In some cases, like in the last lesson, the person you've offended maybe someone you've never met before and will never see again. That doesn't make your offense any less offensive. You just might not be awkwardly reminded of your transgression every day. But what if the person you offend is someone you go to school or work with? That trickier situation is exactly what happened to Steve Blair.
When Steve was in the 3rd grade at Fleetridge Elementary in Raytown, Missouri, he did something he's regretted for the last 40 years. What was his unforgettable and unpardonable sin? He wrote a poem. A very bad poem.
Steve's class had been learning the rhyme and meter of several forms of poetry. One particular week they learned about limericks – a five-line poem in anapestic meter, with an unmistakable rhyming pattern. Each student was expected to write their own original limerick to demonstrate they understood the form and then read it aloud to the class. Now, Steve wasn't much of a class clown. But he was particularly pleased with his poem because, at least in his mind, it was exceedingly funny. And he assumed everyone else would think so as well. When it was his turn, he proudly read his poem to the class, which featured one of his fellow classmates, Sally Strobe. Here's the poem:
Was as fat as a globe
She was so fat
She had a flat
And that was the end of Sally Strobe.
Steve finished his limerick and waited with a wide smile for the expected howls of laughter. He got none. Nor did he get the compulsory applause the other students got for even the lamest verse. Even at the age of 8, Steve recognized the unmistakable look of disgust and confusion on the faces of his fellow classmates, and his teacher, as he panned the room with his eyes. Sally struggled with her weight most of her life, both before and since. And Steve had just added himself to a long list of her tormentors.
You know, at the tender age of 8, it had just never occurred to Steve that his words might offend someone. It was the first time in his life that he remembers being painfully aware that his words had hurt someone.
Well, Steve avoided Sally for the following weeks out of embarrassment. And as many children (and adults) do, he just pretended nothing had ever happened, hoping she'd forget about it. What he didn't count on, however, was that he would be the one who wouldn't be able to forget.
Today, at the age of 48, not a month goes by that Steve's thoughts don't drift back to 3rd grade and to Sally Strobe. He relives that awful moment he first uttered his hurtful limerick. It's not a debilitating regret that consumes him daily. But in 40 years, he's suffered countless times for that one single unresolved transgression.
But imagine how much pain and anguish Steve could have saved himself if he'd just apologized to her and put the entire incident behind him. Oh, his teacher made him give the obligatory "I'm sorry" immediately after the poetry reading. But that's different than a genuine, heartfelt apology from someone who really understands what they've done wrong. And the longer he went without a true apology, the harder it got to even consider.
Three decades later, after elementary school, in the Internet age of social media, he came across Sally's name on Facebook. He thought about contacting her and asking forgiveness. But doubt set in. "Would this just open up a wound that had long since closed? Would she think it self-serving of me to apologize after all these years, perhaps just to clear my conscience?" So he didn't. And so the thorn remains.
Steve learned two very valuable lessons from that experience. The first was this: Despite what you may have heard about 'sticks and stones,' words can hurt people. To this day, it would be a rare occasion to find Steve saying anything ill of another person.
His second lesson was the value of asking forgiveness. Without it, not only does the pain of an offense remain with the victim, but it continues to fester in the perpetrator as well. And the longer one goes without apologizing, the harder it is to do. Resolve to forgive early and often, and you'll never have to suffer decades of remorse, no matter how bad your poem is.
Okay, I'd say you should wait to share this story until your child hurts someone with their words. But unless your child is a saint, honestly, that's probably already happened. So, when you're ready, share this story. And then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
How do you think Sally Strobe felt when Steve read his poem in class?
If Steve had given her a real apology, do you think he would still be thinking about that moment as often?
If Steve wanted to apologize to Sally today, what words might he use to do it in a way that wouldn't seem self-serving?
Do you think it's ever too late to offer an apology? How late is too late?
Okay, Steve decided it was too late for him to apologize. So in the next lesson, we'll see what happened when a boy waited 25 years to apologize to someone he hurt.