On the last day of my sixth-grade year, I waited outside Mrs. Barber's busy classroom for my turn to say goodbye, to give her the book of Robert Frost poems I'd purchased with my allowance. Next year I'd begin Junior High, far from the protective gaze of my mother and her fellow teachers at the elementary school. Mrs. Barber's door was propped open and I looked fondly, one last time, at the decorated door -- a tree with each student's picture pasted on an apple, above it in construction-paper letters, "Mrs. Barber's Class. The Apples of my Eye."
Two older boys stood in the hallway. They examined the pictures on the door and pointed out the pretty girls. Dawn Jones who looked like a young Farrah Fawcett, including cleavage. Karly Richardson who had a glorious mane that flowed down her back in a glossy chocolate waterfall. Melissa Brecker. Susan Plantz, Barbie Miller. With a frizzy home perm and a mouthful of teeth that were bolting for the barn, I knew I wasn't one of the pretty girls, but I kept hoping to hear my name, hoping one of them would look at my picture and see some well-hidden promise. Instead, one of the boys pointed at my picture and said, "Woof!"
That might have been the end of me. I might have drawn an "X" over each eye and laid down on the cold linoleum tiles if I hadn't already come up with a surefire plan for transformation. My braces were going on soon, and that would be just the beginning. Over the summer, I would study issues of Seventeen and follow every bit of advice. I would beg my mother for a salon perm, and wheedle the money for it from my grandmother. Every day I would slather myself with baby oil and iodine and lay out. I would stop trying to make "Christopher Columbus!" a catch phrase.
It almost worked. The braces were instantly effective at corralling my teeth. Nannie sprang for the professional perm. Seventeen taught me how to pucker my lips and dab lip gloss at the center for maximum allure, and by the end of the summer my freckles had spread and joined to create something that, from a distance, looked a bit like a weak-tea-colored tan. Then, out of the b-b-b-b-b-blue, I began to stutter.
There is no human being more fragile, more wretched, than a thirteen-year-old girl. The wrong shade of stitching on your jeans can ruin your day. The hair-flicking snub of a popular girl can ruin your month. A minor social misstep can ruin your reputation. A "C" on an English test can ruin your academic future. Now add a stutter.
As a girl, and an unpretty one, I already felt insignificant, effectively silenced, and now even my own mouth was convinced I had nothing interesting to say. Whenever I wanted to speak, had an idea to express, a humorous comment, anxiety swelled before my lips could part, as I anticipated what was going to happen – my tongue would flop around like a beached fish, accompanied by idiotic repetitive consonants, as if the fish were drumming death throes with its tail: I'm d-d-d-d-d-d-dying! Mostly, I kept quiet.
Doctors told my parents that because my stutter had developed so suddenly, and in adolescence, it would eventually go away, and over time it did. Today I very rarely stumble over a word or phrase. Friends I've met in adulthood would be surprised to know about my teenage stutter. They know me as confident and outgoing, a talker. I speak frequently about animal welfare and sheltering to community and government organizations.
The ugly went away too. I felt pretty on prom night, on my wedding day, and have had innumerable pretty days since. If I were ever again compared to a dog I'd be a keen and tender-hearted mix of shepherds and spaniels, curly about the ears, with knowing eyes and a mouth that always (sometimes involuntarily) turns up at the corners. "Woof!" Yet sometimes I look in the mirror and see the girl I was – achingly unattractive, desperately wanting, a mute with so much to say.
I saw myself years later in one of my son's classmates. Jenny was all elbows and knees. Her features were too large for her face, and when she smiled her neck dipped to her shoulder as if her exposed teeth weighed twenty pounds, but any adult could see the beauty in waiting. She was going to be a stunner, a Best in Show.
I was a chaperone for their fifth-grade field day, and I stood behind the class watching the relay racers come around the track. As she jostled for a view of the race, the boy standing next to her hissed, "Move over, Freak." Another boy snickered loudly. Jenny's whole body trembled with suppressed tears.
I wanted to pull her aside and impart to her what I had learned since fifth grade – Don't give boys the power of assessment. If you present yourself as a blank slate, people will try to write on you. Looks matter, just not nearly as much as the confidence that comes with accomplishments – but I didn't think she'd believe me. So I leaned toward the boys and said, "Y'all don't know this yet, but one day Jenny's going to be very pretty and if you two don't hush up right now, she'll want nothing to do with either of you."
Jenny looked away, as if she hadn't heard a thing, and followed the teacher toward the next field day event. As she passed me I saw her broad smile, on a neck unbowed, and I knew I'd said just what she needed to hear.