I've always been fascinated with apologies. Both giving them and receiving them. And in looking back at how they've punctuated my life, I'd like to share this story. It's a story about regret, shame, the American educational system, disrespect, the importance of self-advocacy, and whatever else may be gleaned from it. But more than anything, it's a story -- a true story -- about how you can apologize to someone who no longer exists.
In 1980, I was a junior in high school, struggling with the emotional sting of a failed first romance, as well as the ugly separation of my parents. Looking back, I can see what an angry person I was and how I managed to use that as fuel to rocketing out of my home town and away from my family. But at the time, the anger was expressed as righteousness and exasperation at the weak links in my education at Wilmington High School. WHS was like so many high schools of that era, a conservative, homogeneous community tucked away on the outskirts of Boston. Its faculty was a stew of sharp, spicy types like Ms. Aldrich who dressed in tight leather jeans and wielded grammar & usage rules, as well as bland fillers like... well, like Mr. Keady, a sweet, quiet grandfatherly gentleman who wore thick cardigan sweaters with large wooden buttons. It was Mr. Keady who became the target of all of my fury -- a fury that I executed with laser precision.
He taught Latin. I was so excited about taking that class, perhaps because it had the air of sophistication that I was yearning for. I was fully expecting to be able to decode and understand every word I ever came across once I learned Latin, another weapon in my arsenal for future use. But Mr. Keady's Latin class was a snoozer. Each day he would begin the class in his low, monotone voice and proceed to have us open our books and recite aloud the various Latin forms of words, like Agricola, Agricolae... the Latin word for farmer. That word, and admittedly that navy cardigan sweater, would be the only things I would remember from Latin class. Except for one momentous day.
I don't know how long it had been brewing, but I came to be filled with utter disgust for Latin class. I would show up for class inwardly rolling my eyes, here we go again, Agricola, agricolae. But on this one particular day, without any preparation, as soon as Mr. Keady said the words, "let's open our books", my hand shot up. I still remember the hot sting of heat in my cheeks, which normally would cause me to stymie any outbursts. But not that day. I was singularly focused and armed with my well-honed verbal weapons.
I began with my argument, so well delivered that I surprised myself. It sounded like I had been working on that argument in my head for months -- and maybe I had -- but I was surprised with my ease of delivery. I proceeded to explain to him why I thought that his class was substandard, how I had expected more, and that his method of teaching was outdated. I gave examples of the useless exercises he offered, comparing them to more dynamic, interactional ways that he could have us learn. I don't remember how long my little speech went, but you could hear the proverbial pin drop in that room. And when I finished speaking, I waited, not knowing what would happen next. I secretly wanted him to demand that I leave his classroom. But he sat at his desk, quietly, looking wilted and tired.
That registered with me, still does.
But I pushed that away at the time because I didn't want to rescind my argument. I felt it was valid. Now, mind you, I never used profanity or raised my voice in this verbal assault. Please, I was well-trained in my verbal weaponry. I didn't need those lesser forms of assault. So, I felt I had nothing to take back. My argument would stand.
I saw the damage right before my eyes. It appeared that my opponent was defeated.
After several moments of silence, Mr. Keady spoke. He quietly and firmly said that he appreciated my feedback (or something to that effect. I was too amazed by the fact that he had even spoken). He said that he would think carefully about what I had to say. And that was it.
I would love to tell you that from that day forward, Latin class became an exciting learning environment... or that later that day I received a notice of suspension for disrespect. But the reality was that Mr. Keady did try harder. He brought in some new worksheets. He called on me more to discuss various points. It was a subtle change, and I never said another word aloud about my criticisms.
Maybe some people would applaud my self-advocacy. Right on, girl! The American educational system sucks and you just told it like it is! But that's not how I felt afterwards.
I owed Mr. Keady an apology.
I've fantasized about finding him, maybe meeting up at a café and he would be wearing that navy cardigan with the big, wooden buttons. I would tell him how I regretted what I had done that day in class. That I was disrespectful and arrogant. I wasn't necessarily wrong in my criticisms, but I should have talked with him privately and engaged in a dialogue about what was troubling me. I would have told him about my anger and utter sadness about the losses in my life at the time, and how I just wanted someone to hurt like I hurt. And that I was sorry that I hurt him in the way that I did. I wouldn't expect forgiveness, but would have been grateful for it.
And I would also tell him that he gave me a tremendous gift that day. For in his humble, yet strong non-counter-attack, he showed me that to be wounded did not mean you gave away your dignity. That you can be vulnerable and strong at the same time. And that no one - no one - can take your dignity away. Mea culpa, Mr. Keady. He has been dead many years now, and since I cannot give him an apology in person, I look at the lessons that were learned. I examine whether my hostile words or actions are really displaced anger toward someone or something else. I try to disarm my assailants with thoughtful acceptance that hopefully communicates "I hear you". And above all, I aspire to making apologies in the moment or soon after.
If you have the chance to say you're sorry to someone, do it. If it's too late, make that apology an intention to do better. In the words of Maya Angelou, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."