I'm teaching Dickens' Great Expectations for the first time to my 9th-grade English class. We've reached the point early in the story where Pip, the shy, modest, and simple boy, meets Estella, the beautiful, proud, and cruel girl. Estella goes out of her way to make Pip feel ashamed of his upbringing. Here are some of Pip's thoughts after this interaction:
I took the opportunity of being alone to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now...
I set off...pondering, as I went along, on all I had seen, and that I was a common laboring boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night; and generally that I was in a low-lived, bad way.
These words resonate with me. I still remember exactly where I was when I realized I was skinnier than the rest of the kids around me. I was about eight years old and at a lake near Pittsburgh, digging a hole in the sand of the lake's beach. Water from the lake was lapping into my little work of excavation, and with sand all over my hands and legs and my best friend sitting across from me, I couldn't have been happier. My friend's sister was sitting nearby, watching us dig and scoop the dark, gray muck of wet sand.
"Paul, why the heck are you so skinny? Look--I can see all of your ribs. Nasty! Don't you eat anything?"
My hands stopped scooping. I looked down at my torso, as if for the first time. I looked at my friend. Wow, he does not look like me. The wet sand slid down the crevices between my fingers. I never thought of this before. I shrugged off his sister's question. "I don't know." It would become my patented response.
And like Pip, I felt like I had passed from one world to another world and now saw everything in a whole new light. And since that moment, I've spent countless amounts of time, energy, and dollars to right this wrong, to repair this defect of a body. At one point, I was so convinced I was a freak that I forced my mother to take me to multiple doctors and had my blood tested at Quest Diagnostics for thyroid, hormonal issues, anything that would indicate abnormalities with my metabolism. Surely something was wrong with me.
I do still remember every comment made about my chicken legs, or my bony shoulders (or my eyebrows, or nose, or eyes--the list goes on) like little clips saved on a playlist that I can recall at will (and sometimes against my will). I've cursed this body I have. I've stayed up at night fuming about being given the short straw. I've even pounded much larger people into submission to try to prove I wasn't inferior.
After graduating from high school, I became much more comfortable with myself, and I've all but stopped caring about battling my God-given genetics. I don't secretly boil underneath anymore when someone goes out of their way to point out my flaws. (Note: I do, however, still find it curious the backwards social etiquette that allows someone to say to me, "Man, you're so skinny. You should eat more," in a public setting. What happens if I ask the question, "Wow, you have two chins. You should work out more," in front of a crowd of people?)
I think we all have at least a few of these moments where we we have been jolted out of blissful ignorance into a painful realization of some perceived shortcoming.
It makes me sad when I see how much we're still grappled with those insecurities and the ways we continue to deal with them. I'm sad that so many women are horrified at the thought of ever appearing in public without makeup. I'm sad that many women have to have their hair done, have to look tan, have to strive for some made-up aesthetic standard. I'm sad that people have equated "being in shape" with being model-esque or super-muscular.
I'm sad for Pip at this point in the story because I know how it begins to transform him. I'm sad for my students because several of them are now experiencing their first, dark "A-ha" moments and will go through the same battles that Pip will, that I have, that many of us have.
I wish I had a magic formula that could take away the sting of social comparisons for my students and for my friends. And for me.
In the meantime, I can only keep pressing with the little things: Reading in a silly English accent with my students to show I don't care about embarrassing myself. Looking at each one in the eye as often as I can and remembering to smile at them, even on my bad days, to remind them that someone sees them. Remembering that they play the violin and making them feel awesome about it. Praying that they don't lose themselves trying to meet the misguided standard of their peers.
I pray that for all of us and still for myself.