A Lesson In Shame
This week, after stopping at the Starbucks in my old hometown, I took a little shortcut down a side street in order to avoid the traffic on the busy avenue.
And I was accosted and beaten.
By a memory.
It’s not an incident that I had completely forgotten. There have been several occasions in the last half-century when this memory crept into my consciousness. The only difference is that this time, it did not creep. It came stomping back in steel-toed boots.
I know why it is particularly vivid right now. It is because we are bombarded with headlines of bullying and harrassment. And so our own experiences in that mean realm shake off their dust and demand some daylight.
I was twelve. I know this because the incident was about my bra, and I did not wear one until I was 12. Not that I needed one even then, but my mother had noticed that all the other girls in my class were wearing bras, and she kindly suggested that I wear one too – so that I would not be teased.
But wearing one caused me to be teased.
It was Summer, and we were at a picnic at the home of my Great-Aunt Lillian. Aunt Lil had a tiny home but a very nice backyard, and so she hosted lots of picnics when I was a kid. Several times a year, all the family and many good friends ate hotdogs and drank beer and played cards and laughed in her nice yard.
When I was 12, my companion at these parties was the daughter of my parents’ best friends. Jan was 10. This was an awkward age for both of us. At 12, I was no longer interested in playing games with the little kids. And at 10, Jan was not really welcome in the circle of snickering teenagers.
So after our share of hotdogs and potato chips, Jan and I asked our mothers if we could take a walk to the nearby shopping center.
This shopping center – that now hosts a Starbucks – was two blocks from Aunt Lil’s. And although it was on the busiest street in town, there was a back way in – down a little side street that began right near my Aunt’s house – the street I drove down just this week.
Our mothers – miraculously – said yes. Take the side street and stay on the sidewalk, and yes, we could go.
That was so cool. There was a Woolworth’s in that shopping center, which held aisles and aisles full of junk to look at. And there were birds and goldfish and hamsters in the back, so we didn’t even need any money to be entertained.
Jan and I started walking down that quiet street – there were small ranch homes on the north side of the street, and the south side contained just the fenced backs of the stores that lined the main road.
A young boy came out of a driveway on his bicycle. Behind him were two other boys. They all dropped their bikes and came over to us.
And this young boy – younger than me, I think – perhaps ten like Jan – pointed at my shoulder and yelled, “Bra strap! Bra strap!” like he had seen something disgusting. Like I had shown him something disgusting. Like I was disgusting.
At 12, that’s how I felt. This was in 1963, when it was indeed a terrible thing for your bra to show. Now, it seems that girls want to wear racer-back tees that show their fancy bras, and there doesn’t seem to be anything so terrible about it. But you will NEVER see me dressed that way. Because of that day.
I was humiliated. I fell such shame. My bra strap often showed if I wore a sleeveless top. I had scoliosis, and the crookedness of my right shoulder shifted my bra to the right.
This young boy saw and laughed and pointed it out to his friends. And they laughed.
The tears welled up in my eyes.
I said, “I have a crooked back. I was born that way. And so my bra shows. You must be a really mean person to laugh at someone because of something they can’t help.”
Surprisingly the kids got on their bikes and rode away. They didn’t bother us any more.
I stood there on the sidewalk though and cried.
And Jan said, “Don’t let that little jerk make you cry!”
And I dried my tears and we went to Woolworths and watched the hamsters run on their little wheels.
It’s such a small thing. It wasn’t so awful. It was just some little kid who made me feel bad about myself for a minute. But feeling bad about yourself never really just lasts a minute, does it?
But looking back on it now – in the light of the meanness we see and hear so much today – surprisingly, I don’t feel so bad anymore.
Because I see three good lessons I have learned from that minute.
First: Little Jan, at 10 years old, gave me some amazing advice. “Don’t let that jerk make you cry.” She was so right. I don’t have to give anyone that power.
Second: I shamed that boy for shaming me, telling he must be a mean person to make fun of me. Did it make him stop? I don’t really know why he rode away. But maybe it helped a little. Maybe he thought about it once or twice since then.
Third: I may have been only twelve, but I already knew that it was wrong to ridicule someone’s looks. It seems there are lots of adults who don’t know that yet.
Let me change that to FOUR lessons learned.
Hamsters make you feel better.