Monday, December 15, 2008

Embarrassment Is For the Young . . .

Julia Buckley
I remember that someone once told me, when I felt shy about medical exams during my pregnancy, that I would get used to it all—that I’d even become immune to it. To a certain extent that was true. By the time I was in labor with my first child I was so weighed down with tubes and wires and monitors, and had become so used to visitors appearing at my side for various checks--holding my wrist for a pulse, occasionally taking blood for a test, and yes, lifting the blankets for a quick check of dilation status—-that I hardly blinked an eye.

What was mildly surprising was how many visitors there were: the nurse, the doctor, the doctor in training, some guy from the lab. I was starting to wonder if the parking attendant would find his way up to my room to determine whether I was fully dilated. I commented grouchily to my doctor, “Does anyone ELSE want to stick something in there, while we’re at it?” He replied, I kid you not, “Hey, that’s how you got in this dilemma in the first place.”

In the same way that I finally became immune to the indignities of pregnancy and labor, I believe I have become similarly numb to the embarrassments of teaching. This is my 20th year of teaching English, and I tend to live inside my head most of the time, like those absent-minded professors I used to snicker about in college.

It once embarrassed me when something would expose my humanity in front of a class full of students. There was the time that I was lecturing with great energy, gesticulating wildly, and my belt popped off, flew across the floor, and lay there like a mischievous snake. The young people, of course, couldn’t hold in their laughter, and I was red-faced.

Then there were the times that I ran down two flights of stairs for my 20 minute lunch period, during which I wolfed down a sandwich and a soda, then ran back up two flights of stairs, ensuring that I started my next lecture with a hearty burp.

There was another incident, about ten years ago, when I insisted on wearing my comfortable black teacher shoes long beyond their death. When I finally got a new pair, a sixteen-year-old boy approached me to say that my new shoes were nice. “Lots better than those ones with the hole in the toe,” he added sincerely.

As the years went by those events continued, but I found I simply cared less. I would sometimes go all day without a chance to run to the bathroom, and when I finally looked in the mirror I would see that I had never combed my hair, or that I had a chalk mustache, or that, after smiling toothily at students all day, I had remnants of food in my teeth.

This year I have found myself in several situations that would have embarrassed me in my twenties. I taught one class and noted that people were snickering, but figured they might just have a private joke. Finally one girl could stand it no longer. She got up from her desk, approached me where I sat, and whispered, “Your fly is open.”

How to respond? I smiled and said, “Oh, thank you.” And my students continued to give their reports. I figured standing up and zipping just then would extend the humiliation rather than decrease it.

Another day I sat at the podium chair and got some odd looks, only to find later that my pants had torn along the thigh seam and I was offering glimpses of a forty-three-year-old leg that no one could have wanted.

And today—yes, today is what made all of this come back to me in a flood of memory, because I may have topped them all.

I had rushed to school after a quick ham-on-toast breakfast and then entered a whirlwind of classes and meetings and obligations that had me on the run. At the end of my second period class—nearly eleven o’clock in the day—I was feeling more confident than usual in my attire of a Christmas sweater and jeans (we had an out of uniform day). I was giving what I thought was an inspired lecture on the book, but as ever I was noting some smirks.

Glancing down, I saw it: a sizable piece of shaved ham, tucked in between my sweater and turtleneck as though I were saving it for a mid-day snack. Ham. I’ve never worn that before, but I’m guessing I will again—or some other random food that I eat in a hurry while I’m making lists in my mind.

I went to the front of the room, removed the ham with a surprising lack of shame, and threw it in the wastebasket. I felt a bit like Basil Fawlty with the kipper sticking out of his shirt, except that Basil was quite manic, and I was almost serene.

I wonder if my new lack of embarrassment is a sign of a shift in perspective or a declining of youthful passions. In any case, I’m sure I’ll have another opportunity to write about it in the near future.

I’ve learned I’m only human.


Sheila Connolly said...

I've found that one of the (few?) benefits of growing older is that you just don't care what people think any more. You learn not to sweat the small stuff, and to laugh at yourself.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, it's definitely a sign of advancing age. Nowadays, after committing some gaffe or visual sight gag with a class of students, I might say, "Sorry about that" as I removed the offending ham (in my case it's usually spinach). With a therapy client, I might point out that I'm demonstrating that it's okay not to be perfect. You'd think that people wouldn't need to pay money to take that in, but they do.

Sandra Parshall said...

Live and learn, Julia -- and the most important lesson to learn is that people are far more focused on themselves than on anyone else. Our embarrassing moments are quickly forgotten by others.

The flying belt story is hilarious. If my belt did that, I'd be laughing harder than anyone else.

Sobaka said...

I've noticed the same phenomenon. It certainly makes life more serene. Your shred of ham called to mind the Kipper before you mentioned it farther along in the paragraph. Classic! Your belt story reminds me of the time my 7th-grade social studies teacher started undoing his belt in mid-lecture. Catching our startled stares, he said, "Don't worry, I'm not going any further. I just noticed I missed a belt loop." That was long ago; these days he'd probably fear a sexual harassment suit if he did that...

Julia Buckley said...

Hahaha. You're right Sheila--I have that "don't care" mentality almost always now. :)

Liz, I've done the spinach scene, too. My teeth are a real clearinghouse for excess lunch.

Sandra, I do like the belt story. That was back when I was thin enough to wear belts regularly. :)

And Sobaka, that's hilarious, but sobering too--it reminds me that my students will remember my weirdness FOREVER. And I too have all sorts of teacher stories, including the one about the math teacher who FELL DOWN while walking down the aisle to check our answers. She just lay there for a while, pretending she was resting. Of course we laughed; I still laugh now when I think of it.

KD Easley said...

Thank you for today's blog. It's the best laugh I've had all day. My family has a long tradition of coming home and sharing those embarrassing moments so all of us can share them. Some have become family legends.

Paul Lamb said...

This reminds me of the birth scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Everyone, including the parking attendant, witnessed the delivery.

Julia Buckley said...

I'm glad you had a good laugh, KD. I laugh thinking back on these things, too. Life is absurd, when all is said and done. :)

Paul, now I'm going to have to watch that movie again; I haven't seen it in about 25 years, but that sounds like a funny scene.