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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Skinny Kid

Humiliation is a part of life when you’re the skinny kid. Take swim time at scout camp. When all the other guys are showing off their adolescent six packs and newly acquired biceps, you’re counting ribs and trying you’re best not to look like Gandhi. Which is tough when you actually look like Gandhi—only pastier and without the moustache.

I know this from experience. Twenty years ago, I was a twelve-year-old kid with greasy hair, crooked teeth, and barely enough muscle to keep me moving. If I had crashed somewhere in the Andes with a Uruguayan rugby team, they’d have been screwed. They would’ve taken one hungry look at my sorry corpse and said, “Hombres, who invited Gollum?”

Like a lot of kids, I learned to deal with my skinniness and the ridicule that came with it. For a while I wore big clothes and made friends with fat kids as a way to compensate. I also learned to mouth off. At night, with my clock radio turned down low, I would lie awake thinking up putdowns I could use against any school bus lunkhead bent on my destruction. Sadly, most of what I came up with was either a knuckle-sandwich-to-the-face in embryo or too R-rated to use and still feel OK about being a deacon.  Some may think Mormon injunctions against naughty words are too puritanical. I think they saved me from premature dentures.

The worst humiliations I experienced involved girls. Like the time I was on a campout and one of my fellow Tenderfeet told me a Beehive in our ward said I’d be cute if I only had “a body.” At thirteen, I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but it was enough to get me doing push-ups, sits-ups, and jumping jacks one afternoon. I’m not sure what I hoped to accomplish with the jumping jacks, but they seemed to do the trick when I checked my muscle growth in the mirror ten minutes later. Too bad the Beehive failed to notice on mutual night. And it didn’t help that one of the thugs in the teachers quorum got a laugh when he slugged me in the sternum right in front of her.

That one took a while to get over. Like at least a year and maybe two or three random afternoons of jumping jacks.

I make fun of them now, but these were rough years for me. In Sunday school, they’d tell us to take our problems to the scriptures, but every time I’d go there I’d find Arnold Friberg’s paintings of steroidal stalwarts like Nephi and Ammon who looked a lot like the guys beating me up. Or I’d read church history books and find stories of Joseph Smith’s prowess as a wrestler and stick-puller. Not much comfort for a kid who couldn’t do a pull-up in gym class.  

Friberg’s Schwarzeneggerian prophets, by the way, were meant to be “expression[s] of the spirit within…the interior, the greatness, the largeness of spirit” (qtd. in Gutjahr 172-173). I didn’t learn this until later, but I doubt it would have helped much. I only would’ve wondered why my personal righteousness wasn’t translating into a well-sculpted core.  

What finally did help was reading the scriptures themselves. True, Nephi and Mormon were “large in stature,” but they also had their own problem with bullies. Nephi’s brothers, for example, were borderline sociopaths who beat him with a rod (see 1 Nephi 3:29), bound him and left him to be eaten by “wild beasts” in the wilderness (see 1 Nephi 7:16), made fun of him (see basically all of 1 Nephi), and tied him to the mast of a ship during a hurricane (see 1 Nephi 18:11).1 Mormon, not to be outdone, was hunted down and killed by an entire enemy nation (see Mormon 8:5).  My problems with Beehives and thug Teachers seemed small in comparison.

I also had good youth leaders who knew how to help a skinny kid belong in a culture that often puts a premium on physical stature and ability. In seminary, they taught me that “the LORD seeth not as man seeth,” but “looketh on the heart” (see 1 Sam. 16:7). I may have sucked on the church basketball court, failed most of my scout camp swimming tests, and missed the point of nearly every sports analogy in priesthood meeting, but these leaders let me know that the Church needed me and that God loved me for being me.

Even when I mouthed off in class.

[1] I’m always a little suspicious of people in Sunday school who say they are more like Laman and Lemuel than Nephi. I know no one is perfect, but are they really the kind that might, say, strap their righteous kids to the roof of the minivan on vacation or feed them to the neighbor’s dog? I hope not.  

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