Valley Voices

She is only short when she is standing. ‘You should see me sitting’

Pauline Sahakian, in a 1994 photo as a Buchanan High School English teacher. Here she sits and one cannot tell her height.
Pauline Sahakian, in a 1994 photo as a Buchanan High School English teacher. Here she sits and one cannot tell her height. Fresno Bee file

“Why are you still wearing high heels?” my husband asks. I am preparing dinner in stilettos, heels clicking on tile as I move from sink to cupboard to stove.

“So I can reach into the cabinets,” I explain without looking at him. “So my chest doesn’t catch fire when I lean over the stove.” Now I look at him.

He grins and leaves the kitchen.

Being short is difficult. In elementary and junior high school, desks fit average sized kids. Those of us less than average scooted forward, arching backs just enough for our toes to tap the floor. The alternative was to sit properly with dangling feet, often swinging them to the teacher’s chagrin. But tall kids had problems too. I always had arm rests if my friend Tommy sat behind me. Because his knees bumped the bottom of his desk, he parked his long legs in the aisles. I propped my elbows on his knees, though one misstep when I arose would have sent me sprawling.

On the other hand, being short insured I had a dance partner at our junior high “Sock Hops” when many girls were taller than the boys. My partner could lift me and swing me side-to-side, jitterbug dance-moves we learned from Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” a television show so popular we knew the teenagers’ names who daily danced for the cameras.

Three years later in 1959, we created our own American Bandstand at lunchtime, dancing to the juke box in the Fresno High School cafeteria. I loved to dance, but if a tall boy asked me to slow-dance, I was in trouble. Instead of cheek-to-cheek, my cheek rested on my partner’s belly. One tall boy even lifted me up and carried me around when we slow-danced. My feet dangled at his knees while I held on to his neck to keep from sliding down.

When I enrolled at Fresno State, driving my father’s 1957 Nash Rambler came with more challenges for my shortness. To reach the pedals, I tucked pillows behind me. To see out the rearview mirror, I stacked pillows under me. I sat so close to the large steering-wheel my forehead rubbed the sun visor. If someone hit me hard from behind, I would have flown through the windshield. Short drivers owe much gratitude to the inventor of bucket seats.

After college, as a high school teacher, I was not bothered that many of my students were taller than I. My shortness caused no problems until one day when I entered the detention room to give a make-up test to my student being punished for tardiness. I waited patiently by the teacher, an older gentleman, flustered by the flock of students gathered around him. Eventually, he turned to me and shouted, “Will you please sit down!”

I looked up at him with the sternest gaze my 23-year-old eyes could muster and stated coldly: “I am looking for Tod Taylor to make up a test.” I waved the test papers in his face. Not even my plum-colored Butte knit suit, French-twist hair-do, or suede high heels had protected me.

A few years later, I discovered maternity clothes did not come in petite sizes. Since teachers were not allowed to wear pants, I sewed all my maternity dresses. I even created a variety of looks by altering the same pattern over and over again. I added collars, lengthened or shortened sleeves, and attached pockets. Who would have thought learning to sew aprons in 8th grade would prepare me for creating a maternity wardrobe?

Over time, I have learned shortness can result from short torso or short legs — a fact I paid little attention to until I paid $100 to have my style and colors analyzed. The stylist noted my legs from hip-to-knee as “-3” and my calves from knee-to-ankle as “-5.” She also noted my long neck, square shoulders, and normal torso. Tape measure in hand, she looked up from her kneeling position, blue eyes registering surprise. “Your legs,” she reported, “are four inches too short for your body.” I just smiled and shrugged.

Perhaps the most amusing anecdote my students would tell about my shortness relates to writing on the chalkboard. My reach went from middle to bottom much too fast. Not one easily thwarted, I resorted to standing on a chair with wheels and asking a student to push me along as I wrote across the board — from the top. It was funny but practical, and my students soon paid more attention to my writing and less to my rolling chair.

There are those with short torsos and long legs, such as one very tall gentleman visiting my school district office. I noticed others in the office eyeing him and whispering, and I realized he was a well-known basketball player. As I walked by, the secretary introduced us.

He smiled down at me as we shook hands, and I blurted, “Wow! You are some tall guy!”

“Only when I stand,” he responded, smiling broadly.

I looked up at him in disbelief so he said he would prove it. He placed two plastic chairs side by side and asked me to sit next to him. As we turned to face each other, our shoulders were almost aligned.

A small crowd had gathered, watching with amusement.

“Now stand up slowly,” he directed.

I rose gradually, straightening to my 5-feet-one-half inches. As I turned to look at him, his torso was still rising up, up, up.

Our audience laughed and applauded. He grinned and bowed.

I have tried this experiment numerous times and feel assured I’m short only when I stand. “You should see me sitting,” I say to anyone commenting on my stature.

Pauline Sahakian is a former Clovis English teacher, Fresno State composition and education instructor, and UC Merced Writing Project director. She was 1994 Fresno County Teacher of the Year, CA Teacher of the Year Finalist, and 2016 CSUF Noted Alumni Award recipient. Email: paulinesahakian@outlook.com.
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