a lesson learned
One of the lessons that greatly shaped my life unfolded when I was a first-year teacher in my early twenties. I loved all my students, but I loved one little African American girl a little more than the rest. She was shy and beautiful, and reflected in her magnificent bronze eyes were the shadows cast by a hard life.
Midway through that year I got a phone call from the little girl’s mother requesting a meeting. This woman was clearly irate when we spoke. I remember standing outside of the conference room door watching her as she entered the school. As she walked down that long corridor toward me, it would not have looked incongruous if she had had a silk jacket draped over her shoulders and a skinny old man running next to her squirting water over her head.
I was scared. For the life of me I couldn’t think of what I had done, how I could have wronged this little girl I so adored.
Once we settled into the conference room this woman opened fire. She berated me, using curse words I had yet only heard in rap music, for announcing to the entire class that her daughter had gotten a 44% on a math test.
In an instant my vision cleared and it all unfolded in my head. I had done exactly what this woman had accused me of doing out of inexperience and a genuine desire to motivate a child to do better.
When that formidable mouth finally closed, my first thought was to defend my actions, to mention that this child was not doing very well in math, that she wasn’t doing a lick of homework, and that I had been spending part of my lunch hour trying to help her. It’s part of my nature to be right all the time, and, quite honestly, I could probably defend a Parka to a Death Valley ditch digger in Mid-July.
For some reason I decided it was the day to grow up a little bit, and I said to this woman who had spent much of her life fighting to be treated fairly and with respect, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I was trying to motivate your daughter to do better. I can see now that I chose the wrong way. This is my first year and I’m just learning.”
For a second I thought the skin might just melt off of her face and puddle on the ground, so unfamiliar was she with the direction our conversation had just taken. I think at the very same moment I decided to do the right thing, she realized that I had not done her daughter wrong out of prejudice, injustice, or malice. I had done her daughter wrong out of stupidity.
The meeting ended with both of us smiling sheepishly and slinking back into our respective corners of the world. Over the course of that year she and I forged an awkward friendship around what we had learned that day. I learned something that has stayed with me all these years later as a mother – that shame doesn’t motivate. More importantly, I learned to own my mistakes, and I learned the power of a genuine apology.