I know you didn’t think I could hear you whisper. I know what the college years are like, and I know that you were trying to impress each other. I know that you didn’t know how badly you could hurt a total stranger. When you said those words to each other, I knew they were about me.
“Look at her looking at workout gear. I bet she doesn’t even know what a gym is!”
This was over three years and 50 pounds ago, but my face still heats with shame when I think about it. I turned to look at you after you said it, and you realized that I was 20 years older than you thought I was from behind. I’m sure you thought I was someone’s mom shopping for my daughter then.
What you didn’t know is that I was shopping for myself. What you didn’t know is that I took the leap off a cliff and returned to college in my late 30s to finish my bachelor’s degree. What you didn’t know is that I sat in my car for 20 minutes in the parking lot every day, working up the courage to sit in the classroom with you and your peers. You didn’t know that my marriage was crumbling, and I didn’t know how to stop it. You didn’t know that my 3-year-old son refused to potty train, so I would have to run to school and change his pants since the Catholic school he went to couldn’t do it for him. What you didn’t know is that I was feeling so lost and alone that I was stress-eating all the time. And you definitely didn’t know that I was looking at the sweatpants because the jeans I wore to class that day had gotten so tight they were giving me a rash around my waistband, and I just needed some relief. You didn’t know that I spent my last $20 until payday to get that relief.
You chose to judge me and make my already shattered self-esteem shatter even more. You encouraged me to withdraw from my life even more than I already had. You crushed me just as I was trying to build myself up again. You broke what little strength I was still holding on to during the darkest time of my (much longer than your) life.
Despite the cruel words you tossed away like nothing, I showed up at that school every day for four semesters until I graduated. I survived my marriage ending, and even got my son potty trained before winter break. I made the Dean’s List at 37 years old and graduated with my bachelor’s degree at 38. Then, I lost 50 pounds and no longer fit into those sweatpants that I bought that day.
I still wear them around the house when I’m cleaning, and on cold nights, I sleep in them. I have to tie the waistband shut to keep them on now, but I love them because they are well-made and have big pockets. They have our school name written down the side in pink letters. I know you didn’t think I could hear you whisper, but every time I put them on I hear you again—only now, I think about how far I’ve come since that day and realize that woman you shamed no longer exists. How much sooner might that have happened if you’d just bought your books and passed me by?
Before you say those words you think no one else will hear, think about how you’d feel if they were said to you. When you overhear those words not meant to be heard by you, remember the speaker of them only sees part of the picture. Have we gotten so comfortable sitting behind our screens all day that we have forgotten these are real people we encounter in our lives—people who have thoughts and feelings and problems of their own?
Dear college boys in the school bookstore: I hope your lives are easier than my last few years have been, but if you face difficult times, I hope that you cross paths with people who build you up and show you that you are more than your current crappy situation. I think we owe each other that humanity.