Until I got to college, I was a fairly lazy student and found most classes to be unstimulating. Looking back, I certainly had good teachers, but between the many school rules, academic pressure, and being forced to sit at a desk for hours, it just didn’t do it for me.
I spent much of class engaged in doodling fashion designs and dream homes, as well as passing notes with friends so we could get updates on the AOL chats from the night before. I multitasked these activities while participating in class, but often not in the most positive ways. I called out, made jokes, and would ask philosophical questions that were off-topic that I knew would derail the lesson.
Despite being a class clown, teachers generally liked me, but my disruptiveness made their jobs much more difficult.
As I got older, I started to have more clarity and perspective on my behavior. As an education major (ironic?) in college, I taught in a public high school and got a taste of classroom management from being at the head of the classroom. When I became a psychotherapist and started public speaking regularly, I began to really see how sensitive a speaker is to the audience and their level of interest and engagement.
One time, I had a particularly difficult event with a group of high school students, where I walked out feeling unappreciated and disrespected. As I walked back to my car, flustered and disappointed, the impact of my own past behavior hit me with a new awareness. As Yom Kippur rolled around a little while later, I decided to take some responsibility.
When I thought about which teachers had it the hardest, Mrs. S. came to mind, a teacher I had in middle school. I figured I’d simply find her online to get in touch with her so I could properly apologize for my behavior. I googled her but she had no digital footprint at all. I felt relieved and off-the-hook– it’s not like I didn’t try, right?
The next day I remembered that Mrs. S.’s husband was in a band, or at least he was in a a band twenty years ago. I googled the last name and “band”, and I quickly found his website. I left a friendly message on the voicemail, saying that I was a former student of Mrs. S. and was trying to get in touch with her. A few hours later, Mrs. S. called me back.
We hadn’t spoken to each other in almost twenty years. I introduced myself and reminded her of the dates I was her student. She remembered me right away and was excited to hear from me but also sounded confused as to why I was calling.
I took a deep breath.
“So Mrs. S., I know it’s been a while…. The reason I am calling is because I recognize that my behavior during your class made your job a lot more difficult… I am so sorry for the stress, frustration, and lost time I caused you.”
As I finished my sentence, the subsequent pause felt like hours, but it was probably only a few seconds.
She answered, “You know Rachel, I don’t have many memories of you acting out in my class.
But I want you to remember something: You were only 12. As a teacher, I believe that kids misbehave in class for reasons that are not about me, and so I don’t take it too personally. I’ve never gotten this kind of phone call before—thank you reaching out.”
As I heard her response, I felt a lightness come over me; like something was lifted that I didn’t even realize had been carrying any weight on me.
We chatted for a couple of more minutes, wished each other a happy and healthy year, and said our goodbyes.
When I look back on this experience, I recognize that I was very fortunate; my vulnerability was met with nurture and forgiveness. Not all apologies go that way or enable us to feel more resolved afterward.
I also know that this type of apology is not as a difficult as apologies with those who are closest to us. This wasn’t about fixing a friendship on the rocks or healing a relationship injury. But I think that apologizing is like a muscle that gets stronger through practice. The more I apologize, the easier it becomes; not in a less genuine way, but in a way that makes it less daunting and ego-crushing.
Apology and forgiveness is often associated with the idea of closure; closure being this box that you can neatly seal and stow away somewhere we barely see. And maybe from an interpersonal aspect that may be possible. But the intrapersonal dimension, the part that happens inside of us, is not about closing but about opening: Opening ourselves up to the past, our feelings, our habits, our fears, and our imperfections as human beings. Where we go with that can be where the learning and growth happens.
This was summed up well for me this morning as I turned on the car and the radio was set to a sports talk station interviewing a quarterback reflecting on a rough game. When asked what he’s going to do now, the quarterback answered, “In moments like this, I just have to go back to the tape, be honest with myself, and figure out how to make things right and learn from it.”
For me, reaching out to Mrs.S. isn’t about the response I received. It’s about what led me there, what I learned about myself in the process, and what is in my power today.