By Kathy Berken
Five words, spoken only once 50 years ago, caused a deep wound that never healed.
For eighth grade in 1962, I transferred to a big city school from a four-room country school where it seemed everybody got along. Most of us were farm kids who didn’t know the meaning of “clique.” One boy regularly got seizures, but we just felt bad for him. Another boy was “slow” and wore his hair in a bowl-cut, but we still talked to him. One girl’s parents were divorced and her mom ran a bar, but she belonged. Very different from the urban school where I had to wear a new bright-blue uniform and I stood out from the other girls whose jumpers were comfortably faded. We had lost the farm and the house my dad built to bankruptcy and had to move. We had nothing, but we managed. In addition, I was the tallest girl in class and puberty had just hit me with pimples, fat, greasy hair and 13-year-old awkwardness.
Then the day came when the cutest boy in school stood there with his buddies, and with his back turned to me, said in a sing-songy voice to the entire classroom, “Oh, Kathleen, I love you!” Tormented, I froze into my desk, shamed by his cruelty. His ridicule told me, in effect, that I was not worthy of being loved, liked, or attractive, so this only solidified my already-negative feelings about myself. Rejection is one thing, which is what the popular girls in class did after they “interviewed” me one day and discovered I wasn’t one of them. That didn’t feel nearly as bad as the boy’s cruelty.
The incident stuck and over the years when I’d feel down about myself, I’d automatically go to that moment. We often keep our emotional memories alive until some kind of grace comes along to change them.
“Jim” recently appeared on Facebook, and after learning he had written some coming-of-age stories, I wondered if he mentioned the incident. Much to either my relief or my disappointment, he said nothing about eighth grade. But his stories about his horrendous family situation with an abusive mother and an eventually absent father caused something unusual to happen. I felt sad for him.
But my budding compassion wasn’t enough to erase the pain of that public humiliation. Nervous, I emailed him. I reminded him we were once classmates and that I read his stories. I said I felt bad about his upbringing, and added only that he teased me once and it hurt. He wrote back. His first words were, “I’m so sorry I teased you.” He said that even if he was in the cool group, he always felt like an outsider. He signed off, “Keep in touch.”
You know how the woman in the Gospel who had the hemorrhage felt so much shame, that she could barely touch the hem of Jesus’ garment? You know how Jesus healed her body, but more, her soul when he said, “Take heart, your faith has saved you” (Matt 9:20-22)?
For 50 years, I wanted to be healed from that incident. I had never identified as the woman who bled shame. Until now. Where was my faith? Buried likely in fear from the rejection.
When I read “Jim’s” family stories, when he wrote back, apologized, and asked me to stay in touch, I felt something unfolding. We really weren’t all that different. We each had fears. The grace of these interactions helped me see his adolescent misstep as just that so I could forgive him and let it go.
Facially disfigured Irish Catholic inspirational speaker David Roche says, “Perhaps our deepest fear is that we don’t belong. To the ‘tribe.’ And perhaps it’s this fear that drives us to be a certain way. In order to belong. And compels us to hide what we believe to be imperfect” (soulbiographies.com/the-second-glance/).
How long did that Gospel woman suffer with the shame of her imperfection? What moved her from her hiding place to approach Jesus? Was she afraid that he would reject her, as no doubt others from her “tribe” had already done? She touched him anyway.
Where was my faith that if only I would have touched the hem of his garment sooner? It was buried in the entanglement, but the grace that God offered these 50 years later has reduced the wound to a fine scar. That’s plenty good enough for me.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)