There I sat – on the middle school gym floor in those awkwardly hideous shorts and shirt- both of them too big for my super tall and gangly body. Our gym teacher was explaining how the boys would soon go to their locker room and the girls would go to theirs and we would all be checked for this thing called ‘Scoliosis.’ I’d never heard of it before and as the teacher explained to us what it was (an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine), I looked around the room, wondering who might have it.
I followed the rest of the girls into our locker room as some of them cracked jokes about who would be found ‘crippled.’ I remained quiet, trying to drown out their comments; I. was. terrified. One by one, we took off our shirts (leaving on our sports bras) and bent over to touch our fingers to the floor so the teacher could see if our spine was straight or not. When it was my turn, I prayed that no one would watch. I was terribly shy, as well as terribly concerned that the ‘popular girls’ would point out my stomach ‘fat’ as I bent over, but the knot in my stomach didn’t form until my teacher remained silent for a little too long as I stood there, bent over.
“Okay, Emily. Stand back up and then bend over again.”
You know that pit that starts in your stomach and slowly crawls up your throat and then into your face? It was most definitely in my face at this point. My teacher didn’t say anything else and I put my shirt back on and stood with the rest of my friends as the remainder of the girls were examined, but at the end of class- just as I was walking out of the gym and to my next class- I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my teacher, and she had that look on her face – the one that says, “I want you to think everything’s fine but really I’m feeling sorry for you right now.” She handed me a piece of paper and instructed me to give it to my parents when I got home. I stuffed the paper in my backpack and tried to shove the entire experience out of my mind for the rest of the day.
When I got home, I handed the paper to my mom. “What’s this?” she asked. I told her I didn’t know, which was somewhat the truth – I hadn’t read it. I was too afraid. My mom read it, folded it back up and asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner. Wait, what?? Seriously, that’s it?? My dad got home from work, we all ate dinner together and I thought for sure I was in the clear. It wasn’t until later that evening when my dad came over to me and said, “Hey, Emmy. Come here, I want to take a look at something.” My heart sank. I knew. My dad, a doctor, wanted to look at my back and it was in that moment I knew he’d read the piece of paper. I knew there was something wrong with my spine.
Fast forward a few weeks later as I sat in an exam room, with my mom, at a specialist’s office. The doctor explained to me that yes, I had Scoliosis, that no it was not a disease but rather a disorder – and I’ll tell you right now- it still felt like a death sentence in my middle schooler brain. He then explained that it would be really important to try and correct it as soon as possible, and before I could process any of it, I was being fitted for a back brace.
Guys? Do you remember how hard middle school life was? You take the crazy hormones, classes that only seemed to get harder, classmates who seemed to get meaner and meaner, and then you add the fact that I was already the tallest girl in my grade – make that the tallest PERSON in my grade. Let’s just say, I wasn’t being asked to any of the school dances. In fact, for quite awhile I was picked on for my height alone. And now I was supposed to wear this brace that would ultimately make me taller? In a time where kids are supposed to be finding their confidence and stride, I was about to lose mine. Happy days were not ahead.
This brace, while I could wear it under my clothes, was still very visible. It started at my mid-hip and went all the up to my armpit; it was stiff – literally this big, thick hunk of plastic. It was so stiff in fact that I had to learn how to walk, sit, and sleep with it on. It bulged out from under my shirt, often times pinching my sides, and in the instance I dropped something? Good luck trying to bend over and pick it up. Gym class was the only time during the day I could take off the brace, so naturally gym time became one of my favorite times of the day. I could breathe deep, bend and stretch, and once again I felt normal. But when it came time to put it back on? Tears. Not only did I hate myself while wearing this thing, but others began to pick on me… and I’m not talking about the occasional joke here and there- I’m talking full blown bullying at my locker, in the hallways, and in my classes. I look back on that time and thank GOD that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were not around. I had the ‘popular’ girls calling me ugly, the ‘popular’ boys reminding me that there was a reason no one wanted to ask me out, and one of them who went as far as accepting a dare from his friends to run past me in the hallway and hit me in the side as hard as he could – in front of everyone. Of course, he didn’t physically hurt me, because the brace protected me, but mentally and emotionally – to this day that moment is one of the most painful of memories.
I felt ugly, to say the least. Like some tall freak show, roaming the halls, and I didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents about it because I had to wear the brace- there was no getting around it. I was stuck. I wanted to hide. I wanted to shrink- to be short. To blend in with the crowd. I wanted to be a nobody, someone nobody talked about.
Of course time went by, I continued to (mostly) wear my brace, and I didn’t die from embarrassment. I eventually ‘graduated’ from my brace stage and no longer had to wear it, my back had straightened as much as it was going to and really had improved greatly, but my spirit was still pretty broken over the emotional scars that brace had caused. My mind told me I was still pretty uncool, and it wouldn’t be until the end of high school that I would begin to feel somewhat comfortable in my own skin. (Of course, this is when I began modeling – something that truly helped me begin to accept my height!) To this day, I am beyond thankful to my small group of friends who stuck by me, continued to walk beside me in the halls, and tried their very best to encourage me. (And those in that same group who kept my secret when I would secretly take off my brace and hide it somewhere, haha. You know who you are!)
My time in middle school was clearly not the best time (you could not pay me enough to relive those days again!), but it was because of that time that I’ve often thought about what I might tell my own daughter someday:
To stand tall, even when your heart feels low. To keep your head up, especially while in the face of adversity. To remain kind, to not sink down to the level of those who spew hurtful insults. And don’t you dare blend. You were not made to blend; you are a shining light.
My wish for you today is that if you are currently going through one of these hard chapters, that you first understand you are not alone. If you feel stuck, like you want to hide, if you feel like you simply blend in with the crowd – if you feel like a nobody, I’m telling you right now, you are most certainly a somebody. (Jesus sure thought so, and continues to think so.) You were not created to feel that way… you were not created to blend. You were not created to blend. Shine bright, hold your head up high. We don’t ask for the hard moments in life and while we may not always be strong enough to push through them, He certainly is. And it’s in these moments we can still carry ourselves in a way that might offer compassion to someone else who might quietly and secretly have a similar story… to someone else who has a story. Because everybody has a story… we have many, many stories.
While the brace was straightening my spine in those middle school years, Jesus was strengthening my heart, reminding me of His beauty that lives in me. His truth that even in the moments I feel ugly and low, His love for me is stronger, and strong enough to pull me through, to pull me up.
Through it all, He continues to pull us higher, closer to where He is.