As a middle school teacher, I try to put myself in my students’ shoes as much as possible.

What are they feeling? How did I feel at that age? Would I have wanted to do that when I was in middle school? I also try to stay as hip as possible with advice from my super hip 14-year-old niece, Brihannah. My Hydro Flask water bottle stickers should be arriving in the mail soon!

Recently, I asked a group of my students to think about what makes them different from their peers. We are about to begin a novel study about a boy who is “different,” and having them analyze their own “different” characteristics will navigate them towards a sort of empathy. This is my goal anyways.

With that being said, I have decided to reveal something that makes me different.

I have the funkiest looking feet. My toes are bent in all sorts of directions.

I never knew I had funky feet until I was in the first grade and someone pointed it out on the playground. Everyone had a good laugh… except me. From that day forward, I never wore open-toed shoes — that’s how loud that laughter was. It was not until high school that I regained the confidence to wear open-toed shoes. All throughout elementary school and especially middle school, my toes stayed tucked inside a shoe. I was absolutely humiliated by them.

As a high school freshman, I had a good friend ask me why I never wore flip-flops. When I told him why, he laughed and said, “Wow! That’s stupid.” It really wasn’t until that moment that I realized how absolutely stupid it was for me to hide something so small over one negative memory some nine years prior.

At the end of the day, we are all unique in some way. Everyone has something special about them, yet we are so often subjected to a culture and a society that rejects the notion that it’s okay to be different.

People still point out my toes. It normally comes in the form of “Woah, what’s up with your toes?!” But my reaction has evolved. That evolution happened whenever I myself grew comfortable in my own body — my own self. I am who I am, both physically and internally.

Beyond my funky toes, I am incredibly quirky. I say the strangest things — sometimes even with the sweetest Southern draw — and I can’t control myself whenever food is around. In fact, most of the things I say and do have some relation to me eating. My ability to talk a person into “lunching” with me is uncanny, and if there’s a plate of cookies left in the teacher’s lounge, then you better bet I will smell it out within minutes. I’m hyper, energetic, and most of the time I’m bouncing off the walls like a toddler who’s eaten too much candy on Halloween. As an adult, I embrace all the things that make me who I am. But I didn’t always, and that is what I remind myself often.

Love yourself — the good, the bad, and the ugly — because our youth has to learn how, and at the end of the day, it is us adults that model that behavior.

One afternoon in May, I was painting our living room ceiling. I reached up above my head with a roller and Landon caught a glimpse of my tummy. “Mommy, you have stripes like a zebra!” he yelled. Immediately, Jessilynn ran in to inspect. She came to the same conclusion. “Mommy zebra!” she announced, prancing back to the playroom. Even months later, my toddlers are still obsessed with the stretch marks across my tum. Isn’t that beautiful?

Be kind to yourself and love every last feature that makes you who you are because without those unique features we’d be my son’s least favorite thing in the world — boring. I know tomorrow as I pull on my open-toed sandals, I will be.

Never be ashamed to be you, and never stop modeling that for our youth.

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