“You’re too small!” I heard that sentence throughout my childhood; too small for roller coasters, too small to play basketball, to small to reach the kitchen cabinets. As a child, I didn’t like to be small, because it meant there were things I couldn’t do. As I got older, it made me feel that way in many other aspects of my life; too small to speak up, too small to take a stand, too small to be any help.
Growing up in Westhampton Beach, I reclaimed my smallness. I would walk down to the beach alone, and small meant I could nimbly climb to the top of the old pink lifeguard chair and see for what seemed like miles. Small meant disappearing into the ocean like a fish, only to pop up again several feet down the shore. Small meant adventuring down by the Cupsogue boardwalk, scurrying under woodpiles and playing with friends among the dunes. I can still hear my mom telling me to “flip!” when I got home – meaning flip my head so she could sift through my hair, making sure I hadn’t brought any ticks home with me. I have had one or two ticks removed from the back of my head – moms are always right!
I grew up small in size, but big in spirit, which is something I learned running through those sandy dunes. One summer evening, I was about six or seven, and our neighbors and my family were down by the boardwalk. Us five kids were exploring as usual, when we noticed the neighbor’s dog, a Jack Russell puppy, was nowhere to be found. We looked around, and eventually heard a small whimper coming from under the boardwalk. Everyone tried to peer under, and saw Rosie, trapped underneath, with her leash wrapped around the support poles. There was barely any space between the boardwalk and the sand – probably less than a foot. Rescuing Rosie, quite a big job, called for someone small. Someone who could wriggle and squeeze and army crawl under the boardwalk. Someone like me.
Amid a bit of panic and discussion as to how to free tangled Rosie, I was able to scoot away. I got on the ground, tried to make myself as small as possible, and started my crawl. I made it about five feet before the parents noticed where I had gone. I trudged along, under the boardwalk, and finally reached Rosie. I untied her leash and unclipped her, setting her free! I went in reverse, and wriggled out from under the boardwalk. Covered in sand, I was thanked and appreciated. “Good thing you’re so small!” said my neighbor. “Good thing I’m small?” I thought to myself. Small means I can’t do things! Small means I can’t go in the deep end of the pool, or cross the street alone.
I always thought small meant I got less than the bigger kids – but no! Small means I have something else to offer. It means scrappy, adventurous, and helpful; it means I could climb under the boardwalk and rescue Rosie. Small means I could run in the dunes and swim in the ocean and climb to the top of the lifeguard chair and see what felt like the whole world waiting for me.
Westhampton Beach made me realize how much more I could be than “small.” Crawling through the dunes like a hermit crab taught me how to be as big and powerful as a shark. Days spent out on Moriches bay, pushing the boat after we’d run aground taught me how to be resourceful, resilient, and strong. Quiet nights alone on the beach staring up at the stars reminded me once again of how small we all are, but helped me uncover what kind of impact I wanted to make on this very big world. Some of my biggest life decisions were made sitting in the sand hearing the ocean crash. Today, I’m still a whopping five foot two. But I’m more than small – and having room to grow out east helped me learn how big I can really be.