IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Fifth-Grade Teacher Told Me I Was "So Fat I Wouldn't Live to See 30"

Those words echo in my head every time I am rejected, after every bad date, any time I make a mistake, all because she successfully made me hate myself with those words.
Publish date:
August 6, 2013

I have always been what people would call a “big girl.” As an adult, I have made my peace with my genetic traits and have grown to love the fact that I have a Rubenesque figure -- I have no desire to be thin. I am quite happy with my big boned self and most people in my life think I am perfect just the way I am.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case.

I was a very normal 80s kid. I lived at home with my parents, an older brother, a dog and two cats. We lived a block away from the elementary school in a neighborhood that was loaded with kids of all ages.

We were outside all day and only went inside when we were called in for dinner or the streetlights came on, whichever came first. While I wasn’t athletic, I was always moving -- all of us neighborhood kids were. We belonged to working class families with one TV in the house, and no video game machines to be found. Even when my brother got a used Atari console for Christmas one year, we were still limited to 15 minutes of Pitfall a day. I simply wasn’t allowed to be a couch potato.

I don’t remember hating athletic type activities until my fifth grade year. That year was the first time I remember being subjected to the Physical Fitness tests. Each student was expected to perform a handful of activities to determine their level of fitness. The activities included things like sit-ups, shuttle run, that pull up thing where the girls were allowed to just hang from the bar. Then, there was the “endurance” part of the fitness test, which consisted of a one mile run.

While looking up information for this article, I did some Googling on the fitness testing requirements. Each website I visited, the endurance portion was designated as a “walk/run,” not simply a one mile run. My gym teacher, however, decided that each student must run this mile course she had set up for us. The course consisted of 4 cones set up in a square that we had to run around, with eight times around equaling a distance of one mile. This course was set up in the field next to the west wall of windows of the school, which meant 4 classrooms could stare out the windows and see my gym class running around those orange cones.

I don’t know why this was a hard task for me, but it was. I could do a back walkover backhandspring combo. I could do cartwheels on the balance beam. I could do tumbling passes that consistently garnered me first place trophies. But, for whatever reasons, I could not run 8 laps around those stupid cones.

Maybe it was hot outside that day, maybe I was under the weather -- I don’t know. I alternated between a half hearted jog and walking, sometimes slowing to a crawl when my side started to ache. Perhaps if the task had been to execute a succession of flawless cartwheels, I’d have aced the test.

Sadly, that was not the case, and I struggled to make it through the endurance portion of the test while my classmates had long since finished. Finally, the gym period was over, and I lumbered back inside the school with the rest of my class. I had never looked forward to studying math so much in my life.

But my reprieve wasn’t over, because my gym teacher actually came and pulled me out of class to finish the “test.” That woman literally walked into class and demanded that I go outside to finish what I started.

There were no other gym classes that day, so I was forced out to the field to complete that stupid one mile endurance “run” while sixty nosy grade-schoolers looked on. Eventually I finished, and I was miserable. I couldn’t breathe; I was embarassed. I might have been crying.

But that wasn’t the worst part. My gym teacher decided to lecture me about how disappointing I was to her. She stood there a berated me, a ten year old 5th grader, because I could not run a mile in an appropriate amount of time. Nevermind the fact that walking a mile wasn’t sufficient for her; I had to run the mile. After all of the shame and embarassment she had put me through, she said something I have never forgotten to this day and probably will never forget as long as I live.

She looked me in the eye and said, “You are so fat, you won’t live to see 30.”

My adult gym teacher said those exact words to me, a crying fifth grader, because I didn’t do something the way she felt it should be done. Her words started a chain reaction in me that caused me to hate my body. Those words echo in my head every time I am rejected, after every bad date, any time I make a mistake, all because she successfully made me hate myself with those words.

As an adult, I have learned that she was in the wrong. I wasn’t even really that big! I was just a chunky girl, and I still am (though I prefer to use the word "curvy" to describe myself). If there has been one positive effect her words have had on me, it’s been how ardent I am about my health. I’m obsessive about my cholesterol levels. I quit smoking when my dad had a quadruple bypass last summer. I have embraced healthier eating habits.

I already have enough working against me in the form of crappy genes, I don’t need to contribute any more to bad health.

I’m also happy to report that, while I still sport a curvaceous bod, I happily celebrated my 35th birthday last month. Not only was my gym teacher insanely cruel by fat shaming me, she was also wrong in her assumptions. I made it to thirty with no problems (and a Triglyceride level of 75 thankyouverymuch).

Make no mistake, every time I see her in public, I remind her of what she said, and make sure she knows how old I am and that my doctors have declared me in excellent health. She always gets red in the face and tells me how ashamed she is for saying that. I always tell her, “That’s exactly why I remind you.” I should probably let bygones be bygones, but that’s one thing I just can’t let go of.

It’s also worth mentioning that she never taught elementary gym class after that year. She became the universally hated high school women’s volleyball coach. And while I aced the Physical Fitness test my 6th grade year and received a Presidential Fitness award, I have stayed as far away from volleyball as possible since.