How I Learned To Make Myself Small

01/25/2017 12:26 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017
Picture day- Circa 1996 I wiped my mouth with my shirt after brushing my teeth. That’s when I first learned that some mistake
Picture day- Circa 1996 I wiped my mouth with my shirt after brushing my teeth. That’s when I first learned that some mistakes last a lifetime

I have been staring at my screen for the last hour ― trying to think of the perfect intro. One that is witty, but also engaging and thought provoking. I’ve been wanting to write about this for ages; but my repetitive use of the backspace key has hindered me. Well that, in conjunction with my anxiety.

I imagine this is how Murphy Lee felt when he wrote the timeless classic, “Wat Da Hook Gon’ Be.” Murphy Lee was an innovator who didn’t adhere to the traditional songwriting structure. He didn’t need a hook for this beat and I guess I don’t need a traditional intro for this piece. Even now, I am simply typing words to weed out the fair-weather readers who refuse to read articles that don’t “instantly grab them.” So if you’ve made it this far, give yourself a hand. The best is yet to come.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always known three things about myself. I’ve always known I was black. I’ve always known I hated vegetables. And I’ve always known that my ears were big and wide. By big and wide I mean like a ’99 Chevy suburban with the doors open. It’s okay, you can laugh. This was long before having big ears was cool. Barack Obama was just publishing his first book, and Will Smith was a seemingly unknown actor.

I initially had no qualms about my ears. They were big and wide; true enough. But so was my acceptance for things I could not control. And after all, my mother assured me that my head would grow into my ears eventually. So there was not much to fret about. But I quickly learned that the acceptance for things that we cannot control is a virtue that not everyone aspires to acquire.

I remember how excited I was for my first day of kindergarten. My mother had to be at work early that morning and couldn’t take me and my siblings. Since we lived only a mile or so away from the school there wasn’t a bus we could catch. So my uncle walked us. He insisted that we all hold hands. I broke loose of his vice-like grip and wiped the sweat on my pants leg just before we made it to the school side walk. I didn’t want anyone to see me being walked into school like some baby who had never been away from his mother’s side. Those days were long gone. I was a big kid now.

From there I was on my own. I confidently walked through the halls with my head held high to find my classroom. My homeroom teacher’s name was Ms. Holly. I remember her flowing red hair swaying back and forth like a pendulum as she bent over to greet me. I quickly walked in and grabbed my seat. There were about 15 other students in my class. And I was eager to meet them all.

While we were working in a group, one of my classmates asked me: “Dumbo, are you going to fly to lunch?” I heard a few snickers. My heart and my crayon were both racing. Unsure of how to react, I just sat in silence and continued to draw. I believe that was the first time my anxiety was triggered. That was the first time someone made me feel uncomfortable in my body. But it wouldn’t be the last.

The teasing and jokes were sporadic throughout primary school, but consistent enough to remind me that my head had yet to catch up to my ears. In spite of this, I still managed to maintain a circle of friends. They would even take up for me at times. I was always appreciative of that. I figured the teasing was just a rite of passage that would eventually phase out.

Fast forward to my first day of 6th grade. I was more anxious than I was excited. I spent the previous night playing out scenarios in my mind. Anticipating who might say what and how I would react. When I walked through the halls, I didn’t have the same confidence I once knew. My head wasn’t held as high. My shoulders were inverted. And I wasn’t eager to meet anyone was terrified.

I heard whispers of the crude humor of upperclassmen and was preparing myself.

I practiced making myself small. I avoided large groups. I rarely initiated conversations or made eye contact. I didn’t want to be noticed. This was both a defense and survival mechanism. I didn’t want to feel any more uncomfortable in my body than I already was. And mind you, I was going through puberty as well.

My tactics seemed to work for a while. Well, that was until one guy decided to dub me: “Tickle me Earmo.” I internalized each unique laugh. I had never been so humiliated in my life. That humiliation was revisited more times than I care to mention in this article.

Around the end of 7th grade the jokes began to die out. Whether this was osmosis, a lack of new material, or my head finally growing into my ears is beyond me. I didn’t care. I was just happy it was over.

But it was far from over. What I didn’t know was that the emotional and psychological abuse I experienced in my developmental stages would affect me well into my adult years. I would spend these years trying to take back the little pieces that were taken from me. It was now incumbent upon me to reclaim my big and wide acceptance for things I could not control. That now included the lack of acceptance from others. This process was more painful than experiencing the bullying in real time.

You see, jokes are never just jokes.

They not only shape how the world views and interacts with us; jokes also shape how we view and interact with the world. The temporary delight we indulge in at the expense of others, pales in comparison to the long-lasting effects of bullying.

Today I don’t hold any grudges. I honestly couldn’t tell you who said or laughed at what. And even if I could, vengeance is not something I often seek.

But there are times when I imagine how differently my personality may have blossomed had I been allowed to grow. These days when I walk into a crowded room I still get a little anxiety. Truth is, I probably always will. I have to remind myself that I no longer have to make myself small.

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