If I could pick one situation that has the most potential for humiliation, it would have to be junior high. Or high school. Take your pick. High school is the taller, slightly-more-sophisticated option. But either one holds a myriad of possible mortifications – snubbing, name-calling, wedgies, swirlies.
You name it, high school and junior high have got it.
Mind you, one doesn’t need to be a student to experience these things.
I’ve always said that my idea of hell would be substitute teaching in junior high. I can still remember the torture we inflicted on our poor, unsuspecting subs in seventh grade. Why did we think it was so frickin funny to refuse to give them our real names?
All I know is that when it came to subs, we had no mercy. It was like Lord of the Flies in a rural-Ohio classroom.
A bunch of years ago, I was a counselor at an alternative high school. I’d just gotten out of grad school with a degree in Psychology and was fulfilling my first internship requirement.
In spite of what I just said about high school and junior high, I love teenagers. Just not in classroom form. I like them one-on-one or in small groups. Where the mob mentality doesn’t have a chance to catch hold.
Luckily, my stint at the school did not require me to interact with the kids in mob form. I was content to meet with them in individual sessions and a few small groups.
Can you smell trouble coming?
In my case, trouble came in the form of a class called Weird P.E. This was an alternative school, after all. Everything came in a bright, hip wrapper. Even though some things, like P.E., remain essentially the same, no matter what you call them.
After I’d been at the school for a few months, one of the teachers asked me to help him out with the Weird P.E. class. The teacher’s name was Daniel and he was super cool. He was one of these guys that didn’t just walk into a room. He glided. The kids loved him, and so did I.
So when he asked me to help him with the class, I said “Sure thing.”
All I had to do was show up and float in the wake of his coolness. It was easy.
After a few months of working together, Daniel informed me he wasn’t going to be able to teach the next quarter of Weird P.E. He needed me to do it.
“Sure,” I said.
The minute I opened my mouth, part of me started to flip out. What are you, loco? This is the last thing in the world you want to do. You know you can’t control a classroom. Those kids are going to eat you alive. They’re going to sense your fear and tear you to shreds. Take it back! Take it back!
But I couldn’t. I’d promised Daniel I’d do it. I couldn’t let him down.
Unfortunately, a ton of kids signed up for Weird P.E. the next quarter. I’d become a popular counselor at that point, and I guess the kids thought I’d be a great teacher as well.
The sheer number of sign-ups for the class had my stomach performing advanced gymnastic moves.
I had no idea how I was going to pull this off. What was I going to do when it came time to actually teach the class?
Much to my surprise, the first few sessions were fine. I did my best impersonation of Daniel, including leading the class in the same games and activities we’d done the quarter before. I began to breathe a little easier. My stomach downgraded to cartwheels and somersaults.
And then it came. The Day of Shame and Infamy.
It was raining that day, and we needed to move indoors. Daniel had the class inside a few times, so I had the kids do the same game that he had – a dodge-ball-esque production with foam balls instead of big rubber red ones.
There was only one difference between the previous experience and this one: Daniel was a super cool teacher with an innate ability to keep the class in control. I was not.
After a very brief period of time, I lost control of the class. The kids started throwing balls everywhere, with no regard to the instructions of the game. They were yelling and hollering and whooping like crazy.
It was a madhouse.
I had been told by one of the teachers at the school that the best way to regain control of the class was to throw a student out of the classroom. It didn’t even matter if it was the right student, just as long as you threw someone out.
But I couldn’t do it. I was frozen.
One of my favorite students was in the class that day. I can still remember him looking at me, probably thinking something like: Aren’t you going to do anything? Aren’t you going to stop them?
I tried to play it off. I tried to pretend like I didn’t care that the kids were bouncing off the walls. I tried to pretend like I was fine with it.
It was the only version of “control” I could muster.
I went home that day, totally humiliated. My worst fantasies had come true.
I can hear you now: But Z, don’t you know you attracted this to yourself? You created the experience with your fears!
I know, I know. And I knew it then. But it still didn’t help the fact that I was totally mortified by what had happened.
I was scared to death to set foot in the classroom again.
What if it happened all over again? What if every class from now on was a frantic free-for-all? What was I going to do?
In this case, I did the only thing I knew how to do.
I didn’t know how to maintain control of the class. I didn’t know how to regain my self-respect.
But I did know how to put one foot in front of the other. That was my main skill, at that point.
So that’s what I did.
I marched back into the classroom and pretended like nothing had happened. I pretended like I knew what I was doing. The sky was graced with sun that day, and I led the kids to a neighboring field and instructed them in a game of frisbee.
It was fabulous. And it went off without a hitch.
Looking back on it now, I am grateful for my willingness to try again. Even though I was mortified. Even though I felt like a failure.
My willingness to try again signified that, even though I felt like a failure, I wasn’t willing to stay in that feeling. And the way out of the feeling was to keep moving forward.
Sometimes that’s all we can do.
When have you experienced humiliation? And how did you move past it?