I've always been a few inches shorter than the average Maldivian height. Ask anyone who knows me to describe me and they'll always start with, "Well, he's short and...". This never bothered me nearly as much as it bothers my mom. It's understandable though, since all mothers like their sons to be big, broad-shouldered and to generally have an imposing physique. I don't have any of those characteristics, so I've been dragged into a few sticky situations, been the subject of several in-class jokes (which are mostly good-natured, by the way) and even got away with a few things that only short people could. See, it's not all bad! Oh, and the rumour is true. An elevator full of people does smell differently to a midget..
I've been small right from the start. Ever since my premature birth (I saw a photo of myself back then; I looked like Yoda from Star Wars, minus the long years of course), to being called "Kuda Imma" at preschool, and being forced to stand at the front of the class line almost every year during my primary school days. My physique started to show its advantages and drawbacks when I began grade 6.
During grade 6, the school management decided to select (or rather, force) students to join the school Cadet. Grade 6 was the most senior year back then, so naturally we were the ones who had to suffer through seemingly endless meetings where they tried to convince us that Cadet was actually very beneficial and joining it would clearly open the doors for a bright future for all of us. Few bought this. In fact, only around 40 students willingly joined. Imagine that! If Kalaafaanu School held a procession with only 40, we would've become a laughing stock. So naturally, the management decided to take the matter into their own hands. I remember one day after another such meeting, we were all made to stand in the school compound and they scrutinized us individually while carrying a list of all the names of the sixth graders. When they stopped by me, they took one look at me, shook their heads vigorously while looking almost disgusted and didn't even bother to check my name.
"You're so lucky!" My best friend hissed into my ear. Oh yes, I felt like the luckiest person on Earth.
My joy, however, was short-lived.
A few weeks later, my English teacher summoned me to his desk.
"You're supposed to come here at 3:45 in the afternoon", he said.
"A club meeting?" I asked excitedly. English club meetings were always entertaining. He neither confirmed nor denied it, but pretended to be busy rummaging through a file.
So I went at the required time and entered the school, only to find myself in the midst of 4th and 5th graders. Due to the lack of Cadets, the school management had made the 4th and 5th graders sit through the sort of meetings I had to suffer. It didn't take a lot of persuasion to convince them the whole "Cadet is beneficial to your future" thing. Still, I just couldn't believe it! I had been blackmailed!
The worst part of the whole experience was that I was made to march and yell those stupid, "Yes Sir!" and "Affirmative Sir!" stuff with a group of 4th graders, whom I'm pretty sure didn't even know the meaning of "affirmative". They were about the same height as me, and had attended many meetings prior to that afternoon, hence they were more experienced and unlike me, they actually knew how to follow the commands. Hence I couldn't keep in tune with the marching and disrupted the flow of the march and got heckled by them. Got heckled by a bunch of 4th graders! I had to use all my willpower in trying to keep my lips pursed to prevent myself from saying something scathing in return. At the end of the day, my back felt so rigid that I couldn't even bend it sufficiently to tie my shoelaces! This really wasn't what I had in mind when I went to school that day. That was the last time I went to a Cadet "meeting."
The next year, which was of course my last at Kalaafaanu, an inter-class football tournament was held. During one practice session, a 4th grade class approached us and requested a match. Apparently "playing with bigger people will make them better." So we agreed, and absolutely thrashed them, both scoreline and confidence-wise. Any chance of me feeling sympathetic towards them was cut short by the fact that I fell victim to their heckling again! I mean, you would expect 4th graders to be able to recognise their own classmates. They just assumed that I was one of them, and I took great pleasure in watching them get all riled up every time I stole the ball from one of their players or made a pass to one of my classmates, or generally whenever I did anything good for my team.
Perhaps the most bizarre incident took place the same year. It was during one school assembly when they were selecting the school Prefects. I was lucky enough to be selected and was walking along to stand in line to take my oath when I was interrogated by two teachers.
"Do you want any help in pinning it?" They asked, indicating the Prefect's badge in my hand. I was momentarily shocked. Here were two teachers who taught grades 3 and 4 respectively, asking me if I was capable of doing something that their students were more than capable of doing. What annoyed me most was the tone they used. You must've heard people using a peculiar tone while communicating with cute infants. That tone.
"No!" I replied, pinning the badge to my shirt. Not very Prefect-like, I know.
My physique, or rather the lack of it, rather worried my badminton coach. I was part of the Youth Development Program and was progressing nicely through the ranks until I went to grade 8. I started to struggle a bit, probably because I was going through a growth spurt (if you could call that a "growth" spurt) . My coach confided his feelings about my physique and told me that I was disadvantaged. He made me work through tough physical routines created by himself in order to make me look "more like a man." It worked for a while, until an unfortunate illness prevented me from engaging in any vigorous physical activities for two whole months. During that time, I was also settling to life at Dharumavantha School. As you can imagine, it was pretty tough for someone of my height. Heightism and gang culture has always been strife over there, and I was the epitome of a perfect bully magnet. I can imagine how I would've been in a bully's point of view. Short, frail and wearing glasses. Perfect.
During the first month, it was a common experience for me to get surrounded during the interval period by tall, gorilla-ish guys with ravenous appetites all demanding a piece of my hotdog. I was lucky enough to witness a friend of mine suffer through a similar experience during the first week. He yelled, "NUDHEYNAN!" and got punched on the face. Poor fellow. But this particular incident made me realize that in order to be a bully, you're required to have sub-human intelligence. I mean, these guys are like programmed robots; they understand only a few expressions and know when you're being hostile. So I used a very different tactic; I bore them out of their minds.
"You know what? I actually spent 2 Rufiyaa on this and want to enjoy this on my own. If I am to share this amongst all of you then all the money would be wasted. Plus, how am I supposed to share this little thing amongst all of you? I mean-"
"-yeah just eat the bloody thing!" Walks away.
They stopped begging for food after a couple of weeks.
After I was officially accepted into CHSE, we were made to attend several orientation programs. During one such session, some blokes from the Maldivian National Defense Force came to brainwash, oh sorry, enlighten us about the work they do over there. The guy who was speaking made it sound like heaven of course, but then he said something that really rattled some of us.
"Anyone can join. Boys need to be at least 5"5' in height and girls at least 5"3'."
I couldn't believe it! This was blatant heightism! But then I thought, why am I even listening?
Things got a little more entertaining during the Q&A session when a girl stood up to the MNDF officer. Only a few years ago this would've guaranteed her 6 months time in prison. She demanded to know why we had to be of a certain height to join this so-called elite job. My heroine!