Our mother is a gifted woman. She can still quote lines from poetry and classics that she learned years ago in school. One of my favorite lines is the title of this blog post. Mom was always very dramatic and entertaining when she quoted those lines from The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. As kids, we thought it great fun to use that particular line whenever we felt that we were critically wounded. I actually felt like I was pierced to the root of my being one day during the middle of my first grade year.
There I was, minding my own business, sitting quietly in front of my teacher’s desk. My desk had been moved next to hers in the hopes that I would somehow pull out of the shyness I had slipped into. If you read last week’s post, you will note that I had my reasons for withdrawing into a shell of silence.
Our teacher was up at the front of the room, reading us a story as she did every day after lunch break. While she was doing that, we were supposed to staple our papers together. The large stapler had been handed to the student at the opposite end of the room. It was one of those old-fashioned heavy gadgets made out of steel. It terrified me. I had never used a stapler before, let alone a humongous thing like that. I had no idea how to staple my papers. In my defense, I was only six years old. Keep that in mind.
I frantically watched as the students in the row next to mine successfully placed their papers together and stapled them without any problem. Taking a deep breath, I assured myself that when the time came, I could do the same thing. That moment finally arrived. Since I was the student closest to our teacher’s desk, I was the last one to use the mighty stapler. Following the example I had observed, I organized my papers, then, placing the stapler over one corner, I hit it with all of the strength I could muster. I failed to realize the importance of moving my tiny thumb out of the way until it was too late. Instead of adhering my pages together, I managed to bury a rather large staple into the nail of my thumb. Since my fingers were so small, the points of the sharp staple penetrated my thumb and stuck out the other side.
In severe pain, I was also mortified. To my credit, I didn’t make a peep. Remember, I was terrified of my teacher, and the last thing I wanted was to bring attention to myself. Instead, as my poor thumb throbbed, I did my best to remove the staple. I grabbed the only tool I could find in my desk, a number two pencil. I pried as best I could, but only succeeded in making my thumb bleed worse than it already was.
Glancing up, I noticed that the row I was in lined up perfectly with the door to our classroom. A plan came to mind: I would crawl under the desks and run out of the classroom, certain that no one would notice. Then I could hurry down to the girls’ restroom and try to fix my problem. Gathering my courage, I crawled down under my desk and began my journey out of the room.
My plan worked as I had hoped, I made it out of the room. However, my escape had not gone unnoticed, as I had thought. I’m sure everyone in my row was very aware that I had crawled under the desks, and our teacher certainly saw the entire escapade.
Despite what I thought, this woman was very perceptive of my shy tendencies. She didn’t want to do anything that would alienate me further. So instead of coming down herself to see what was the matter, she sent her niece (yes, the same girl who nearly suffocated me earlier that year) to check on me. When the teacher’s niece followed my blood trail into the restroom, her eyes widened and she did what any self-respecting first grader would do, she screamed for help. Then she ran to get her aunt.
By then my thumb was a mess. I was still trying to get the staple out with a pencil, and my attempts had only made things worse. When my teacher arrived, I was in a sad state of affairs. But to my stunned amazement, she wasn’t angry. Instead, my teacher was very gentle and kind. She sent her niece to find the janitor. He, in turn, would have to locate his tool box and a sturdy pair of pliers. My teacher gave me a candy bar to soothe things over as the staple was removed. My thumb was bandaged, and my mother arrived to take me home to recuperate.
What did I learn from that experience? Aside from the importance of asking questions whenever I didn’t understand something, I learned that my scary first grade teacher was actually quite a nice person. I had misjudged her. And since her niece was the one who first tried to help me, I realized that maybe she wasn’t as bad as I had first thought. I learned that people can make mistakes, and it’s important to forgive. This girl who had tried to snuff me out of existence during my early days of first grade, became a friend. And the teacher who terrified me, gave me a great gift—the ability to read. She used a new pilot program to teach us how to read that year, and I took to it like a duck to water. I became the top reader in our grade.
Years later, as this same teacher lay dying from cancer; I was informed that she was feeling a bit down about her life. She wondered if she had ever made a difference with any of her students. I sent her a letter, thanking her for her influence in my life, and sent her a few copies of my published books. I was later told that this had been a huge boost for her during her final days. When people came to visit, she proudly displayed my books, and talked about one of the shyest students she had ever come across during her years as a teacher.
Moral of the story: there are reasons why we are told to withhold judgment of others. We don’t always know what is in someone else’s heart. I have found that it is better to give others the benefit of the doubt, just as they have often given me the same.