My son begs me to stop telling the stories of when I did everything wrong. When I speak from the catalog of my most embarrassing moments, he becomes physically uncomfortable, desperate to climb into a time machine and rescue me from myself. But there are lessons to be learned in all of that muck, lessons that made me the kind of mother that would raise a son so empathetic that he shudders at the discomfort of others. That’s no accident, as we can never become embarrassed in a vacuum. It is the reaction of others that creates the lasting horror, or in some genuinely astonishing cases, the welcome, unexpected comfort in the face of our missteps. I have raised my son to be the hero who, when given the chance, would rescue his mother wearing another face.
When I was four, my mother was having tea with a friend and I was coloring in a gigantic coloring book with Frankie G. I had never seen a book like this…probably it was half our size as we lay on our stomachs with its pristine pages begging for our input. At home, our coloring books were all marked up; it was rare to find one page without a haggard crayon line across it, marked like a dog would mark a yard. But lying there on our bellies, our mothers sipping tea, I felt lucky and peaceful. I picked up a blue crayon and began coloring, ever so neatly…
Frankie was incensed. “Clouds aren’t blue!” he exclaimed. “You ruined it!” He was right, of course. There was no turning back from that mistake, the entire thing was a loss and he turned the page, but I remembered.
When I was eleven, I was put in charge of a group of fellow sixth graders in creating a bulletin board. Several groups in Mrs. E.’s class were working on boards that day, and there was a feeling of competition in the air. Bright, but terribly quiet and shy, I was no leader and had no idea how to direct my crew. We needed stencils to create our lettering, but the other groups were hogging them, and after a long time of waiting, I made the executive decision to hand-draw and cut out our letters. They looked terrible, and Mrs. E. called me out in front of everyone. As I stood there crying in response, my teacher directed John G. and Terry S. to take me out into the hallway to explain to me why I should not be crying; that it was a leadership task and I should have stepped up and acquired those stencils no matter what.
In the hallway, they said solemnly, “Don’t cry, Kerry… because she is a total bitch and she isn’t worth your tears.” We all laughed and headed back into the classroom.
When I was twelve, I started wearing makeup without a shred of guidance. My mother allowed eye shadow but not eyeliner, so I just used my dark blue eye shadow as an eyeliner substitute on the bottom lids. I did that for weeks. It looked horrible, and Julie W. took me aside quietly to tell me so.
To this day, I don’t use eyeliner on the bottom.
When I was fifteen, it was Saturday and our show choir was going to learn choreography for the WHOLE DAY! With people! For this occasion, I took a break from my oversized-dark-clothing-hair-in-my-face-look to wear a cream colored sweater and matching tight jeans to look my best for what in my mind was the very best day of the year. Walking a little taller, I made my way to my favorite place, my high school auditorium, and I was making my way down the hill when…
I slipped and slid down the whole muddy hill, leaving a streak of mud all the way down the side of my cream colored pants. Horrified, but with a compulsion to be prompt, I danced all day covered in mud.
No one said a word.
When I was seventeen, I was finally invited out with a group of friends at night and I was determined to not screw it up. Giddy and excited, I tried to play it cool as we made a couple of stops and ended up in a field and gathered in a circle to sit and talk. This was it. I had seen social scenarios like this on tv and in the movies and now here I was in the thick of it. We were just sitting down when…
A small, digestive, completely unintended noise came out of me. Horrified, I was stunned into silence and I’m sure my face drained of all color. Everyone heard it and some looked my way, including Kevin M. who immediately took the blame for the noise. Everyone laughed and moved on, and I was so grateful I almost started crying.
It is said that a surge of adrenaline can sear a memory into our minds and cause us to recall vividly every bit of what happened, even years later. In these embarrassing moments which I now realize are universal, I love remembering the people who stepped up to help and not hurt. John G., Terry S., and Kevin M. likely have no memory of those events, but I do, and they have figured into the way I taught my own children to behave. I learned from the others also; Mrs. E. taught me about the kind of teacher I have no wish to ever be, and I’m resolved that a kind word spoken is always preferable to silence. My experiences lead me to want to be on the right side of someone else’s adrenaline rush, because in the face of distress, you have a choice: say something or say nothing, but say the right thing and you’ll be the kind of hero of which legends, memories, (and blogs) are made.