I Was Humiliated
I barely remember the past. But I do vividly remember the mortifying experience in 6th grade when my teacher embarrassed me in front of the class.
Sometimes I wonder why the Torah likens embarrassing someone in public to murder. Why it is such a grievous offense? Of course, I realize embarrassing others is not a good thing to do, but aren't there worse transgressions that warrant the comparison to murder?
In an effort to get to the bottom of this, I conducted an informal poll. One of the interesting results of my less-than-scientific research was that anyone who has ever been embarrassed in public remembers it, no matter how trivial the matter, no matter how irrelevant the issue, and no matter how long ago it occurred.
I consider myself a case in point. Unlike my husband who claims to remember staring out from behind the bars of his crib, I don’t have a good memory for incidents of the past. It’s mostly a blur of emotional and psychological impressions, rarely detailed, infrequently specific. But I do vividly remember the details of an embarrassing incident in 6th grade. It was during a classroom spelling bee, two teams of 12-year-old students.
It was in the final moments of the bee and I got flustered and made a dumb mistake and spelled a word wrong, losing the spelling bee for our team. (Of course I remember the word – and the mistake. "Cathedral" which I spelled "cathredal" – in case you’re wondering.)
The teacher then hit me on the head with a book. It was just a light tap. Even in today’s more enlightened world, it wasn’t abuse.
But I was humiliated. It was mortifying.
I remember nothing else of 6th grade. But the memory of that embarrassment has lingered throughout my life.
I don’t remember what happened after that. I assume there was a mild celebration on behalf of the winning team and then we returned to our desks and back to our studies. I remember nothing else of 6th grade (or 5th for that matter). But the memory of that embarrassment has lingered, not even that buried in the dark recesses of my subconscious.
And that gives me pause. Because I think that such an important part of what the Torah is teaching us is to focus on the impact of our words or actions – all of them, even those that seem relatively small or insignificant. And to remember to treat other human beings with respect.
I don’t think that teacher meant to hurt me. I think he would be shocked to discover I’m writing about this incident today. But I do believe that if he would have thought before he acted, he wouldn’t have done it.
This idea struck me powerfully as we approach Yom Kippur. Sometimes when we look back on our year (or our lives!) we can’t find that one big mistake, that one gigantic faux pas, that one life-changing or devastating error. And that’s a good thing! But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have work to do. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to examine our actions and make changes. Because it’s frequently the small things that make the difference, the small criticisms, the little teasing or “jokes” that hurt that most. And that’s where should put our focus, that’s where we all have room to grow. It takes small acts and words to build us up and equally small ones to tear us down.
One of my daughters recently moved. As she was unpacking, the neighbors kept showing up – to introduce themselves, to invite her kids over to play, to deliver cinnamon buns. They made my daughter – and even more importantly her children, feel so welcome in their new neighborhood. None of those individual actions is so remarkable, but they each made a significant difference.
If we treat people with respect, like they count, like we see them as valuable individuals, we are less likely to be so insensitive as to embarrass them in public. And unfortunately, the converse is also true. Indifference leads to insensitivity which leads to...
If my 6th grade teacher had realized that his actions would be remembered and recorded 50 years later, he would have taken a minute to reflect before letting that book fall on my head. We can all determine where to make use of this lesson in our own lives.