In a class photo from 1960, 33 students in Miss Johnson’s sixth grade are standing in rows on bleachers next to the school baseball field. Your eyes are drawn immediately to the middle of the bottom row where the littlest girl in the class is standing as tall as she can. She’s tiny, really, and so pretty with her blond curls, frilly full skirt, and patent-leather Mary Jane shoes. Tina Lee. That’s her name. I remember it to this day.
On the second row in the photo, all the Mary Janes, saddle shoes, and loafers as well as all but the very top of the chinos and full skirts are hidden behind the first row. These students on the second row are a bit taller than those on the first row, and you can still see all of the boys’ button-down shirts and the girls’ blouses with little round collars.
Top row. Same hairdos, shirts, and blouses, but even taller students. One boy, third from the left, is wearing a tie. Oh, wow! Look at the last girl over on the right. Oh, my goodness, that girl is as tall as a grownup. Maybe taller. She’s so tall you can actually see a lot of her plaid skirt underneath her white blouse. She’s slouching. No wonder.
That was me.
The notch on the doorframe, made on my 12th birthday, was 5 feet 8 inches off the floor. My mother was 5 feet 4 inches tall, one inch taller than the average for grownup women at the time. She had to stand on a stool to make sure the ruler on my head was level.
I was not only the tallest girl in my class, but I was also the tallest person, boy or girl, in the entire 6th grade in my junior-high-school in Atlanta, GA.
Catching me slouching, my mother would insist that I “stand up straight and tall.” She’d even sometimes make me stand with my back flat against a wall so I could practice my “good posture.”
Here’s another photo. In this one, the tiny princess and the tall commoner are standing next to each other solving fraction problems on the blackboard at the front of the class. It matters little that the tall one has written the correct answer while the tiny one is still just clutching the chalk. What stands out in the photo is posture.
The petite princess has perfect posture. The person towering over her, however, has turned away from the blackboard a little and appears to be tottering on … Oh, wow, look at her legs! From the knees down, her legs come up out of her saddle shoes at about a 30-degree angle from the vertical and disappear into her skirt a good four inches in front of her ankles.
Yep, that was me. That’s what I did sometimes as an alternative to rounding my shoulders and sticking my stomach out. I bent my knees to keep my head from being so far above everybody else’s.
It didn’t work. “You’re not pretty,” said the first boy I ever thought about for more than five minutes. “You’re tall.” Then, he laughed at me.
Another member of the male species, years later, echoed what I had been hearing over and over since my first heartthrob had made me so afraid I’d never find romance: “Tall can’t be pretty. Tall can’t even be cute.”
I married this man (why you might ask, but that’s another story), then divorced and married again, then divorced again.
In between marriages, I spent time on dating sites. My requirements were: intelligent, honorable, interested in a wide variety of subjects, dedicated to maintaining good health, and desiring a long-term relationship. And taller than me. The first five requirements were not open to negotiation. I mean, really, how could I have a relationship with an unethical dunderhead who would plow through a six-pack, eyes continually darting past my shoulder over to ESPN, then cough and hack his way through a one-night stand? I couldn’t even sit on the barstool next to him for more than 10 minutes. So, I tried to negotiate with myself about height.
It didn’t work. And then it didn’t work again. How could a man shorter than I was make me feel pretty? Or even cute?
So, I locked my inner princess into the tower and, ogre that I knew I was, I crawled under the bridge below. For years.
And years. Until I finally did some hard work on my self-esteem and decided to place more value on my own intelligence, honor, interest in a wide variety of subjects, and dedication to maintaining good health. And standing up straight and tall.
Now in my 70s, I’m 5 feet 6 inches tall, having lost two inches to age. That’s still three inches taller than the average old woman. But I’ve quit caring about dumb stuff. My life now is so much more than inches.
I’m a writer, almost every day to be found at my laptop, fingers busy pounding out articles on politics, philosophy, the environment, self-help, health. And writing my own life stories.
I’m a walker — two miles most days with my dog beside me, even sometimes in the rain. And a runner, if you can call it running when you’re tottering along for a few blocks counting up a few strides.
I’m a yogi, too. Or at least that’s what my teacher calls me. I feel like a dippy yogi at best, but I do love standing straight and tall in mountain pose. And I’m beginning to understand the deep, sustaining, gratitude of “namaste.”
Most of all, I’m grateful I’m a tall woman who no longer cares about dumb stuff.
I’ve even found a man who likes tall women. I’ve tried to explain to him what growing up was like for me. How I hated all the Tiny Tina’s. How all the boys laughed at me. How I let all those short people make me the ogre. How afraid I was of never being loved. He doesn’t get it. He likes me tall.
He satisfies all my non-negotiable requirements, plus, he’s 6 feet tall.
Finally, when it hardly matters anymore, I feel small.