National secretary of Short Statured People of Australia, Alicia Jenkins, speaks about her life with dwarfism.

Stamping your authority on a classroom of unruly teenagers is a challenge enough for any high school science teacher.

More trying, when like Alicia Jenkins, you’re only four foot one (124 centimetres).

“Height is an advantage,” she admits. “But I can’t physically tower over them so I have to find other ways to show them that this is not somebody they should mess with.

“Sometimes the students behave beautifully for me and then go away and give some of the other teachers a hard time,” she laughs.

But with a steely gaze behind thick black frames, it’s readily apparent that Ms Jenkins is no pushover.

Born with one of the rarest forms of dwarfism - to parents of average height - she was not expected to survive cardiac issues as an infant and had to undergo major heart surgery when she was five-years old.

She has endured the loss of her only brother Jamie in a tragic air crash, and has twice competed in the Paralympic games, swimming at Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. Just four years before the former, she had never swum at competition level before.

Alicia with her brother Jamie.

Alicia with her brother Jamie.

She juggled her professional sporting career with study; a bachelor's degree and a graduate diploma at the University of Newcastle. But she shrugs off questions about how she handled the workload.

“My parents were pretty tough on me and they would strive to make my life as normal as possible, to make sure I was independent and strong,” she said.

“No excuses were ever made for me. I didn’t have anything modified.”

Since graduating from university, Ms Jenkins has settled at Warabrook and has spent the entirety of her career in the Catholic education system. She currently works at St Catherine’s College in Singleton where she oversees welfare as the student coordinator.  

In the role, she mentors students who are struggling academically or socially or who are having issues at home. Ms Jenkins believes her condition puts her in a unique position to help students navigate the sometimes troubled waters of teenagehood.  

“The students will come to me and say ‘I need to talk to you Miss, you’ll understand,’” she said. “One of the reasons I went into welfare, is because being a teenager is difficult and being a four foot teenager is even more difficult. There’s a lot of wisdom that I gained going through that.”

Ms Jenkins estimates she has taught the periodic table, biology and chemistry to tens of thousands of students throughout her 15-year career.

Alicia during her career as a professional swimmer.

Alicia during her career as a professional swimmer.

The children are often “not sure what to make” of her initially; but develop a relationship that is marked by mutual respect and the occasional playful banter.

“The kids have learnt to be very comfortable with me through humour. If there’s a puddle, they’ll say ‘don’t walk through that Miss, you’ll have to swim’. It’s important to be able to have a laugh at yourself.”

But her pupils are also “well versed” in what life with dwarfism means for the more than 1150 people believed to have the condition in Australia.  

They usually come away with a high degree of empathy and understanding, Ms Jenkins says, even in a society where “little people” - the term that members of the short statured community use to refer to themselves -  are frequently the target of jokes and ridicule.

“A lot of the little kids will come and ask me questions. People need to ask questions because people are naturally curious,” she said.

“As a teacher I believe in the power of education and that includes educating the little kids about myself.”

But Ms Jenkins has also been taught lessons of her own - including learning when to let down her guard. 

“I’m fiercely independent and one of the things I’ve had to learn is if I’m carrying something heavy and one of the kids comes up and says ‘Miss, can I help you?’ it’s okay to say yes.”

Ms Jenkins says she “muddled through life” on her own until 2013, when she discovered the Short Statured People of Australia association. Since then she has been appointed national secretary, and has been tasked with organising a national convention to mark the organisation’s 50th anniversary; which will be held at Myuna Bay next September.

People need to ask questions because people are naturally curious."

Alicia Jenkins, National Secretary, Short Statured People of Australia

The conference will allow members to take part in social trips to the Hunter Valley and Port Stephens, and receive updates on new research from medical professionals and specialists.

Sessions will be held for teenagers on how to deal with their short stature in the playground and for parents of infants and young children with the condition.

Up to 200 people are expected to attend from Australia and New Zealand and the association is seeking corporate sponsorship so its older and less mobile members can make the trip to Lake Macquarie. 

Despite the obstacles that today face people with dwarfism, Ms Jenkins says there has been enormous progress for the community in the 50 years since the association was formed.

“Back then most people of short stature were receiving government pensions and working in workshops,” she said. “The opportunities weren’t there and people’s understanding of what it means to be a person of short stature wasn’t there.”

Like many other 44-year-old women, Ms Jenkins drives and has a mortgage. She points out one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the United States is a “little person”.

“We are just everyday people who have everyday jobs. But occasionally I might need to ask for help to get something off the top shelf.”