me . . . sometimes better than I know myself. So what’s the lesson. Be willing to be wrong. Be willing to ask forgiveness. Be willing to be real and transparent. Faking perfection has a hollow tone, and that tone happens to be in their frequency. Modeling what it looks like to fail and get back up again is one of the most valuable lessons you can give the children in your charge. Which leads me to . . .

8.  They need failure.  It’s as necessary to their development as milk is to bone growth.  Believe me, as a parent, I am fully aware this is one of the most difficult things to watch your children live. I find my bear claws coming out when I see my son hurt. It feels unnatural and counter-intuitive to let them fall. We spend our whole lives trying to keep them alive, healthy and well. So, when someone hurts them, when they experience injustice (real or perceived), or when their own decisions bring painful consequences, our gut reaction is to do what we have been trained to do: save them. The students I began with 20 years ago, by and large, were raised by parents who were slow to rescue. After I contacted a mom one day about her son’s antics in my class, she brought a ping pong paddle to school to spank her ninth grader. I will never forget the look on his face when she knocked on the door of my classroom. Today, that trend has shifted. We live in a culture dominated by distrust for authority and a deep-seated need to deflect criticism or correction . The “everybody gets a trophy” mentality pervades the educational institutions in America, so by the time students reach the high school level, many of them have not yet fully experienced what it means to lose. Consequently, many of them also don’t know what it takes to win. Advanced technology means that students often get to parents first when they encounter difficulty in the school setting, and if you want to know how that turns out, refer to number #1. The truth is I have had some amazing teachers and adult mentors in my life pouring wisdom into my heart by the bucketful. But the best teacher I have ever had is pain. It’s truth is seared in my soul, sustaining me through the shifting seas of life. Why would we rob our own children, our life blood, of this eternal lifejacket?

9.  Never ask a “yes or no” question to a group of teenagers. If you want “yes,” they will yell out “no.” if you want “no,” they will yell out “yes.” Corporately, they are incapable of answering this the way you hope, because their entire goal in life at this age is to give you the opposite of what you desire.  Find another way to ask the question.

10.  You never know what a student may be going through at home.  You might not know that a student doesn’t really have one. There have been times in my career that I thought it would be more productive to bring a blanket, a pillow and a light snack for a kid I knew was experiencing hardships when they left the protection of the school environment. Students who silently endured this difficulty, trudging through everyday as best they could. Students who didn’t ask to be the center of attention or didn’t put their struggles on display during prayer requests. Other times, I have underestimated the circumstances a student has been in, believing that I, in my great wisdom, could adequately diagnose the source of his/her misbehavior, bad grades, lack of motivation, etc.  And I have been wrong.  It is humbling.  The truth is we never fully understand what a child might have been through or might be going through. As a result, we have to leave room for the unknown, and be the lighthouse on the hilltop. A place of peace and security for those students who are not afforded that foundation. We have to learn to listen to their stories, to really read their writing, and to watch the signs. If we rush to judgment, we limit a child. And they will live up to exactly what we ask of them, nothing more.

Oh, and one for the road . . .

11.  They will teach you if you let them.  Over the years, I have watched students battle adversity with more resilience than I could ever hope to have.  I have watched them fight forces beyond their control with a supernatural ferocity.  I have watched them display grace in the face of tremendous grief.  I have watched them lose their parents, their siblings and their classmates to illness and to accident and somehow find the courage to keep showing up.  I have watched them fight disability and handicap.  I have watched them handle career ending injuries and see their future plans dissolve before their very eyes.  I have watched them come to the aid of both friend and foe in great need.  I have watched them face life altering diagnoses, and I have watched them endure unspeakable treatments.  I have watched them scratch and claw and fight to reach a goal.  I have watched them achieve tremendous victories and pick themselves up after sickening defeat.  I have watched.  And I have learned.  Learned, in fact, much more than any educational objective I have ever imparted.  And that’s the most valuable thing I have learned about kids over all these years.  If you will allow it, you will never stop learning.  And when you learn, you teach.  And when you teach, you learn.

So, here’s to another 20.