Yesterday he was upset, because his classmates and teacher were angry at him in math class. During an electronic math game, he didn't work his math problems quickly enough, and so his class didn't beat the other class. The electronic nature of the game meant Graham's answers could have remained anonymous, but the teacher indicated it was Graham and then called him a name. Graham became teary while telling me the story, and then I did, too.
I mulled it over last night, and remembered what it was like to get in trouble in school (especially in front of my peers). I was an excellent student, but took any mistake of mine and brooded on it, often for years.
In third grade, I accidentally tripped my teacher Mrs. Stern (yes, her real name.) We were walking to gym class, and I was first in line behind the teacher. The girl next in line bumped into me, and I tripped forward, causing the 70-something-year-old Mrs. Stern to go crashing down onto the linoleum. She didn't get hurt, but I quickly went from being Teacher's Pet to Enemy Number One. She stood by my desk that afternoon, tapping on it with her long fingers, saying she had told us many times not to walk so close behind her. I felt completely ashamed, and after that, she was wary of me.
That quarter, I got an S-minus in "Listens to and follows directions."
I never told anyone at home about it, but this was one of those moments that burrowed into my head and didn't come out for years. I watered and cared for a few other similar situations to punish myself with whenever I was feeling anxious or sad. At the time, it made me feel like I was probably a bad person.
So this morning on the way to school, I said: Graham, let me tell you something.
A teacher's job is very difficult and stressful. And I would guess most teachers go into teaching to help all of the students, not just the ones for whom school is easy. When you were having trouble in math yesterday, your class was frustrated, and so was your teacher. But she should not have done what she did. Everybody makes mistakes, even teachers, and she made one yesterday. You need to forgive her for that.
Don't let what happened continue to bother you anymore. I used to beat myself up over little things I did wrong, for years. For years, Graham. And that's ridiculous. You're going to make mistakes, just like I did. Just like everyone does, and you have to let them go.
I've come to think of it like this, Graham. Do you know what an oyster does when it gets a little piece of sand inside?
"Yeah," he said. "It makes a pearl."
Well, I said, it does make a pearl. But instead of spitting that piece of sand out, an oyster keeps the sand, and adds to it, and adds to it, trying to make it smoother and feel better. In reality, it just keeps making it bigger and bigger. And we do that, too, with worries. We keep them inside and work on them, and they get bigger than they need to be. Just spit them out, Graham. Does that make sense?
He thought a moment. "You know," he said, "that's a very good analogy."
Do you feel better? I asked.
"A little," he said.
I still have times where I let myself or someone else down. I'm not perfect. But I know those moments don't define me. And instead of sucking on those moments, I just forgive myself. Then I spit them out.