I saw her at the store, and then two days later, at the coffee shop. I had taught her daughter several years ago, and always admired her for her perfectly coiffed hair, ready smile and unending reserves. She had been the volunteer for my classroom, and always had the time and creativity to set up my bulletin boards or whip up costumes for the annual middle-school Shakespeare festival.
Over the years, I would see her daughter around town. She morphed from a seventh grader wearing purposefully mismatched socks to a young woman whose outfits displayed a deliberate, art-house chic. I love seeing middle schoolers find their own beauty, but increasingly, when I saw her, I felt a catch in my throat.
I was alarmed by the jut of her clavicle, her tiny legs, skeletal arms. I had seen this look many, many times before. The literal shrinking, the attempt, through omission, to make oneself invisible.
The first time I saw her, I thought, “Is she?” I mean, a lot of teenagers are just plain skinny. But, it wasn’t my place. I was no longer her teacher, and it wasn’t my place. I filed it away, and did nothing.
I saw her again, and could see the ping of her shoulder blades, stripped bare and painfully stark. She was at Old Navy with her mother and we talked about college applications and her future. She made eye contact, laughed, seemed normal, pleasant, not ill, not desperately trying to be invisible.
I didn't know what to do. If there was even anything I could do. I didn't see her eat or not eat, because I didn't live with her. Should I call somebody? Who?
Time moved on, and a few months later, (and surely not by accident), I saw her mother at the coffee shop. The talk again turned to college, and I said my standard line, “She’ll end up exactly where she’s supposed to be.”
The mother’s eyes welled up in tears, and she said, “It’s been so hard recently.” I didn't ask for specifics, because sharing the specifics was her right.
I just patted her back a bit weakly and said, "It can be so hard."
I don't know if the mother was talking about an eating disorder or another difficulty or simply the excruciating process of sending a daughter go off to college.
I really didn't know anything. So, I did the only thing that felt right at that moment. I acknowledged her tears, and let her know that I noticed.
She was not invisible.
She was not invisible.
When see her daughter again, I will, maybe through words, maybe through action, convey the same thought to her.