It was the first day of first grade, in my new parochial school, Saint John the Baptist. My class had the lay teacher, Ms. Ditton. (There was a mix by then of both lay teachers and sisters.) She was one of the nicest teachers on the planet. (I’ve been blessed in that regard. I can’t remember really having a bad teacher. Less effective? Yes. Bad? Nope.)
I guess I was probably as terrified as a dorky nerd-ette could be. Lots of children (most of whom I didn’t know), new building that had multiple floors, having to sit at a desk that was probably a little too big. All curiosity and wonderment, confusion and not a little bit of awe.
Time for lunch. In those days, our school didn’t have a cafeteria. We went down to the basement, which doubled as a church “hall” where church-related clubs like Rosary Sodality, Legion of Mary, and the Knights of Columbus met for their meetings. There was a kitchen where actual lunch “ladies” prepared home cooked food. (No white uniforms, no hairnets, just dresses and aprons. For real. They were probably grandmothers from the parish.) We walked up to the open “window” and picked up a tray filled with honestly delicious food. Sloppy Joe sandwich (we never had that at home), and corn and something else obviously less memorable. Dessert was, I kid you not, a Little Debbie Star Crunch Snack Cake (which remains a favorite of mine to this day)! We were instructed to take our trays back upstairs to our classroom to eat. (So much for food fights.)
I made it to the first floor landing when it happened. I don’t know how. I must’ve tripped, or had a hard time balancing the tray, or something. (I distinctly do NOT remember being tripped or any other boy-oriented nonsense.) But the next thing I knew, the tray was all over the floor and I was crying and some kids were laughing and Miss Ditton was drying my eyes and shushing them and giving me a hug and taking me back down for another tray. I think I was almost as sad about having someone else clean up my mess as I was for making it in the first place.
I think that was the first time I felt ashamed. It wasn’t the last. (I still haven’t talked about wetting my pants, but believe me when I tell you, it won’t end there. Nope.)
You see, I didn’t understand then, about the difference between shame and guilt. Even at the tender young age of six, I had developed an idea that something I did had a direct relationship to who I was. That doing something bad (yes, I know, it was really an accident) meant that I was bad.
As if our value as human beings can ever be determined by or the equivalent of our actions. Doing bad things can never diminish our worth, our inherent human value. Likewise, all the good things we are capable of doing, all the Mother-Teresa-Wanna-Be actions we’re adding up on the goody-goody scorecard can’t increase the value we, as human beings created by God, have as our personal endowment.
I had nothing to be ashamed of, and neither do you. (Even wetting your pants in the second grade.)