When you’re the odd kid out at a small Catholic grammar school, you’re destined to get picked last for every kickball game. In my tiny class of 17, the odd kid out was me. I suppose it was not only inevitable, but also a precursor for every success I’ve had. But at the time, it was traumatic, since, as middle-school popularity goes, I had several things going against me.
First, I kind of enjoyed learning, which was completely uncool. I did my homework, I tried to get the right answers, and I refused to let anyone copy off me. Except for the boy I had a crush on. I helped him out once … and then felt incredibly guilty for the rest of the week. I was, undeniably, a goody-two-shoes.
Second strike against me was totally out of my control: my family was not rich. We lived in “that” side of town, or as I like to joke, eight houses and one drug dealer from the freeway. The freeway separated my sleepy, boring town from the crime-ridden city, which would later be called the “homicide capital of the country.” However, there was this handy little footbridge that went up and over the freeway … right at the end of my street. Anyone running from police cars on the other side of the freeway could handily find escape in our neighborhood.
Okay, really, it wasn’t that exciting or dangerous. We neighborhood kids played tag on our front lawns, and careened up and down the block on our bikes. Still, I did not have everyone over for swimming birthday parties in my backyard. The only pool we had was plastic and about 18 inches deep.
Strike three was my arm. My early medical records call my condition “congenital microdactyly.” Yeah, exactly what the Latin says: I was born with a small hand. To be more specific, my right elbow is fused, the bones in my lower arm barely grew at all from when I was a baby, and I have this tiny hand with three little fingers. No one else in my tiny grammar school class had that, and although it made little difference in the early years, by the time we were in junior high, my friends had all abandoned me for the “cool” crowd, which was the rest of the class. And, at the time, I was utterly convinced the reason they all stopped wanting to hang out with me was because of my stupid, ugly, rotten arm. It was, in my young view, the cause of all bad things that happened to me. I would eventually discover that I was totally wrong, but that was my reality at the time.
High school couldn’t come fast enough, as junior high dragged to an end. The last big hurdle before high school was The Eighth Grade Play. This was an honor-laden tradition, at my elementary school. The most popular kids always ended up with the lead roles. It was, I thought, my last chance at redemption, my last chance to prove to all those jerks who picked me last for kickball that I was, too, cool, and perfectly capable of doing anything I wanted.
While most of the previous classes got do actual known theatrical works, we got the less-well-known “Magical Musicals,” which consisted of a seemingly random collection of songs chosen by the music teacher, who was drawing heavily on The Little Mermaid. There was a sprinkling of stuff from Little Shop of Horrors and Les Miserables, but most of it was by Disney.
As the solos got assigned, I sat patiently waiting for mine. I was in the church choir and was feeling confident. After all, I could hear when people around me were singing the wrong notes, when they were off pitch. I could pick out harmonies, and taught myself to read music more or less. Singing was something I could do. But at the end of class, when, as expected, the Queen of the Popular Crowd got the best songs, and the rest of the solos were handed out, I was without one. I was disappointed, but there was a ray of hope.
“That’s it for today,” our teacher said, “but we might add another solo or two. Probably Ariel’s solo from The Little Mermaid. We’ll talk about it next week.”
On our way back to homeroom, I planned. I would have a solo part in The Eighth Grade Play, and then they would have to respect me. I made a mental note to look for my Little Mermaid soundtrack. Of course, I didn’t have to look hard. The soundtrack was in my tape player, of course, since it was, secretly, my favorite movie. A little voice in the back of my head wondered if this really was my ticket to respect, since it was no longer cool to like The Little Mermaid. But I decided to ignore that little voice. If anyone asked how I knew all the words to the song, I could just say, “Oh, it USED to be my favorite movie.”
I dug out pen and notebook, and set the tape deck next to me on the bed. Painstakingly, I hit play, stop, rewind, play, stop, rewind, for what seemed like hours until I had transcribed every single lyric into my notebook. I then spent the next week listening to the song incessantly, memorizing every beat. The next week in music class, I knew I’d get the solo. No one else cares enough, I thought, no one else would work this hard to sing a stupid Little Mermaid song. At that point, it wasn’t about what song I would sing. Clearly, any song was good enough for me, so long as it was a solo.
The next week in music class we practiced and practiced the choral numbers. And we watched some of the soloists prefect their performances. We did that over and over for the next several weeks. I went in there every week, hoping that the teacher would ask for tryouts for the part, but she never asked. “She forgot,” I said to myself one week near the end. “Oh well. High school is almost here. It doesn’t matter.”
In fact, that day, I had other, grown-up things on my mind, like the fact that I had, for the first time, gotten my period. Really, I just wanted to go home. Music class, let alone standing up in front of everyone to sing a song, one I would probably get teased for knowing, was the last, last thing I wanted to do. But it was apparently my fate. I ended up sitting in the exact middle of my classmates when the music teacher asked if anyone knew the words to the Little Mermaid solo. I looked around at my silent classmates. Everyone was looking to see who would put their hand up. No one did, and I finally, sort-of, kind-of half-raised my hand.
“Kelly?” was the surprised response from the teacher. “Um, okay, stand up.”
Before I could think about it, she hit play and I was standing in the middle of my class singing along with Ariel. I finished, and the teacher hit stop. Our gymnasium was awfully silent. Either it was really good or really bad, because no one was even moving. And then it happened.
“That was really good, Kelly,” I heard her voice say. No, not the teacher. The Queen of the Popular Crowd. Relief washed over me, and I totally forgot about wanting to go home.
“Yeah, good job,” several of her minions chimed in.
I did it. See, they did think I was good at something—something other than school. I knew I was good at something, and now they did too, because I finally had the courage to just do what I wanted. I had been true to myself, and I had worked hard. The success of that moment was exhilarating.
That moment was over twenty years ago now, but it is still vividly real in my imagination, and its lesson enduring. In fact, I could have picked a hundred other moments in life when I dared to let Fabulous Me out of the box I tend to keep her in. Like many others, I sometimes hide, or disguise, or misplace the lady I discovered that day in eighth grade. It is a conscious decision to be fabulous, a decision I try to make on a daily basis.
Some days I’m more successful than others. On the really good days, the moments of daring, where I listened to my heart and followed my dreams and my desires, divorced from my inner critic and others’ expectations, my life has shot off like a rocket in exciting and new directions. The results of such forays have been stunning: Valedictorian of my college class and two gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. Fabulous Kelly hasn’t failed me yet, and honestly, I don’t think she ever will.
Kelly Crowley, a sports fanatic who happened to be born with a “funny right arm,” is a two-time, two-sport Paralympian. In 2012, she raced as a professional cyclist with Primal/Map My Ride Women’s Team, and won two bronze medals in cycling at the London Paralympic Games. Previously, she won two gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. Kelly was the valedictorian of her class at Santa Clara University, and has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Today, she is a USA Swimming coach and a sought-after speaker.