My teacher, Miss Wallace, stood beside the bench in the science lab. She held a beaker in one hand as she explained the procedures of a chemistry experiment to a small group of students. I leaned against the bench and focused my attention on her hand as it moved towards another beaker filled with an acidic liquid.
But instead of continuing the experiment, her hand paused in midair and she glanced at me.
“I heard you were in the cross-country race yesterday,” she said.
I nodded and smiled. I hadn’t come in first, but I was proud of my efforts.
Her mouth twisted into a sneer. “So how did you do? Did you actually manage to finish the race?”
Sarcasm laced her voice. And then she sniggered as if she had made an amusing joke.
I frowned in bewilderment. Then my cheeks flushed with warmth as I stared at her in shock. I knew what she referred to — it was my weight. My figure was chubby, not athletic. I enjoyed running, but she obviously didn’t think I could run three miles. Her words were like the acid in the beaker: they burned.
“Of course I finished the race,” I said softly. I swallowed several times and pushed back my tears. Why was she humiliating me?
After the chemistry lesson, my friend Kate took me aside. She had overheard the teacher’s comments, and she shook her head in disbelief. “Yesterday in class, when you weren’t there, Miss Wallace asked where you were. I told her you were in the cross-country race.” She stopped and looked at me with sympathetic eyes. “Miss Wallace also laughed about you then — in front of the whole class, and she said you wouldn’t ever be able to finish the race.”
A blanket of shame crept over me in that moment; I felt ashamed of my body and ashamed that I’d attempted that race. What had I been thinking?
Kate squeezed my arm. “I told Miss Wallace that you were a good runner — of course you would finish. She should never have said that yesterday… or today.”
I smiled with appreciation at my friend, but battled even harder to keep my emotions locked down.
It wasn’t the first time people had made rude comments in reference to my weight. I was only about one stone (fourteen pounds) overweight, but it didn’t stop some people from looking my way and occasionally spitting out names such as, “Fat Pig! Lump of fat!” or saying, “You’re nothing but a fatty!” My nature was to be shy and gentle, and those words stung. I never provoked anyone and didn’t deserve those cruel remarks.
Added to this were difficulties at home: my father was in the midst of a nervous breakdown, my older brother behaved like a wild maniac due to a drug problem, and my mother was constantly exhausted from full-time work to support our family. She was the glue that held the family together and I didn’t want to burden her with any more problems. And anyway, the thought of even speaking my troubles aloud caused me to cringe with embarrassment.
Several years before, when I was a child, my mother attempted to concoct homemade ginger beer. Yeast was the vital ingredient, of which she added a little extra — she thought it would help. The bottles were placed in the basement of the house, to give them time to brew, until one night our sleep was shattered by an almighty BANG! And another BANG! And yet another BANG! Were we under attack? No, we weren’t. The ginger beer bottles were exploding from the overdose of yeast.
I felt like one of those bottles: full to the brim with emotions, and about to explode. And written across the label of my bottle was one word: Worthless.
Later, when I was nineteen years old, somebody handed me a teaching tape on the topic of forgiveness. “Forgiveness doesn’t justify the actions of the person who wronged you,” the voice on the tape said. “Forgiveness releases you from bitterness and helps you to move on with your life. It brings freedom.”
Miss Wallace’s face appeared in my mind. I remembered sad blue eyes peering at the class while she taught. Her figure was plump and soft curves jiggled as she moved around the science lab — she was double my size. I suddenly sensed that Miss Wallace was also like a bottle of ginger beer; emotional pain was stuffed deep inside her, and some of it leaked out the day she ridiculed me in public. Her mockery was wrong, but instead of anger, I now felt pity.
“I choose to forgive her,” I whispered in the silence of my bedroom. I made it my prayer.
After I made my choice to forgive, I began to collect affirming words from friends, whether written by them on cards, scraps of paper, e-mails, or scribbled down in my own hand so I wouldn’t forget what they said. These encouragements were bound with a rubber band inside a shoebox and sometimes scrapbooked. On days when discouragement came knocking, I’d pull out these words and remind myself that, yes, I am valued. One day, I hope Miss Wallace discovers this too.