January 13, 2016

Code Red

The first time, it seemed unusual. “Psst… Code Red!” “What?” “Over there!”

As I walked toward the locker room at my gym, I heard whispering from a group of teenage employees who were folding towels. The words “Code Red” sounded serious, but their expressions were decidedly not.

The second time, it seemed personal. “Code Red, locker room.” I looked over my shoulder, and one girl and two boys were huddled, whispering, giggling.

I don’t know if “Code Red” is my nickname (due to hair color, perhaps?) or if it’s their secret phrase for people whose appearance they find amusing, but I walked away convinced that the teens were making fun of me. There’s plenty to make fun of: I’m overweight and awkward, even though I’ve been working out regularly for years. I wear silly, colorful headbands. I do not fear the brutal honesty of leggings.

And yet, those kids cut me down. For a moment, they made me feel like my 14-year-old self who signed up for summer school gym so that I could avoid the judgmental stares of my classmates.

I climbed on to the treadmill and seethed.

What could I do?

I could complain to the manager. I’m a loyal, longtime customer. My membership dues entitle me to clean towels delivered with basic respect.

I could vote with my dollars and quit this place. I could find a friendlier gym, or I could buy a balaclava and a head lamp, and become a January Minnesota outdoor nighttime runner. Those people are badass.

I could change the way I dress. Perhaps they would stop laughing if I hid my flabby mom body under an oversized T-shirt and men’s sweatpants.

I could go home and binge-watch Netflix in a judgment-free zone, wearing whatever the hell I want.

I could hold my head high, keep on exercising, and remind myself of all the things I have that the teens lack: A loving spouse, great kids, my own house, a job that doesn’t involve folding strangers’ gym towels, the wisdom and perspective of 20 extra years.

And that’s when I realized how ridiculous I was being.

They’re teenagers. I’m not.

The experience triggered an emotion that I recognized from my own adolescence: the feeling of being confident one moment and a withered mess the next, all because somebody looked at me in a way that cut through my very humanity and reduced me to a joke.

But there’s more to being a teenager.

There’s playfulness. There’s naivete. There’s a world view in which people you barely know are barely people at all, but supporting characters in a play that’s all about you and your inner circle.

When I was younger, my friends and I made up nicknames and back stories for people we didn’t know. We laughed about them. Strangers who looked or dressed funny would have been an easy target. We didn’t think it was mean because the jokes were only for us, and we’d never tell the fat lady in the funky headband how ridiculous she looked. We thought we were clever and sneaky. Teenagers always think they’re sneaky.

Maybe the kids at the towel desk were delivering the delayed justice that I deserved for once seeing people as caricatures instead of human beings worthy of respect and kindness.

Or maybe they were just being teenagers.

The next time I’m at the gym, I’ll smile and say hello. I’ll thank them for providing me with a clean and neatly folded towel. And I’ll wish them well.

It seems like the grown-up thing to do.

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