It was the end of the last class of the day, and I was standing by the door with my students as we waited for the dismissal bell. One of my girls asked one of my boys (I’ll call him Tom) about his shoes. I didn’t detect any meanness in her question, nor had I ever noticed Tom looking poorly dressed or tattered. Then again, this particular class has forty students and my observation skills have been in steady decline the past couple of years. His reply was something about a relative having worn them whose feet were the wrong size. I didn’t really understand his response, but when I looked at his shoes I saw that the soles were practically falling off.
Because I had never noticed Tom looking particularly shabby, without thought I jumped to the conclusion that he was choosing to wear a favorite pair of shoes that he didn’t want to part with — because my own kids were known to do that when they were younger — and I said playfully, “Dude, you need a new pair of shoes!”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of our campus monitors passed in the hallway and asked, “Who said that?” thinking it was a student being hateful. “That was me,” I said, still completely clueless that Tom was not wearing his shoes by choice, thinking to let her know that no one was teasing him. No, it was just his ignorant teacher making him feel bad. Geezus, she must have thought I was a blithering idiot! What was wrong with me? It wasn’t until a few moments later when Tom walked away to stand by the other classroom door that the reality of the situation set in.
I wanted to die.
So what do you do when you say something so completely thoughtless and insensitive? You apologize. Unfortunately by the time I realized how wrong I’d gotten the whole scenario, Tom had left for the day, and I wouldn’t see him again until the day after next because we’re on block schedule. I went home and agonized over my words for the rest of the evening. I emailed the counselor, telling her about the stupid thing I’d said and asked her if she knew anything about Tom and his family. She told me that he had been given an application for Operation School Bell, which is a program for students who are in need of clothing, but hadn’t returned it yet.
I told my husband about what I’d done and he said, “Buy him a pair of shoes!”
“I don’t know his size.”
“Get him a gift card to a shoe store.”
That was a great idea, one that I planned to implement.
The next morning, I was going to hunt Tom down in the quad so I could tell him how sorry I was for being such an insensitive dolt, but wouldn’t you know it? I had to attend a last minute meeting. I sat through conversations about budgets, cuts, and staffing, the whole while being irritated I wasn’t going to get to speak with Tom before school started. With a few minutes to spare before the bell rang, I searched for him with no success. So at the end of my first period class, I called his first period teacher and asked if she would send him my way so I could talk to him.
When I finally apologized and tried to explain how I ended up making such a hurtful remark, it just sounded lame, lame, lame. However, Tom was very gracious and even pretended he didn’t remember that I’d said anything. I know he remembered, I’m just not sure if he was trying to keep me from feeling bad or if he was protecting himself. Maybe it was a little of both.
The good part of this story is when I saw him again today, he was wearing a new pair of Jordans. Without having to ask him, he came up to me with a big grin on his face and told me that Mr. Joe, our other campus monitor, had bought him the shoes. So Mr. Joe beat me to it, but that was more than okay. Besides, I wouldn’t have known to buy Jordans. And the fact that Tom approached me to share his news gave me the sense that he really did forgive me after all. There was absolutely no animosity in his words – just joy. I told him that they were some seriously sweet shoes.
Later that afternoon at a staff meeting, our principal read a thank you letter that Tom had written Mr. Joe. He explained that Tom was often teased about his shoes so Joe stepped up and showed his heart. “Shelly, you were such a jackass,” I thought. I had no idea.
I’ve always considered myself a pretty empathetic person who tries to be considerate of others, but I really dropped the ball on this one. This whole experience has reminded me to start paying closer attention to those around me, especially the kiddos, and to think carefully before opening my pie hole. And the next time I open my mouth and insert foot — which I inevitably will — make sure to set things right and hope for the forgiveness that Tom showed me.
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