The year was 1983. I was in the fifth grade, and my school had sent home a letter informing parents that our class would be screened for scoliosis that week. I had never heard of scoliosis before and neither had any of the other kids in my class, spurring widespread discussion on the playground about what this unknown condition was and what it meant should one of us have it.
But as I ate my after-school snack later that day, my mother reassured me I had nothing to worry about, and I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? As she pointed out to me, my posture was fine because, to the naked eye, it was.That’s why, while standing on line in the nurse’s office the next morning waiting to be examined, I was, as my mother still likes to say, cool as a cucumber.
The exam took only a couple of minutes. Behind a curtain in the nurse’s office, I removed my shirt, placed the palms of my hands together and, with outstretched arms and unbent legs, leaned over to touch my toes. The nurse jotted down a few notes, smiled, and sent me on my way. I was in the clear!
Later that day, it was my turn to read one-on-one with our teacher. I sat down at her desk, while the rest of the class worked independently on other assignment. She leaned toward me and spoke in a soft voice.
“The nurse is calling your parents, you know,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Why?” I asked, quickly trying to recall if I had, in my cool-as-a-cucumber-like state, misbehaved in some way that would necessitate a phone call home.
“You have scoliosis,” the teacher went on in what was probably not more than a whisper, but it didn’t matter. Because the classroom was quiet, her words could be heard by everyone as evidenced by the rows of wide eyes and dropped jaws that suddenly faced me. My eyes filled with tears, but I didn’t cry. I did ask if I could call my mother and was promptly told no; I would have to speak with her when I got home.
To this day, I am not sure why my teacher chose to tell me the way she did when it was clearly not her place to do so. But, as my mother confirmed the moment I walked in the door, my teacher was in the know.
The following week, my mother brought me to a pediatric orthopedist. After examining me and ordering a series of x-rays on my back, he confirmed my spine was curved 24-degrees at its worst point. It was also developing into the shape of an S. My case was not a mild one, due to my young age and the years my condition still had to progress as I grew, but with strict and immediate intervention it could be corrected. The good news was I wouldn’t need surgery. However, I would need to wear a back brace 23 hours a day for the next three years.
I was 10. This time, I cried.
My three children love to tell me how ugly I was as a kid. They think it’s funny until I point out the ways in which they each look like me. But the truth is, by the time I hit elementary school I was far from a looker. For starters, I have a peaches and cream complexion which is a generous way of saying I am pale with red hair. I was also prepubescent, gawky, and skinny to the point that the owner of the dry cleaner my parents used to frequent nicknamed me Olive Oyl. At ten, to make matters worse, I would be wearing a brace from just below my collarbone to the top of my behind.
A few weeks later, I was fitted for my new brace and wrapped like a mummy in plaster that was cut off of me with a saw after it hardened. When I received my brace, I remained religious in my observance of the prescribed regimen and wore it 23 hours each day—when I ate, when I slept, when I was sick, when it was 100 degrees outside, whenever and wherever.
At school, one child ridiculed me ceaselessly over a period of a few weeks. She called me names and threw dirt on me during recess. Following a call from my parents, the school intervened, and the bullying stopped. Still, the damage had already been done; my self-esteem was further diminished, at least for the time being.
By the eighth grade, I was overcorrected and had to wear my brace only when I slept. By the ninth grade, I was completely liberated and, for lack of a better word, cured. Its impact, however, remained, and I will forever remember how it felt to look different from everyone else.
Having scoliosis during preadolescence, during that period when most kids, even the “attractive” ones, already feel unattractive was nothing short of transformative for me. For a brief time in my life, I got a small sense of how it feels not to be as free with my body as I would have liked, to be treated differently because of the way I looked, and to have to wake up and face each day in spite of it.
Today, I stand taller, but not because I no longer have scoliosis. I stand taller because I did.