It was the first week of September, the first week of 5th grade. The summer heat was still forcing its way through the gaps between the warped wooden sills and the bottoms of the heavy, paned glass windows in the second floor classroom. It was after lunch and the sun remained high in the sky, fighting its way through the web of oak leaves that tickled the outside of the glass. The air in the small classroom was thick and unmoving; there was no breeze to carry relief down the rows of restless 5th graders. The weight of the muggy weather and the recent meal must have stifled what little energy my classmates had - beyond the shuffle of little feet on the red and white linoleum floor and the shifting of bodies damp with sweat, there were few sounds competing for attention.
The first thing to break the silence was barely discernable at first. It sounded much like a harmless “hum” coming from the back of the room and yielded no obvious reaction from the class. But each utterance was louder and more pronounced than the one before – and it became clear within a moment or two that the boy in the back was articulating his best farm animal impression. By the time the entire class, teacher included, understood that it was not a hum coming from his barely parted lips, but a “moo” instead, I had long since realized what was happening.
I knew right from the first “mmmmmm” that the boy was in fact mooing and that his taunting was directed at me. The day before, I may not have been so sure. The day before, I wasn’t yet ashamed or painfully aware of my weight. But that morning, we had all enjoyed the privilege of being weighed in front of each other as part of our fall check-up with the school nurse. I was the only student to outweigh our teacher, who stood about 2 feet taller than the average 10 year old, by about 5 pounds. “Mr. Moo” had been one of 5 lucky children in my class to witness that proud accomplishment. Before that day in 5th grade, I have no recollection of thinking there was anything wrong with me - but the soft chuckles that bounced off the cold plaster walls as I stepped off the scale that morning made me think very differently.
I don’t know why the opportunity for taunting hadn’t escalated to a full blown “laughing and pointing” moment until that afternoon. I don’t know why the teacher’s reaction was languorous – or if it only felt like an eternity had passed before she realized what was happening and expelled the little bastard to the hallway. I don’t remember any of the students’ individual reactions to the mooing, or if they could see the poorly contained embarrassment seeping out of the corners of my eyes.
What I do remember about that day, with uncanny clarity, is feeling deeply ashamed of myself for the first time. I remember how a consuming, suffocating awareness of how others saw me poured in through the windows and the door and came down from the ceiling and through the cracks in the walls. It surrounded me and dripped down my back and gathered at the back of my knees. It sat in the pit of my stomach and climbed up my throat and into my mouth and sat on my tongue. I choked on it for a moment and had to remind myself to breathe.
I filled the day’s remaining minutes that crept by like sludge creeping uphill by making promises. I promised myself that I would never again be so unaware of my body, so blind to my corpulence. I promised I would be the first to identify my inadequacies, the first to find any cracks in my armor that could bring a similar vulnerability or exposure. And I promised I would work tirelessly to rid myself of those imperfections before they could be cause of anymore jest.
What foolish promises those were to make. What a futile effort I committed myself too – and all in pursuit of an unattainable goal. It may have taken 15 years, but I eventually learned that no good would ever come of that exhaustive routine of self-improvement. I know now that nothing positive can come from an attempted eradication of imperfections. Flaws are what make us who we are. Shortcomings and weaknesses make us real. Learning to work with them is what makes us strong - not hiding them or ridding ourselves of them. No one is or ever will be perfect in every way. And if accepting that makes me a little bit of a cow in the end, then “moooooooooooooooooooooooooo.”