I had just turned twelve when I realized I wasn’t young enough to be a carefree kid anymore but also not old enough to be a “cool” teenager. I was also unlucky enough to be a twelve-year-old with thick glasses and orthodontic braces. In spite of the “four eyes” and “metal mouth” name-calling I had to endure, my mother insisted these temporary impediments would all be worth it someday. She reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Ugly Duckling, to make her point.
However, back then, even imagining straight teeth and contact lenses in my future wasn’t enough to convince me I would ever turn into a beautiful swan, especially since I had the additional drawbacks of being overly tall for my age and twig thin to boot.
My misery was especially amplified every Friday at Walgrove Elementary School, which was coed day in my gym class. That was the one day of the week when the boys and girls had combined physical education classes. Most of the time that meant girls playing foursquare or dodge ball with the boys, which was bad enough since I wasn’t particularly adept at either game. However, the worst activity for me was the Friday coed dance class that rolled around about every third week. On those days, we would march single file into the gymnasium and the girls would line up against one wall with the boys facing us from the other side. Most of the time, the teacher put dance partners together but occasionally she let the boys choose their own. Needless to say, I was usually one of the last to be chosen and almost always ended up with a freckle-faced red-headed kid named Pete who was having his own rejection problems.
Of course, as in every grade school there are those kids who never seem to go through any awkward stages – the popular kids – who everyone else envies. In our coed dance class, those lucky ones were Veronica and Robbie. Veronica was blond and pretty with a bubbly personality; Robbie was a developing athlete with a friendly grin and dark curly hair. When it came time to choose partners, they always picked each other and it was understood by the rest of us that they always would. After all, they were a perfect match and obviously belonged together. Since I, like many other girls, had a serious crush on Robbie, I often wondered what it would feel like to be Veronica – one of the beautiful people, one of the chosen ones. The day came when I received a small taste of that feeling.
It happened during one of those dreaded Friday dance classes. Once again the teacher suggested the boys choose their own partners. As I waited, leaning up against the wall with the other girls, I noticed Pete wasn’t in the boys’ line across the way. Then I watched anxiously as one by one the other girls were chosen until I was the only one left. No boys remained to choose me even if they had wanted to. As I stood by myself, enduring the looks of pity, my lips trembling, tears ready to fall, Robbie suddenly walked over to me and took my hand. “I’ll dance with you,” he said. Maybe not the most endearing words, but good enough for me. I glanced over at Veronica in surprise but she just smiled and waved as she stood alone while Robbie led me out onto the gym floor to where the others were waiting.
Soon after that incident, I graduated from sixth grade and there were no more P.E. dances to contend with. I transferred to another junior high school and lost track of Veronica and Robbie for good. I don’t know if they ended up together or not. However, I never forgot the two of them and the kindness they showed me that day.
Years later, when my straight body turned curvy and my tallness became an asset, I, with my contact lenses and Crest toothpaste smile, became the swan my mother had predicted I would. While I enjoyed my new popularity and more desirable appearance, I found they didn’t bring me the happiness and satisfaction I had expected. I think that’s when I realized that Veronica and Robbie had given me so much more than kindness that day. They had given me the truth – that beauty on the outside isn’t nearly as important as the beauty that comes from within.