89: Armored and Dangerous

89: Armored and Dangerous

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

Armored and Dangerous

Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.

~Dan Rather

Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. When I was twelve, that sounded like “idiot-something,” which is what I knew I was going to feel like when I realized how the scoliosis would be treated. I sat in the doctor’s office while he explained to me this horrendous contraption I’d be wearing to straighten my curved spine. Every day, all day long, for the next two years. A metal and plastic brace would cover my entire torso. I would have to eat in it, sleep in it... go to school in it. The tears came, fast and heavy.

I’d always been shy and awkward. A head taller than the rest of my class, I was all legs and lanky arms. The other kids teased me with a sarcastic, “How’s the weather up there?” People often asked, “Do you play basketball?” I’m sure they meant it as a compliment, but to me it was only a reminder of my lack of physical coordination. I wanted to be petite, or at least normal. Anything but tall and gawky.

And now, my early growth spurt had earned me a sentence in a suit of armor.

The fitting was best described as “mortifying.” A plaster mold was taken of my torso, which meant wearing nothing but my underwear and a set of nearly transparent fabric tubes while a cast was set around me from armpit to lower hip. It couldn’t have been worse.

Then came the day I met the beast. Thick, ugly, white plastic in a wide band molded to my hips. Another, narrower band curved around my upper chest and under my armpits. Metal bars connected the two plastic sections — complete with bolts and screws. I was going to be a real-life Frankenstein.

The brace was uncomfortable at first, but that was not the worst of things. The doctor had told me it wouldn’t be noticeable under my clothes.

He lied.

Maybe he’d meant that it wouldn’t be noticeable under my clothes, because I wouldn’t be wearing it under my clothes. No, I would be wearing it under all new, bigger clothes because the thing was so bulky my clothes would never fit over it!

I was thankful, at least, for the fact that the brace didn’t extend up to my neck, as some back braces do. I told only my closest friends. And with the help of a loose-fitting jacket, no one else seemed to notice. It took time, but eventually, I got used to getting into the brace and wearing it to school. But I never liked it.

Although there was one day I was really glad to have the beast.... On that day, my friend Carla and I had stepped into the girls’ bathroom. Another girl emerged from a stall, cigarette in hand. My heart nearly stopped. It was Tanya — a girl in my art class who happened to be friends with the biggest bully in the school, Mandy.

Even with my unusual height, Mandy towered over me. And I was tall and skinny, but Mandy was tall and thick. Panic set in.

“Carla, let’s go,” I whispered, and dragged her out of the bathroom. Tanya glared after us, until the door shut. As I pulled Carla down the hall, she began to protest.

“I’m turning her in!” she said as she yanked free and crossed her arms.

“No, you can’t... she’s friends with Mandy Anderson.” I continued to beg and plead, desperately hoping my words would take hold. As she stalked off, though, I knew they hadn’t.

The following day, Tanya confronted me in art class.

“Mandy’s going to beat the crap out of you. Tomorrow, on the P.E. field.”

I tried to explain to her that I was not the one who turned her in, that it was a friend of mine. She wanted the friend’s name, but I refused to give it. Carla had done nothing wrong. Something stupid... but not technically wrong. I wouldn’t make things worse by telling on her.

“Well, if you don’t tell us who she is, then you take her beating. Tomorrow.” She smiled cruelly, right in my face, and went back to her seat.

That night, I called another friend of mine. Jen and I had been friends for a couple of years despite our totally opposite personalities. Where I was shy, introverted and intellectual, she was outgoing, extroverted, and street-smart. She was shorter than me, but stronger. She knew how to fight. I told her what happened.

“Mandy Anderson?” she asked.

“Yeah, what do I do?”

“Pray she gets hit by a bus before school tomorrow, I guess. Otherwise, nice knowin’ ya.”

I hung up the phone, fighting tears. If Jen couldn’t help me, I was doomed.

The following day, Mandy approached me. She questioned me, and she threatened me. I fully understood the saying “shaking in my boots” at that moment. I tried not to cry as words flew out of my mouth. I didn’t even realize most of what I was saying. I wanted to turn and run, but she would have come after me. So I talked, and then a light dawned.

I knew something she didn’t.

Mandy had no idea I wore a back brace. She didn’t know about the heavy plastic and metal bars under my clothes. My heart slowed to normal and my confidence rose. I tried not to smile as I talked my way out of the fight. I really didn’t have much to worry about. I only had to protect my face — if she landed a punch anywhere lower, Mandy would have broken her hand. Then who would feel like an “idiot-something?”

The following year, I was allowed to wear my suit of armor part-time and go to school without it. And eventually, the day came when I didn’t need it at all. For months after that, it sat in my closet. For some reason I had a hard time letting it go. How could I just throw it out? The beast had saved my life.

~Kat Heckenbach

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