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Personal Essay | Stand Up Straight, Girl

By Cathleen Trotter

I was 12 years old, and my thoughts were a tangled mass of negativity. The need to remain invisible was strong—and my only survival skill. I had the entire weight of my girlish world, along with an equally heavy backpack, precariously balanced on slouched shoulders. There were the normal (I know this now, at 38) insecurities of a pre-teen girl, as well as a knack for clarity and perception, all of which were shoving and kicking in my minefield of a brain.

Sad

But I was bullied, relentlessly so, by a few older kids because I was extremely “shy” (later diagnosed as anxiety). I lived in a home chock full of misunderstandings, worry, and unexpressed love. I tried to remain in the shadows, ever quiet, and get through whatever. I didn’t have a life; I had a whatever.

After one particularly horrific day of dodging, bobbing, and weaving through the middle school gauntlet, I wrapped my worries and sadness tight around my body. I felt increasingly fragile from the bullies sapping my strength and the anxiety telling me run, hide, while the same old loop circled in my head—replays of conversations, hoping I said something that wasn’t stupid, worrying what the mood at home would be like, and if it required tiptoeing or complete avoidance; hating my pudgy body and the over-sized clothes I used as armor—all this while wishing that getting through didn’t have to be so hard and that the jumpiness would go away.

Those thoughts tumbled through my mind, when abruptly, I heard a female voice.

“Hey. You, walking with your head all down like the world already beat you. Heh. Troubles stacked on your back. Stand up straight, girl. They can’t beat you unless you let them.”

A woman, a complete stranger, tossed this at me as I walked home from the bus stop. This firecracker lobbed at me, while I struggled to be invisible and make it home. The fuse on that little cherry bomb was long and slow to burn, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and say “fuck” for the first time ever.

She was right. That woman not only saw my struggle, but she validated my existence, ensured it with a powerful slap that resounded throughout my soul. I was letting people weigh me down with what they perceived was my place in this world. It wasn’t an overnight change, but each day I stood a little straighter, my spine a little stronger. I kept her words close, always repeating, “stand up straight—you will not let them beat you.”

She looked at me and saw the pain I felt, the weight I carried. She, a stranger, felt compelled to intervene and lend an assist to a young, backwards girl. This woman turned my life upside down, with the tool for needed repairs, embedded in her message.

That moment wasn’t a cure-all, but her words were exactly what I needed to hear at the precise moment my path was spiraled and crumbled. I am thankful that she noticed a young girl on the verge of chaos. She rocked my preteen world.

I knew from then on, that, while I still carry weight and burdens, they are of my choosing and if someone is looking to add more weight, well, let’s just say they’re no longer looking at the top of my stooped head, but into my eyes, and they’ll see that the time for letting is over.

 

Cathleen Trotter is a writer, author, and creative recluse. She emerges every so often to bask in the sun and buy groceries for her people.

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