Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What price an apology?


I read an article today about a man who spent over 30 years looking for his teacher, to make amends for a slight that had troubled him ever since. But why? And was it right? It's an amazing story.  

39 years ago, a boy named Larry asked to leave a well-liked teacher's class and did not offer a reason. The teacher, Mr. Atteberry, was gay during a time that this could get a teacher fired. Some students suspected his homosexuality, and teased Larry, who was often praised in class for good work. The teasing escalated to bullying, and Larry thought if he left the class and never spoke again to the teacher, it would stop. So he left. Then he regretted it ever after. He kept trying to find the teacher to apologize, and nearly four decades later, he did, through a news article. That's where the article I read, "A teacher, a student and a 39-year-long lesson in forgiveness," began. 

It's incredible what weighs on us, causes shame. This troubled this man for so long, and it's something I bet many would not even recall. How neat he kept trying and ultimately made amends.

But why...why did he pursue it for so long? What made fixing this so incredibly important in his life?

I tried to think back through childish mistakes I made, and to my shame, I imagine most of the hurts I caused fell into that "clueless and oblivious" bucket. I was probably hurtful to people, thoughtless, or lily-livered. I recall spending a lot of time thinking others owed me amends. Many times, I was wrong. A lot of times, I was right.

Sticking to the school example, I thought of Mrs. Morini, my senior year AP English teacher. She wore her hair like Frankenstein's bride, and (probably handmade) dresses cut in a straight, fitted Mad-Men style (think more Peggy than Joan -- not that fitted). She had a dozen or so of these dresses and she wore them in different colors, every day, with tall black heels. She was extremely petite, and, had anyone asked, probably self-identified as one who did not suffer fools gladly. 

She decided I was a fool and treated me as one all year long. She derided my interpretations, points of view, written perspectives, and, worst of all to an aspiring writer, my writing. She told me I wasn't very bright and wouldn't likely make much of myself. As the end of the year and graduation approached, I survived by looking forward and ignoring as much as possible where I was. I applied for the AP tests to place out of the "weeder" undergraduate classes. Mrs. Morini withdrew my application and did not tell me. When I tried to take the tests, she triumphantly told me she'd pulled my paperwork, and added that it had been done to spare me humiliation, because I simply was not smart enough to take the tests.

My fury was meaningless to her, and I remained unapologized to, uncompensated and unrequited in my quest to fix it. To fix her.

I took the placement exams and ultimately started college as nearly a sophomore, with a solid A average. And yes, I graduated in four years. If it ended there, it would seem as if fate (and my test taking skills) had righted the balance of the unfair universe. But that's not all; life isn't in a vacuum. What she did, that one act of vandalism and cruelty, set in motion a series of unfortunate events.

Because I was unable to take the test, I was set back in my college "graduate in four years" plan. My father required no more than four, and I had to achieve it. I knew money would be tight, too. So I'd need to work summers, versus take classes.

I checked into alternatives. I could take a couple of courses at the local community college, but this would force me to cut back work and earn less during the summer. I signed up for one, and tried to live as frugally as possible.

This also forced me to move to college two weeks early and spend hard-earned summer cash to take placement exams. I lived, alone, in the private dorm, lonelier and more lost than I had ever been in my life. And I am one who can stand to be alone. I met other stragglers, but it wasn't a good tale of bonding and unlikely friends.

If I hadn't gone to college early, it wouldn't have given a jealous classmate back home the opportunity to pursue my boyfriend, and put bugs in his ear about me being unfaithful. He wouldn't have forced an angry confrontation and ultimatum that lead me to give him his marching orders...away from me as fast as possible.

If I hadn't been so upset and so lonely and lost, I might not have turned to a good friend for comfort, shifting something nice into something romantic. He felt more than I did and I lost a best friend.

If I hadn't arrived early for the exams, I would not have met that odd girl, the punk one, who, because I am like that, I was friendly to and got to know. And not really like. Because she was sort of as prickly as the safety pins lining her clothing. Then I learned she was even pricklier than that -- she was knife sharp. The day I finally gathered my courage and told some pretty sorority girls to quit being mean to her became the day I learned some people can be even more vicious to those who try to help than to those who hurt. As I stood, silent and humiliated in the hallway, with the cruel words of the girl echoing in my ears, even meaner than the taunts of the sorority girls to her, I felt a wash of hate. 

I hated her. I hated the mean sorority girls. I hated being at college early. I hated missing my friends. I hated being so confused and lost. I hated this college. And I really, really hated Mrs. Morini, who, at the time, appeared to be the catalyst to it all. The one who ruined my life.

What she did was truly unforgivable -- not that she ever asked my forgiveness. But what came from that was all me. And probably, in there, a lot people -- mainly me -- owed others apologies. I had the chance to do so in some cases, and I took it. 

In the end, I learned to live with all that happened. Had none of it happened, I might not have what I have now, be who I am now. I might not have made friends with a girl I met at the French placement test, who introduced me to a girl from her dorm, who introduced me to the man I am married to now, and with whom I have two amazing kids. It all happened and it all lead to here.

But what would I think, now, if Mrs. Morini came to me with an apology?


What would someone from then think, now, if I came to them with apology?


What if I did someone some harm, even incidentally, but maybe they didn't realize, and I revealed it while begging forgiveness?


I often wonder about the value of an apology, when it is positive and when it is self-serving, when it does more good and when it does more harm. When you have to make it and when you have to take it. I wonder about the making of amends. There has to be a lot of wisdom in it, and I'm not sure many of us have enough of it.

8 comments:

Yolanda said...

[long response, sorry]

What a provoking piece, Julie. This question, in particular, "What if I did someone some harm, even incidentally, but maybe they didn't realize, and I revealed it while begging forgiveness?" There is a girl from high school whom I gossiped about relentlessly. My friends and I had a nasty nickname for her because she wore skintight jeans at a time when boy jeans and bell bottoms were coming back in style.

But I did this without ever revealing I wasn't really her friend. i even convinced dozens of people who were planing to skip her 16th birthday party to go, for no other reason than I wanted to prove I was popular enough to do so. It was plain, ugly, mean girl tactics.

But when I ran into her at the ten-year-reunion, she gave me a huge hug. She was happy to see me. I was nervous to see her, so sure she had learned what a two-faced b*tch I had been back in high school. But she didn't have a clue.

In truth, I do her an apology. She never did anything to me, but I used my social rank at the time to make her the punchline of my jokes.

But she doesn't know. Telling her might ease my soul, but what benefit would it be to her? Potentially destroy what may be good memories for her, so that I can clear my conscious?

Yeah, no. I'll live with whatever weight that adolescent behavior may still bare on my shoulders. I won't burden her with it.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh Yolanda, what a heavy story. We humans do tend to bond over shared disdain a little too often don't we. I have done it.

I think you are wise, though. You grew from it and the best amends you can make, I think, are to be kind to her and others as you are.

Sometimes things are simply our burdens to bear, right? To beg forgiveness is to ask another to shoulder our burdens for us, and sometimes that's not the right thing, I think.

Sometimes making amends is simply stopping, doing better. Sometimes it is apologizing. But those of us who have been wounded deeply and badly by others know that while an apology is nice, the stopping and changing is more important.

Mary G said...

Your posts so often make me think. Deeply. And this one is a classic.

I think apologies, whenever they come, are gifts. Probably the acknowledgement of the error, the noticing and remembering, are the crux of it.

For years I have wanted to go back to high school and apologise to the Jewish kids in one of my classes who were bullied by a teacher. I did not stand up for them and I should have. I should have confronted that teacher, but I didn't. I think we all have memories like that. Oh, for a time machine to stiffen the backbone of my fifteen year old self.

WordyDoodles said...

Terrific post, Julie. This is such a thorny question and I think your other commenters make good points about when and whether to make apologies. Love how deeply you're engaging with a tough question.

Julie Pippert said...

Mary, I agree that *often* apologies are gifts. It demonstrates a level of caring and value of you as a human being.

That said, I've been on the receiving end of being begged for forgiveness and it was over a boundary. I resented it. It was an intrusion.

When I think about it, those times (that I've resented what was being asked of me) were times that the person was regretful of the *problem* but not so much of how it affected me.

I was being asked to bless things as okay. When they didn't feel okay at all.

And, I suspected that nothing was likely to change. It was going to remain a pop-sorry-pop-sorry situation.

So I'm going to lean on my idea that the only truly gifted apology is one that is selfless. It is one that merely seeks to heal and amend.

It is not one that asks all of someone. Yes, you must reach forward and past and forgive, but I find, with true contrition, that's not a huge reach.

Unlike being asked to just paint something un-contrite and not repaired as okay.

In the case of Morini, I let go of my hate and anger for my own benefit, although I can recall it if need be, and it steeled me to be a solid line of defense for my own kids, starting with being engaged directly in the school.

KWIM?

So I suspect that although you did not stand up for those kids, you did for other people in the future, because you learned and grew from that sense of shame (which is why I think shame gets no credit where it is due). Therefore, I suspect, hearing that would truly make amends, if the opportunity arose.

Julie Pippert said...

Wordy, thank you so much!

Kathryn (@kat1124) said...

This was such a deeply personal post, Julie. Thank you for writing it.

I can't think of an apology, but there was something I did when I was a young, single, broke mom. I had a lawn guy, money got really tight and I couldn't afford to pay him. He stopped coming of course. I was ashamed but I simply didn't have the money to pay him what I owed him, which was a few hundred dollars.

Probably three or four years later I was going through some paperwork and found his old bill. I felt so ashamed, but I also was able to pay him. So I sent off a check for the full amount I'd owed him way back then (we didn't even live at that house anymore). I felt good that even though it probably wouldn't make much difference to him, I'd paid him what he was owed even if it was years later.

The note that I got back from him made me cry. He sent me a letter saying that he'd been so very shocked to receive my check, and how it had come at a time when he really, really needed that extra few hundred dollars. He said I'd restored his faith in the goodness of people, and thanked me profusely for not just letting it go. For caring enough to pay him even years later. It was just so touching, and the feeling I got in my heart from his letter will stay with me forever.

I will never forget how profound what to me was just making right a wrong, was to someone else. It's not the same as your forgiveness story, but your story reminded me of it.

Julie Pippert said...

Kat, I love that story. That's the true kind of making amends, the good kind. You just made right a wrong, did what you wish you could have years ago. You happened to get forgiveness and a moving story back, but you didn't ask for it. Thank you for bringing up the perfect example of the concept.