I stood in my socks in our unfinished basement. My body tingled with anticipation. But from my heels to my head, I tried to make my body as straight and flat as the poured concrete it was pressed against. I looked straight ahead, as levelly as possible. My father held a metal ruler flat against the top of my head, its sharp edged pressed perpendicular to the wall. “Ahora, ¡quédate quieto!” he commanded.
I froze myself, not just my bones and muscles and face, but all the way to my cells and the blood in my beating heart, I froze. It was important to keep perfectly still or everything would be inaccurate and ruined.
My father ran the freshly sharpened point of a pencil along the edge of the ruler against the wall, making a clean, straight line. I could hear the even steady scratch of the lead.
I didn’t need to be told to step out from under the ruler and get out of the way. With one hand my Dad held the flat metal tab at the end of his heavy duty tape measure against the floor where my heels had been a moment before. Pushing its right angle securely into the corner, he then jammed it still more firmly, just for good measure. “Pón tu dedo aquí, y mantenlo fijo.” Nervously, I obeyed, getting down on the cool floor and putting my finger against the tab, careful not to let it move. I felt him push his own finger against mine, as if to nail it to the right spot. Then, one end anchored, he slowly raised himself up, unspooling the tape measure up the wall toward the freshly drawn black line.
Watching silently, I saw the numbers appear from inside the metal housing, first inches, then the larger, bold “1” in red: the first foot. “2.” The second foot. The inches rolled by and I counted them rapidly in my mind—“32,” “33,” “34,” “35,” “36”—then the big red “3”: the third foot. But I already knew I was more than three feet tall. I couldn’t even remember ever being less than three feet tall. “37,” “38,” “39.”
Anyway, I was good at math. I knew there were twelve inches in a foot, and so I knew that the key number was 47; that after 47 the next inch would be 48 and 48 was 4 feet: my goal. As my father’s hand crept steadily up the wall toward the pencil mark on the wall, I watched more closely as the inches crept upward into the mid-forties. It slowed down, I could see the tall, half-inch and even the shorter, quarter-inch hash marks march by. “45,” “46,” “46 1/2.” It slowed to a crawl. “47,” “47 1/4,” “47 1/2.” Almost there. “47 3/4.” Focused intently on the parade of numbers, I’d lost sight of where the housing was in relation to the mark on the wall. I was surprised when my gaze came to an abrupt halt. The tape measure had stopped. The numbers held still, the red number “4” remained inside the housing, waiting implacably.
I had failed to become four feet tall.
“Suéltalo hijo”: my father’s voice broke through the stupor of disappointed disbelief into which I’d had fallen. My end of the tape measure obediently snapped back up to my father’s hand.
I was disappointed, but all was not lost. I’d been through this before. I knew that the absolute measure was only the first part, and not even the most important one. What mattered more than my height was how tall I was compared to other boys my age.
I followed my father, past the engraved plaque—“Dr. Antonio E. Colás, M.D., Ph.D.”—by the doorway to his den, into the dense, comforting aroma of pipe tobacco mixed with old papers and books. There, in its place on the metal shelving, was the thick, red, hard bound volume with the words “CIBA-GEIGY Scientific Tables” embossed on the spine. I did not know what those words meant. But I knew that inside the book, and (because I’d sneaked in here many times to look at it) precisely where inside the book, there was a page on which two groups of lines gracefully snaked their way from the lower left to the upper right of a graph. The lower group was for weight, which I did not care about it. The upper group was for height. At the top of the page was the chart title: “2-20 years: Boys” and below that “Stature-for-age and Weight-for-age percentiles.”
I’d learned what this meant two years before, just before my 5thth birthday. Having measured me, my father showed me the graph, and carefully put a small plus sign at the point where my age intersected with my height. The plus sign was just above the lowest line of the upper group.
Then, standing next to my father, who was seated at his desk, I watched as he drew a row of ten, faceless stick-figure boys on a blank sheet of paper. Each boy was a little taller than the boy to his right, my left as I looked at them. Next he drew another boy, all the way to the left of the page, who was a little shorter than the shortest boy. Above that boy’s head he wrote my name: “Yago.” Then he explained to me that “percentile” allowed me to see how I measure up against all the other boys my age: how many were taller than me, and how many were shorter. He was careful to note that even though his drawing made me look like the shortest boy of all, there were actually four boys shorter than me (out of 100), whom he had not drawn. That meant I was in the 5th percentile.
There were also other plus signs on the page, all marked above or very near to the upper-most line. They were for my oldest brother. He was nine years older than me, played basketball and already had two gold trophies: a basketball player standing tall, reaching high above his head with a tiny golden basketball cradled in his palm. My goal was to have my plus signs bound up the page so they’d be next to his—that, and to get trophies of my own.
Already last year, at 6, having shot up 6 1/2 inches from the year before, I’d tasted the thrill of passing half the boys in the row. Now at age 7, what mattered to me even more than being four feet tall, which I was not, was how high my plus sign would climb on that ladder of lines, where I would stand in that row of stick-figure boys.
My father opened the book to the percentile tables and laid it flat on a work table. He hovered the fine-point pen he’d removed from his plastic pocket protector just above the page, following the line up from the number “7” printed above the word “Age” on the x-axis, while his left index finger moved to meet it from the left-hand side of the page, along an imaginary line just below the number “48.” Before he even marked the spot with the little plus-sign, I could see where they’d meet: just below the middle one of the group of lines. Not only had I not moved up any lines, I’d actually moved down, from just above the middle line last year to just below it this year.
One of the stick-figure boys had shouldered confident past me, dropping me from 5th place to 6th. I had not grown fast enough. I did not measure up. What was wrong with me?