I didn’t have an unhappy childhood. I have fond memories of holidays at the beach, playing out in the street, growing flowers, fruit and vegetables in the back garden. But I also have some discordant memories.
I was close to my mum. I’m sure she never meant to hurt me. But looking back, I wonder whether it was necessary to be referred to as ‘the fat one of the family’. It was done cheerfully, jokily, lovingly even. And the thing is, I wasn’t fat. If I had been, it would probably never have been said. But it was, more than once, and it stuck with me.
What stung more at the time, though, was my lack of sporting ability. All my sisters had their ‘thing’. For my older sister and my middle sister it was running. For my little sister, it was swimming. They basked in the glow of praise as they scooped up medals, broke PBs. I used to run too, but only to make up the numbers. Week after week, the team manager would fill up the entry form with other girls’ names, then slot me into the free spaces. One week it was shot putt and 80 metre hurdles, the next long jump and 800m. I was a stop-gap, a place-filler. Running was not my ‘thing’.
I was once picked for the swimming squad, but only because they thought I was two years younger than I really was. Once my true age was revealed, I was out.
It’s a cruel world.
‘I’m not good at anything,’ I said to my mum.
‘Yes, you are!’
‘What?’ I said, jutting my chin out. Maybe she could have said pool, or ping-pong (I could beat my sisters at those, at least some of the time), but no. ‘You’re good at spelling,’ she said.
And it was true. I was good at spelling. I’d gone through a whole year of school without getting a single word wrong in any of the spelling tests. But before that conversation, it had just been something I did. Suddenly, it became my superpower.
So, I was gutted when I was found to be fallible. I remember crying on the teacher’s shoulder because I got a single word wrong – the only word in the next school year.
‘There, there,’ she said, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about. ‘It doesn’t matter. You’ll remember it next time.’
And I’m sure I did. But still, it mattered to me. I doubled down. This was my thing. It was important.
Later, after the spelling test streak had been forgotten – a teacher wrote the word ‘raspberry’ on the board. Except she didn’t. What she actually wrote was ‘rasberry’. Something had to be done.
‘Miss,’ I said, putting my hand up. ‘Miss, you’ve spelt raspberry wrong.’
She looked at me, glanced at the board. ‘No, I haven’t,’ she said.
I should have left it there, but no. ‘You have, Miss, you have. Raspberry has a ‘p’ in it.’
‘Raspberry?’ She looked at me, the annoyance clear on her face. ‘No it doesn’t.’
‘It does, Miss. It’s r-a-s-p-‘
‘Enough.’ She flung a dictionary at me. ‘Look it up,’ she said.
So I did. And two minutes later, my hand was back in the air again.
‘What is it?’ she said, her glasses swinging against her chest.
‘It’s raspberry, Miss. It’s here: r-a-s-p-berry.’
‘Show me,’ she said, her certainty starting to waver.
So I did. And of course, I was right. It was my superpower. So why did it feel like a bad thing?
I hope I don’t treat my students like that. I hope my students feel able to challenge me, to ask questions, to probe when my explanations are inadequate, and I hope I’ve the grace to admit when I don’t have the answers. Teaching isn’t easy. But neither is being a kid.
Looking back, I was probably pretty insufferable back then. I didn’t mean to be. I was insecure. My superpower was my strength.
These days, I’m not quite so convinced of my spelling ability. There are certain words like ‘broccoli’ that catch me out every time (is it two c’s or two l’s?) but once I’ve written them down, I can usually see where I’ve gone wrong. And in the world of auto-correct, spelling no longer seems so important, anyway.
As for my sporting ability, it hasn’t really improved but I’ve learnt to live with it. I’ve learnt that we all just do the best we can, and there is a challenge to be had in that. I ran a marathon, for goodness sake. I doubt I’ll be running another one – I haven’t run in over a year and although my leg is now much better after my January injury, I still don’t trust it enough to train for a race – but it doesn’t matter. Running isn’t all there is.
My latest obsessions (and yes, I think I do get a little bit obsessed) are Body Balance and ping-pong.
Ping-pong seems a strange one, given my lack of hand-eye co-ordination, but I’ve been practising for a couple of weeks now and my reflexes are much improved. I can hit the ball most of the time (my partner does have a mean smash which he deploys on occasion to keep my feet on the ground). The main question is whether or not I can actually hit it back onto the table. But often, I do. And when I don’t, I burn calories running after the ball. Because that amount of running, I can do – and I’m usually laughing as I do it.
I’ve put on weight over the last year. He says I haven’t, but I have, More cake, less exercise, more contentment. It’s okay. I’m no longer the fat one of the family, but I’m plumper than I was a year ago. It doesn’t matter.
How long the ping-pong will last, nobody knows. It’ll probably never be my superpower. But it is a new addition to my toolkit for squeezing the joy out of life. And maybe, just maybe, that is.