Sometimes the lesson learned is not perpetuating the behavior. 

Tears stung his eyes, then the back of his throat, then ‘Oh God’ the breathing thing started; the thing where he tried to keep from crying and couldn’t catch his breath. His cousins stared. He couldn’t stop. They looked at him not so much with anger for what he’d done that he just got chewed out for but with expressions of pity or curiosity or maybe shame? He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t stop crying. He couldn’t run and hide, clearly that would make him look like a baby. And he shouldn’t be crying. He wasn’t the one who’d been hurt. He wasn’t the one who’d hit the back of his head against the plaster wall. No, that was his cousin. This was his punishment. He would have to stand there hiccup-cough-choking on his own emotion in front of all of them. This was his penance because he was the culprit. It didn’t help that he had known better.

Things had gone just like their moms always said, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” They were all upstairs just jacking around, listening to “Yummy, yummy, yummy” on the record player. Some of the girls danced but most of them ran up and down the hall and slid in their stocking feet on the hardwood floor. The hall was long and narrow and perfect for the bowling alley they’d no doubt set up later, the one with the Whamo! bowling ball filled with water with the matching pins. It was a typical Saturday night at grandma’s house. Horsing around, pushing and shoving each other so they slid around. A few of them fell but it was no big deal. Nobody got hurt; until he did something stupid.

They were all just standing around, catching their breath and on some dumb impulse he swiped his foot at his cousin’s feet. He intended to just make her slip but it worked too well. Her feet flew out from underneath her, she fell and when she landed her head snapped back and banged into the wall. Her reaction was immediate. Her face crumpled up and tears welled in her eyes. She ran downstairs crying immediately. He was so stunned he didn’t even think to say “sorry”. The other kids might have thought, ‘Oh, he’s in trouble’ but he wasn’t so focused on that as the fact that he had just made one of his favorite cousins cry. He’d hurt her. He didn’t spend much time in that kid purgatory waiting for an adult to come upstairs.

His dad came striding up the stairs. He could tell he was pissed.

“What did you do!?”

“We were just messing around.” He couldn’t look at him.

“You know you hurt Cindy bad!? She might have a concussion!”

He didn’t know anything really about concussions other than that they were bad and people got them in car accidents or things like that. He couldn’t say anything.

“She’s downstairs lying down with a headache. Think about what you’re doing next time!”

He nodded. His throat was already starting to tighten.

His dad walked back downstairs and he remained there as the tears started to come. Alone. Apart. A pariah in the kid world as the tears came in full view of his jurors, the judge having left the room.

The sting and the shame intermingled with the embarrassment in his throat to create the dry sobbing he couldn’t control. He was, in fleeting rushes angry, at himself mostly, but also at his dad for bawling him out in front of everyone. It was a public disgrace displaying the private weakness and emotional frailty he tried all the time, to hide. He was, clearly, just a big baby. The condemnation set off a cascade of feelings he was powerless to control. He’d done a dumb thing and hurt probably his favorite cousin. He was deeply sorry and as he stood there he had no idea how to show his contrition and at the same time his strength. He felt the former in abundance but the latter was something he knew h never really possessed.

Later, he would apologize at his grandma’s bedside where Cindy lay with a cold washcloth over her forehead. He would have to face the questioning gaze of her mother. She clearly couldn’t understand how her sweet nephew could do such a monstrous thing. He hung his head as he said, “Sorry, Cindy.” He figured she understood the way kids do when someone gets hurt. The kid that gets hurt knows it was just a stupid thing. The kid that did the thing to hurt them is sorry and knows it was a stupid thing and not meant to really hurt them. It’s the grownups that complicate everything and make a big deal about it. It’s the grownups that turn something stupid into a sentence. Being wrong and saying ‘sorry’ are the easy parts. It’s the judgment that’s hard.

Being condemned by those whose approval you seek, by those whose affirmation you yearn for and by those who hold your worth in their eyes and their words is never easy. At the time, receiving that judgment feels like a life sentence or at best a deficit which you will never overcome. It feels as if you will struggle a long, long time to somehow show them that you are in fact a good person but it will never be enough. Some kids don’t rise to the challenge. Some say “Screw it. I’m bad. That’s that. End of story.” He was never that way, at least not until later in life when he would say to hell with their judgment. Who needs their approval? He would come to that conclusion in high school and college regarding his peers; a matter of self-preservation in the truest sense. He would dismiss the judgments they tried to impose. But unfortunately he would forget.

He would forget that eight year-old boy left to suffer the gaze of his peers as he cry-coughed his way through what seemed like an eternity. There would come a time in a living room on a Saturday night when he would put on that judge’s robe.

His son had screwed up. He had done something clearly wrong. It was a dumb mistake but a move that probably hurt no one but himself. The boy, now a man, would sit in judgment and declare what his son had thrown away by this foolish act. He would speak words that would break away part of his son’s self-worth, part of his identity. To his son’s credit he would verbalize what his father’s words did to him. He would not stand mute before him. This time the father would backpedal a bit, still not conceding the point. The father would dismiss any notion that perhaps his words were said in haste and in anger and from disappointment. In the end fences were at least partially mended but words, once spoken, cannot be unspoken. It would be years later when the memories were distant for his son and the father’s childhood memories more distant still before a connection would be made. In the middle of the night, when the man’s ailments awoke him, he would lie there awake and begin to put the pieces together and know.

He had a phone call to make. There was something he had to put right. There was a conversation he had to have with his son.

Screwing up is universal and ultimately forgivable. After all it’s not really our position to judge. And yet we do. Sometimes the screw-up makes for a tough conversation and sometimes the judgment makes for an even more difficult one. We can pass along a lot of things to our kids. But probably the most valuable is the lessons we learned. Those lessons might allow them to do better when they’re our age. Maybe you know someone that could learn from this one. If you do, I’d be honored if you’d pass this along. 

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