I learned at a relatively early age
how to deflect criticism with carefully planned ease,
how to hide my truest flaws
with self-effacing humor,
how to shrink the space my spirit and body
take up with apologies.
They were lessons learned out of necessity,
I am still trying to unlearn them,
But when you dodge punches
and rocks on the playground,
when you sprint between classes
so they can’t catch you
in the hall to pinch you in places
where the bruises won’t be seen,
when you have to walk around all day
in sweaty gym clothes
because you’re terrified to change
and risk being pulverized
you learn quickly how to become invisible.
And I grew up, but I never
forgot what it meant to be hated
for being different.
And I learned to hide my flaws.
These memories all hit me today
when a tear-streaked girl came
down the hall and told me that she had to talk to me.
I expected a sad personal tale,
but instead, she said:
“Ms. Sanders, I didn’t know what to do.
In my last class some girls were talking bad
about you, and I tried to defend you
and they told me to take my opinion
and shove it,
but they said you were fat,
and that your new haircut is awful,
and that your body is ugly,
and that you should shower more because you always look greasy!
And I’m sorry because I couldn’t stop them!”
I wrapped my arms around her in a quick hug and told her
that it was okay,
that signing up to teach teenagers sometimes
means being hated, that she didn’t have to defend me.
I told her not to worry, that I didn’t care what they had said. She seemed relieved,
and I sent her on her way.
And as she left, I wanted to weep.
Not for myself.
Not for me, because now I praise God
for every rock that ever hit me
and for every blow I received,
because it taught me to refuse to seek
my identity from something as feeble
as another human being.
It taught me to find myself
in something other than what other people
believed about me,
to look in the mirror
and not see an ugly freak,
but someone beautiful because she had passion,
strong because of her soft heart,
steadfast because of her beliefs.
So I didn’t want to cry for myself.
I wanted to cry for those girls,
so sure, at sixteen,
that they can categorize the world
into the labels they learned
before they could even speak.
Those precious girls
have only learned what the world has taught
them to see,
and they have already mastered
the horrible Art of Comparison,
wielding their knife-tipped makeup brushes
and smiling falsely with their whitened teeth.
And I wanted to weep because I love them.
I love them so much
that I want more than this for them.
I want them to understand that humanity
was never created for competition.
We were never meant to stand on stages
and be called the Misses of Anything
except Love, and Compassion, and Kindness,
and Strength, and Bravery.
Our very hearts pump hesitant blood
into our impossible veins
so that we can love each other
with a ferocity that can only be called human.
And I wanted to weep because I wish I could
hold each one of those soul-beautiful girls
by their gorgeous cheeks,
stare into their eyes,
and really show them
how to See.
But I know it’s a lesson that only time can teach.
And so I will wait
as the world rolls on,
until they are old enough to understand
what people really mean when they say
that beauty is only skin deep.