Tall stories

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Short beds, low doorways and tiny furniture may be a pain in the neck, but they are minor difficulties next to the prejudice and discrimination faced by people who stand head and shoulders above the crowd. Neil Sears finds out about the highs and lows of a life spent looking down.

It's no joke being tall. Standing head and shoulders above friends and colleagues more often than not also means finding your head stuck well above the parapet. That was certainly true for 6ft 7in teacher Fred Bennema, whose height put his livelihood at stake - he was sacked after just one day at a primary school in Holland.

Apparently, the headteacher, Jan Bartelds, stepped back, raised his eyes, and told Fred he would terrify the children. "We can't subject them to your presence," Mr Bartelds reportedly said. "It just doesn't look right."

Fred, now jobless, believes he has been the victim of unfair discrimination. "It is ridiculous," he says. "To young kids, all adults are giants."

The governors of the school, in Groningen, are investigating the case, but in the meantime Fred has become a martyr for discrimination suffered by the extremely tall everywhere.

Evidence suggests the human race is growing taller, but society seems not to have caught up yet - if the growing number of victims of "height discrimination" who are turning to the law is anything to go by. One British barrister, Helen Jackson, represents 40 people seeking legal redress for alleged "size-ism". And former forklift truck driver Glyn Locking, 6ft 10in, is trying to bring a case that could change the law. Glyn claims he was sacked for being too tall - and even that his local jobcentre claimed it was unable to find him a job because of his stature.

For people who work with children, height can attract even more attention, as Tim Hull, 6ft 10in, verifies. Tim works as a residential social worker at the Sunfield School for children with learning difficulties in Clent, near Kidderminster, Hereford and Worcester. He says diminutive children are happy to have him towering over them - it is only other adults who occasionally make it a workplace issue.

"At my first job, they asked me how I felt my height would affect my relationship with the children," says Tim. "I said I thought they'd enjoy it.

"My height acts as an ice-breaker. Children feel they can relate to you. You're an unforgettable image - and I've certainly never found children have been frightened by my presence. They just always want to compare their hands and feet with mine.

"The people who can have a problem with it are the adults. They sometimes see it as a threat. They don't see the personality, just the physical appearance. "

Twenty-nine-year-old Tim, who alongside his brother, 6ft 9in Andrew, is half of Britain's tallest set of twins, is entirely positive about the effect his height has on his work with children. He had more practical difficulties in his previous career as an electrician, when he had to carry out work on cramped narrowboats.

And if he is ever worried that his physical distance from the children could become a problem, he deals with it. "There was a flare-up with one of the lads last night - a tiny character," says Tim. "I went down on my knees so I was eye-to-eye with him, and had the matter controlled in seconds. Or if they're disruptive, I sometimes stand up to my full height to gain an advantage. "

Tim's confidence is heartening for those who feel unfairly singled out because of their height. The fact that tall people can sometimes feel like members of an oppressed minority is shown by the popularity of the Tall Persons Club of Great Britain. Since it was founded by Phil Heinricy, 6ft 8in, in 1991, membership has rocketed to 1,700. The women range from 5ft 10in to 6ft 8in, and the men from 6ft 4in to 7ft 6Ein - namely Chris Greener, Britain's tallest man. The tallest teacher is 6ft 10in and works in London - his pupils call him Superman.

"Originally the idea was just to gather information about where to buy clothing and beds," says Phil. "But then we realised the importance of giving tall youngsters tall adults to talk to, and discovered how much tall adults enjoyed talking to each other without having to bend down."

Now the members meet regularly on a social basis - they call themselves "tallies" - often giving average-sized bystanders the temporary illusion of having shrunk. But Phil is well aware of the discrimination tallies can face in the workplace - he says schools should recognise that the physical presence of tall teachers can be a valuable asset in a rowdy classroom.

Anne Thorne, 6ft 1in, is on maternity leave from her job as a French teacher at Ysgol Bryn Offa, a 1,000-pupil comprehensive in Wrexham. She has been teaching since 1978, and has never been afraid to show her height. Although she's met prejudice from adults, she has always been able to rise above it - but she has found that schools just aren't designed for the tall.

"When I was at college, staff implied I might be too tall to teach in junior schools," says Anne, cuddling her three-month-old baby, Daniel. "And since then there's certainly been prejudice at interviews. If I go to an interview and I'm head and shoulders above the headteacher you can bet I won't get the job - few heads like being looked down on."

Finding a school where height is not an issue with the head is only part of the problem - there is the furniture to consider too.

When Anne injured her back, as many tall people are prone to do, her posture became all important - and it didn't take her long to realise the size and quality of school furniture was exacerbating her pain.

"Offices and industry are pretty good about arranging adjustable chairs and suitable desks and tables," says Anne. "But education rarely has the money to look after people. I was having to bend down low to work at my table at school, and it was no good for my back.

"Luckily, a keen woodwork teacher put some six-inch extensions on my table legs. Now the problem's my chair.

"But what with bending over children, and with classrooms being too small, my back is put under a lot of strain. The chairs in our assembly hall are awful too, as are the settings of white-boards, because they're not on rollers. And overhead projectors are too low, so I always make sure I sit down when I use them."

Nastiest of all was Anne's unfortunate collision with one of the steel springs which pull doors closed. She was concussed and had to take time off.

And she says the difficulties don't end there - there's getting dressed for work, for one thing.

"Clothes are expensive for tallies," she says. "The dresses I wear to school cost up to Pounds 60, when someone of average height would just pay Pounds 20.

"And sometimes things are simply unavailable. When I was living in Bognor I needed some court shoes for school, size nine. I found nothing in Portsmouth or Southampton, so I had to get a train to London. And they were expensive. " But, like Tim, Anne is happy to stand tall in school - and says it can be a bonus where discipline is concerned.

"When I started teaching I used to wear four-inch heels at the start of term to make a bit more impact," she says. "I only stopped doing it because it's no good for your back.

"And I don't need shoes for my height to be a help around the corridors at school. People see me from a distance and say 'Thorne's coming'. Although it can be a bit embarrassing when you're addressing a group of children and you discover there's a teacher among them. "But it is important to remember that being tall only gives you a few more minutes' impact. People notice you quickly, but once that's over it's just you."

Where Anne and her fellow tall teachers are concerned, that "just you" at least encompasses a nature sensitive to the difficulties encountered by tall children, which is another tale. Always expected to be more mature than their shorter peers, tall pupils can have it tough in class, so they are relieved when they have a tall teacher they can relate to.

In the Netherlands, Europe's tallest country, and in spite of the harsh treatment apparently dispensed to Fred Bennema, tall pupils are treated with a measure of respect. There's even an initiative to raise the height of pupils' desks to accommodate their increasing size.

Anne says British schools have a lot of catching up to do - but she remains upbeat about being up there. "When I was 16, I was told by an aunt 'You're tall - be proud of it'," she says. "Hopefully I have done. And, on balance, I've certainly found it's an advantage in teaching."

The Tall Persons Club of Great Britain can be contacted at 29 Stanhope Street, Hereford HR4 0HA. Tel: 07000 825512 10 replies for cheeky children

You must be brilliant at basketball And you must be good at miniature golf

Shouldn't you have been a policeman instead of a teacher? If I were I'd arrest you for abuse of an old joke

Do you have trouble buying clothes? No, I use my credit cards

Are you standing on a box? No, you must be standing in a hole

Is it cold up there? No, warm air rises and I'm nearer the sun

I bet you didn't smoke - it stunts your growth. I had to - otherwise I'd have been 8ft 4in

I bet you've got your head in the clouds Who said that? I can't see you.

What's the weather like up there? When you grow up you'll find out

You must be great at painting ceilings Let me introduce myself: my name's Michelangelo

Have you been standing in a grow-bag? Well, you obviously haven't

From newsletter of the Tall Persons Club of Great Britain

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