“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” -Robert Frost

Middle school — or junior high, which we called it when I went — should really be classified as a form of child abuse. I recognize that it isn’t as bad for everyone as it was for me, but those two years I spent in 7th and 8th grade were easily the worst and most unhappy times of my life.

Image credit: Edgewood Middle School of Hartford County, via http://www.hcps.org/.

Image credit: Edgewood Middle School of Hartford County, via http://www.hcps.org/.

Maybe that’s hyperbole, or maybe you have a similar feeling when you look back on that time. Moving from class-to-class in the halls wasn’t just a way to get from social studies to english, it was a terrifying combination of fighting and fleeing for your life. Every way that you stand out from what’s normal is another target painted on your back. Every way you’re different is a strike against you.

Image credit: Ted Jackson, via American Society of News Editors.

Image credit: Ted Jackson, via American Society of News Editors.

I was small for my age. When I was younger, it never bothered me all that much; why would it? Sure, I was always towards the front of the line when we had to line up in size order, always one of the first two-to-four kids in any classroom. But that got worse as I got older. When insecurities rage and someone wants to feel better about themselves — to feel big and strong — and to prove themselves, who do they go after? The easy target, that’s who.

I hit puberty later than most. By time I was 13, most of the other kids were growing taller, the boys were getting hairy legs and armpits (not to mention muscles), and I was… not. By time I was in 8th grade, I could’ve been mistaken for a 6th grader. Good for ordering off a kid’s menu, not so good for feeling good about junior high.

Image credit: Ted Jackson, via American Society of News Editors.

Image credit: Ted Jackson, via American Society of News Editors.

And on top of it all, I was smart. Not super-duper-genius smart, but a couple of grades ahead in math. Someone who’d ace every test in a science class that many kids failed, even though I hated our terrible science teacher just as much as they did. Like I said, everything that makes you different from what’s normal — even if it’s only a superficial difference — is another target on your back.

It felt like everything was working against me. The ways I felt deficient were crushing, because there was nothing to be done for it. The ways I felt I had things going for me were equally crushing; the things I felt I was good at — like I could make something good of myself — felt so far off, like they were a distant dream. And the mocking, the teasing, it was constant, it was relentless, and after hearing the same taunts day-after-day, hundreds of times, I started to believe I was as worthless as people were telling me I was.

Image credit: sourced from Hispanically Speaking News, via http://hispanicallyspeakingnews.com/.

Image credit: sourced from Hispanically Speaking News, via http://hispanicallyspeakingnews.com/.

Looking back at that time, I realize I didn’t even have it that much worse than anyone else. But I didn’t have the self-confidence to handle it well at all. I felt like a defeated victim, that every day was like a prison sentence, that the world I lived in was just total, irredeemable shit. That there were people who were set up to succeed — to be popular, to be attractive, to be likable, to be worth something — and then there were people like me. People who weren’t normal. People who didn’t fit in. People that… well, as I felt then, people that weren’t meant for this world. The advice to just be myself seemed like the worst advice of all-time, because it felt like the problem was being myself: this abnormal, unpopular, ugly, unlikable, worthless, short and uncoordinated kid.

Image credit: Lisa J. King of http://lisajking.blogspot.com/.

Image credit: Lisa J. King of http://lisajking.blogspot.com/.

I felt hopeless, and I felt like this was just the crappy hand that life dealt me, and that there was nothing I could do. Towards the end of 8th grade, I felt like I had one final hope that I pinned everything on: the dream that high school — in a different city — would be different.

The surprising thing is this: it was different. A little bit, anyways, and that was different enough for me. I entered ninth grade at age 14, all of 5’0″ (including sneakers) and at maybe 95 pounds. Zero self-confidence, convinced I’d never feel like I’d fit in anywhere. And then something funny happened that started to change that for me: biology class.

Image credit: Bunnell High School, via http://bunnellhigh.stratfordk12.org/.

Image credit: Bunnell High School, via http://bunnellhigh.stratfordk12.org/.

Yes, for real, biology class.

You see, for every way I felt I was abnormal, I started to learn about what “normal” actually was. From a biological standpoint, we all have a blueprint: our DNA.

Image credit: Public Domain image of DNA; source unknown.

Image credit: Public Domain image of DNA; source unknown.

We get it from our biological parents: 50% from each one. Compared to any other human on the planet, my DNA is more-or-less 99.9% the same as anyone else’s. My parents were a little more closely related to me: their DNA is only about half as different from mine as another person’s, at about 99.95%. My grandparents would be 99.925% the same as me, and of course there’s variety, but that’s pretty much how it goes, on average.

And that blueprint is a code for the traits we develop, combined with environmental factors. And if you look at large populations of any animal, including humans, here’s what you find:

  1. Normal isn’t a “thing” that some are and some aren’t.
  2. For anything that you can measure or quantify, there’s a wide range of outcomes.
  3. We have a tendency to pick an arbitrary range that picks up a certain percentage of people (90%, 95%, 99%, etc.) and call that normal, and call everyone else abnormaloutliers, or whatever else you want.
  4. But if you do that, we’re all abnormal in some ways, and we’re all normal in others.
Image credit: Michael K. Meyerhoff.

Image credit: Michael K. Meyerhoff, I think.

So maybe I was a little bit on the low end for height, weight, strength, or speed. And maybe I was a little bit on the high end for my math ability. And maybe I was a little bit on the late end for when I started puberty (which finally happened at 14 for me). And maybe I was even farther down the line on the late end for when I started to feel an attraction to other people (which didn’t happen until 16).

The thing is, I didn’t feel bad about myself for those things anymore. I didn’t feel deficient, I didn’t feel abnormal, I didn’t feel inadequate, but most of all, I didn’t feel like I was doomed, or worthless, or unlikeable. I felt about them like I felt about any other biological trait: some things about me fall into the “normal” range, others are at the high end, others are at the low end.

Image credit: Mimi and Eunice of http://mimiandeunice.com/.

Image credit: Mimi and Eunice of http://mimiandeunice.com/.

Some of it’s genetic, some of it’s behavioral, some of it’s environmental. At the end of the day, though, it’s just me, with the only mind and the only body I’ll ever have. It took a long time to find my real passions, to develop a real, genuine sense of self-worth and self-confidence, and to create a life for myself that I could be happy with, and proud of.

But if I could go back — not just to my teenage self — but all the way back before that, that’s the one thing I’d teach myself: biology. The biology of what’s normal. Once I learned that, it didn’t matter whether I was “normal” or not when it came to any particular trait; what mattered is that it’s normal to not be normal. It wouldn’t have gotten me picked on any less, but it would’ve kept me from picking on myself on the inside. I don’t know whether that’s something that will help anyone else, but it’s one of the most important things that helped me feel I was ok in this world. And I’ve never felt insecure about it since.

Comments

  1. #1 MandoZink
    August 7, 2013

    It doesn’t surprise me that a guy like you might have dealt with all that. You know, it’s great to finally figure out not only that “it’s normal to not be normal”, but you actually prefer it. Then you start to find others who aren’t normal, but are really cool and interesting. The next thing you know you are thriving an in a great group of supportive and likeable friends.

    I was that guy everyone liked to gang up and pick on. It was annoying, but I figured out early on that they were just stupid. I was too interested in all the weird stuff that I was discovering in life to be put off by bullying. When someone told me that being rejected by a person reveals a lot about them but not about you, it made perfect sense. That realization gave my self esteem a bullet-proof shield.

    For four decades now my world has been full of wonderful, wacky, academic, techno, artistic friends who all care about each other. Early on, you have to learn to ignore the idiocy of the immature miscreants and figure out that you’re actually better off than them. Really.

    You know, life is truly good and so are most of the people in it.

  2. #2 Semmel
    August 8, 2013

    You know, you should be thankful for the experience you had. I for myself am. I had a similar experience in 7th and 8th grade. I was small, little too fat, slow, always the last to be picked in a sports team but outsmarting the others in math and physics. Not a healthy combination. I had stomach ache most of the time in this period, but I was smart enough to know that it was psychological. One day in 7th or 8th, one of the trees around the school had got its top chopped off, 2 of its 7m (~6 of its 21 ft) of height. In surprise, I said “Ohh look, the tree is was cut off!”. After that, that sentence was repeated at me several times every day. As soon as the others saw me, I heard: “Ohh look, the tree is was cut off!”. After a while I got used to it and figured, it was better then being beaten up. It was cruel nevertheless.

    However, from my point of view today, I think that time was very character building for me. I grew strong against mockery. I grew resistant against stupidity and sensitive to bullshit. I had some of the worst experiences in my live in that time. But only because of this, I am able to feel good in my current position. I am happy in my job now. I am happy with my relationship, with the friends I have. There is so much good going on right now, and I am able to recognize that because I had the downs in my live as well.

    Generally, every experience you can have is relative to an other experience. If you never felt as an outsider, you don’t know how it feels to be accepted the way you are. You Would still be accepted, but you wouldn’t know what it meant for you because you lack the ability to differentiate your feelings from ‘normal’. Its like if you never touched anything cold (or hot), if everything had the same temperature, you wouldn’t know what the feeling of a hot shower in a cold winter day meant. Or a cold shower at a hot summer day. If you were never sad, how would you know when you are happy? If you would never fail at doing something, you could never know the feeling of success.

    :) Cheers,
    Semmel

  3. #3 Joe Blow
    August 8, 2013

    This song helped me through the “awkwards”.
    Keith Sykes: “I’m Not Strange I’m Just Like You”
    College is where I felt more comfortable. High School was more of the same Middle School stuff.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bb4XbdRaI7k

  4. #4 uncleMonty
    August 8, 2013

    a lovely post. Tiny correction: in the percentages for relatedness, it should either be 99%, 99.5%, 99.5% for strangers, parents, siblings, or 99.9%, 99.95%, 99.95%. I don’t know which of these is correct, but yours can’t be because it makes you less related to your parents and siblings than to a stranger… And it looks like you missed the biology class where they teach that a sibling is just as related to you as a parent – they only have half the genes from a given parent that you have, but they also have half your genes you got from the other parent that you have. Your figure 99.25% (or 99.925%, depending on whether your initial 99.9% is correct or a typo for 99%) would be correct for half-siblings, uncles/aunts, nephews/nieces, grandparents, or grandkids.

  5. #5 Ethan
    August 8, 2013

    Monty,

    Thanks for the catch of the typos, and of the science correction.

    They are 99.9% for strangers, 99.95% for parents 99.925% for grandparents, 99.9125% for great-grandparents, but also 99.95% for siblings, who are just as genetically alike to you as your parents are.

    It turns out to be a little more nuanced than that in reality; here’s some fun research (that’s recent) on that topic: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/02/why-siblings-differ-differently/#.UgPHiWTuVYI

  6. #6 Ethan
    August 8, 2013

    And Semmel,

    Maybe the most important thing I learned as respects that for my personal development, although I didn’t learn it until much later in life, is that we all have to give up on the dream of having had a better past.

  7. #7 joemac53
    August 8, 2013

    When I was in 4th grade a teacher expressed disappointment in me for not sticking up for someone who had been bullied. I wasn’t even present at the incident, but I became a protector and lost a lot of battles along the way. The irony was that I wanted to be left alone, but I had a gang of “not normal” guys to hang with. More confusion, but that’s normal.

  8. #8 Donovan
    August 8, 2013

    I missed the junior high experience. I went to a Catholic school that kept the 6-8 at the grammar school, so we were the big kids. Our class sizes were also around 21 students, so less than 70 kids in all 3 grades combined meant we were a close bunch.

    Then I went to public high school, but I joined a group that had already paid their dues and didn’t have to myself.

    Still, my early adult life went pretty much the way you describe. My family wasn’t strongly academic and I had no thoughts serious of college. I spent my 20s in jobs that didn’t suit me and I was constantly bullied by bosses and coworkers. Now I found college, I’m in graduate school, married with a beautiful daughter, and living in a wonderful little university town in the mountains. Science saved my soul.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    August 11, 2013

    I wasn’t you in junior high, but do recall I wasn’t real happy. I was also much happier in high school, but do not remember why. Interesting post.

  10. #10 Garrick
    Canada
    August 15, 2013

    As a biology teacher, thanks, and this gives me some hope for what I do. I come from a non-visible minority and humanities background and so I’m very aware of how artificial “normal” is and so I try to instill that artificiality into my classes. I talk about variation as much as possible and how it’s an incredibly important feature for evolution but also just diversity of opinion. I’m glad biology helped you and I hope I’m helping others with what little I can do from the front of a classroom.

    Also, great blog. I’m a long time reader and you get me energized about science every morning I wake up and find a post. It helps me keep my eye on the ball.

  11. #11 Doc
    Bunnell High School
    August 19, 2013

    Hey, that’s my students in that picture… and, yes those smiles on their faces were real. They were actually taking a test and still enjoying themselves… go figure. My theory is: Biology is the study of life AND Life is the study of Biology. The more we know about the world around us, the more we understand variation, the more we see and can appreciate the beauty all around us… the more we can see those things in ourselves!

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