“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Normal isn’t a “thing” that some are and some aren’t.
- For anything that you can measure or quantify, there’s a wide range of outcomes.
- 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 abnormal, outliers, or whatever else you want.
- But if you do that, we’re all abnormal in some ways, and we’re all normal in others.
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.
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.