The inchworm is what I remember most about the day I learned I was the tallest in my kindergarten class. Green, thick, and smiling, it froze mid-crawl on the paper ruler my teacher had taped to the wall.
He may have worn a ball cap, he may have been crawling toward an apple, I’m not sure. My memory is hazy on those details, as well as the number my teacher marked on the paper beside him.
What I do remember is my five-year-old head was taller than the worm, and my chest puffed out with pride knowing that I had grown.
I might have even stood a little taller.
And then my teacher said the words that changed everything: “Oh my! You may be the tallest in the class!”
Up until that moment my eyes had been fixed on the grinning worm and the length of his journey. My universe was made up of me, the worm, and the wall. But at the sound of my teacher’s voice I turned to look at the children gathered around us. The tallest?
A great chasm opened up between myself and the rest of the class: I, giantess. They, inchworms.
I wish I could tell you I then entertained some sort of Daniel Tiger make-believe, stomping towards my classmates like a mighty queen of giants.
Instead, I slumped my shoulders forward–a move I had yet to realize would become a signature–and shuffled back into the crowd. It’s not fair, I thought. It’s not like I had birthday-candle-wished it true.
What did it even mean to be tallest? Was it a good thing? Playground games with the boys had taught me it was always best to be first. Biggest. Strongest. I was none of those.
But I was tallest.
I learned some things about being tall over the years: Height meant people assumed I wanted to talk. That I was older and more sociable. That I would play basketball and volleyball.
But I was shy. And uncoordinated. I didn’t measure up to the perception of who they thought I’d be.
I would learn, of course, that height had its advantages. But those rewards paled in comparison to what I perceived it would feel like to be fade into the background. What it would feel like to be petite and feminine and small.
Looming large physically meant I had no chance at normalcy, and, I believed, at belonging.
Somehow, even in kindergarten I intuited this, and as any good Enneagram type 4 would do, I leaned into my differences.
“Erin’s been putting on her one-woman shows again at school,” I heard my mother remark in a tone that was hard for me to identify, though she was smiling.
I asked her what she meant.
“You’ve been playing dress-up in the treehouse again! And telling your friends stories? It’s great.”
The treehouse. Hanging from the top of the classroom ceiling, two stories up, was the most magical playhouse, designed to look as if it were perched atop a verdant tree.
Inside the treehouse was a costume trunk of endless possiblities.
I could be a princess or a witch or a toad or a dragon. I could be a tiny worm. I could be each of them, just by trying on a different hat and telling a different story.
So this is how I learned to survive: When I didn’t measure up in the ways I wanted, when I fell short of what others expected of me, my imagination provided solace and salvation.
I dove head-first into that costume trunk and designed who I wanted to be.
Now, as I stare at the mirror image of her 37-year-old self–exhausted, hunched, and puffy, yet flirting with the joy of true self-knowledge–I wish I could go back and take that precious girl into my arms and whisper:
You are a giantess. And you are glorious. Take up just as much space as you need.
This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Measuring Up.”