School's In!

For Students All Sizes of Large

 

My Experience

"You never fail until you stop trying" has been my personal motto for years. Interestingly enough, it came into my life at a time when I tied my self worth to the numbers on a scale. Fortunately I made the leap of self- and size-acceptance several years ago, and I’ve been able to put my motto to a more powerful use.

In December of 1996, just weeks after my 36th birthday, I donned a graduation cap and gown and took my place alongside classmates at Louisiana State University for a ceremony that marked my greatest personal achievement in life. From the very first day of college (right out of high school), until graduation day (almost 18 years later), my biggest obstacle hasn’t been the course work, it has been trying to wedge my super-size body into a desk.

For three years I spent my classes stuffed into a desk, with much of the left half of my body hanging off the edge of a too-small seat. Sitting in that predicament for 90 minutes, with my left foot falling asleep from the strain of balancing my body, eventually grew to be more than I could bear, and I dropped out of school. Ten years later, I decided to give it another try. I had hoped that things would be better, but the torturous desks hadn’t changed. Fortunately, I had. As I began my journey of self-acceptance, I learned one simple thing: I am worth having whatever amount of space I need in order to be comfortable.

If those seats were my enemy, then I decided I wanted to know everything about them that I could. Armed with a tape measure, a note pad, and my little sister, I became a woman on a mission. On one cold, wet day, we measured every different type of seating offered on campus. We made our way from room to room, and building to building, finding ourselves in basement classrooms where the largest seats were 17 1/2 inches across. We snuck in through the stage entrance of a theatre–in the dark!–to find seats that measured 16 3/4 inches from arm to arm, with only 11 1/2 inches between rows of seats. The most dismal measure of all was the newly acquired plastic seats with attached desks. They were 14 inches narrow. That’s the length of a sheet of legal paper. If you lie two legal sheets end-to-end you’ll get a more accurate measure of the width of my backside.

My first action was to write the university’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities. They’re the folks on campus who deal with issues of access, and from that aspect, I needed their assistance. What I asked for was two armless chairs to be put in each classroom on campus. What I got instead was a promise that they would make special arrangements for me in each of my classrooms. Nothing was going to stop me from finishing my degree, so I accepted their offer of help, and made the required phone call.

"Hello, I need to make special seating arrangements for some of my classes," I said to the voice at the other end of the line. "What’s your disability?" she asked. I hesitated. "I don’t have a disability...... the seats do." Silence. "W..whhat?" This clearly was not the answer she was accustomed to hearing, but she did make an appointment to "see" me, and she got me what I needed in order to be comfortable. An armless chair and a small table were provided for me in any classroom, at my request.

I found that armed with a little knowledge, I could be comfortable in some classrooms without making any special arrangements. In some classrooms I found a sturdy armless chair and just pulled it up to one of the chairs with the attached desk. The empty desk seat made a perfect holder for my backpack. I learned to gauge variable seat width by the way theater-style seating is bolted to the floor, so that I would easily be able to pick out the widest seat. I also discovered that many upper-level seminar classes were taught in rooms furnished with tables and armless chairs. Those classes filled my schedule whenever possible.

My college experience wasn’t all as easy as a phone call. In addition to seating, when planning my course schedule I had to consider parking, walking distance, time allowed between classes, and obstacles like stairs. I also needed an extra half hour before each class, so I could locate the special seating provided for me (it had occasionally been moved out of the classroom), drag it back, and get it set up. When planning my course schedule for the upcoming semester, I would get a schedule booklet and plan out the classes I wanted to take, allowing adequate time between classes, and then I’d visit the classroom if I wasn’t familiar with it. That way I knew the obstacles I might face.

I found that I was more comfortable with other non-traditional students, and that they were often congregated in evening and night classes, so I often scheduled classes at those times. I also found that upper-level classes were easier for me than classes filled with freshman. Not only because the students were older, but because the upper-level classes were often taught as a seminar class, with ten to fifteen students, in a classroom with a conference table and armless chairs. Although the higher-level classes are often more time-intensive, and may require writing papers, I found I did better in those classes than in the introductory courses, where, because of the number of students per class, instructors were usually less able or willing to deal with students who had special needs.

Parking presented one of the biggest obstacles for me. There were times when I was able to manage the half-mile or more hike from my car to class with relative ease, but then there were those times when I wasn’t up to the walk. After I had an emergency gallbladder removal surgery during summer school, I was given a medical permit which allowed me to park on campus. After the permit expired, and I still wasn’t feeling up to walking the distances, I learned that if I drove to a bus stop off-campus, I could catch the bus to class and be dropped off near the front door of the classroom building. No matter what mode of transportation you choose, be sure and get a good quality backpack for your books and notebooks. I had no problems adjusting mine to accommodate for my size, I was able to save myself from unnecessary backaches and it helped me blend in with other students.

My interaction with other students was most of the time an (unexpectedly) pleasant parts of being in school. We were all working on a common goal (surviving whatever class we were in together!), so it was easy to form bonds that lasted at least as long as the semester did. The few negative experiences I had were outside the classroom, and always came in the form of ugly words thrown at me by some teenage boy struggling to impress other teenage boys.

One of the most important things you can do to ensure a successful college experience is advance planning. Even my graduation day did not come without it. I specially ordered my cap (size 8) and gown (size 509), and requested seating sturdier than the lightweight folding chairs provided for the other graduates. I also had to call ahead to the restaurant where we celebrated, and be sure there was an armless chair at my table.

Am I richer for having had the experience of being a fat college student? Undeniably. I have learned excellent skills for getting around barriers in life. I’ve learned that it’s okay to take up whatever space I need in order to be comfortable. I’ve also learned that sometimes all I have to do is ask, or just make someone aware that there is a need. If I don’t do that, the only person who suffers is me.

The skills (and knowledge) I gained at college are already being put into use in another area–at work. Within two months of starting my search for employment, I was hired as a computer programmer. I feel very fortunate to be working in an atmosphere that seems to be not only non-judgmental, but accommodating. My supervisor changed the chair in her office to an armless one (without me having to ask), and on my first day I was told to pick out a desk chair I liked, and they’d order it for me. (The seat is 26" across, and it supports up to 500 lbs. I love it!)

If you’ve been considering advancing your education, what are you waiting for? Yes, it might take you years of hard work, but those years are going to pass regardless. Besides the obvious advantage of furthering your own education and the opportunities that may bring you, you may also be able to light the path for another fat student. If you are a fat student, you are almost certain to encounter obstacles in school. But learning how to plow your way through those obstacles and adapt situations to suit your needs is an education of its own. You are worth the effort. I think the speaker at my graduation summed it up in his closing remark: "Life is like a grindstone. Whether it wears you down or polishes you up depends on what you’re made of."

Reprinted from the NAAFA Newsletter.