Thursday, December 29, 2016

Etiquette and "Owning It"

A vintage picture of a 1960s high school boys' gym class in the La Habra High School pool. 

When I was a new freshman in high school, my English class was given an assignment. Each of us had to write our memoirs. We were pretty young to be writing autobiographical works of our lives up until our freshman high school year, but I suspect our teacher wanted to see how well we wrote, while at the same time learning about each one of us. We were told we had to include three major occurrences in our lives that had affected us deeply, up until that point in time. Fairly easy, I thought. I loved to write and as a typical naval-gazing, self-absorbed teenaged girl, what better subject than to write about but myself?

I knew immediately which life-jolting event was to be the first I would write about and how screwed up I had been for several years that followed. I wrote about the swimming class my mother had enrolled me in at the age of five. My older brother and sister were enrolled as well, but they were in a different class for their age group. The summer classes were at the La Habra High School pool. I lasted through less than one and a half classes.

The first class was spent holding on to the side of the pool, kicking our legs and blowing bubbles into the water, with all of the moms looking on. I was more fixated on the girl next to me in class, whose bathing cap had what appeared to be a rubber ducky of some kind, attached to the top of the cap. I wasn't sure if it was the dorkiest thing I had ever seen, or the coolest. We only had plain, white bathing caps. They were tight, they pinched, and to this day, I remember how they smelled.
My mom never ordered anything this cool looking for herself.
On the second day of swim class, we were lined up alphabetically and told to "jump into the pool." Wait... What? I didn't know how to swim yet, and I knew better at five years of age than to jump into a pool on my own. No way! I froze. My instructors, a young man and young woman, gave me the order a second time, by shouting, "Jump into the pool!" I heard a whistle. I started to cry and shake. The next thing I knew, the female instructor had picked me up and thrown me into the pool. 

I don't remember how I got out of that pool, but it was incredibly fast. I remember the crying, the panicking, the embarrassment of that swim class fail, but more than that, I remember being called "Chicken of the Sea" by my family for the next several years, until I taught myself how to swim in 5th grade. And there I sat, nearly ten years later, while my freshman English teacher quietly proof read my paper. 

My teacher had stopped making comments on how well a sentence worked, or how one may have been written better. She clammed up when she read of my harrowing experience as a small child, being carelessly tossed into the shallow end of that high school pool. The simple fact that her facial expression had suddenly become one of such concern and shock, validated everything I had felt until the day I taught myself to swim.

Then, she looked up at me and asked, "How old are you now? What summer was this?" I told her I was turning 15 in a few months and didn't realize I needed to put dates in the paper, but she stopped me and said, "I am so sorry. I am pretty sure I am the woman that threw you into the pool. I really am just so sorry." 

Floored by her declaration and apology, I think I mumbled something like, "Oh. Um... Wow. That's okay..." Then she explained how she and another English teacher at my school had taught summer swim classes for extra money during college, years before the high school we were sitting in was built. "She taught the older students that summer. I was with the younger students."
I didn't shake the "Chicken of the Sea" nickname my siblings and cousins had given me until 1991. My husband and I had brought back amazing videotape of our nearly 1,000 foot dive down the Cayman Wall in a tiny research submarine, and photos from Stingray City. Swimming with black tipped reef sharks the summer before, wasn't quite enough to lose that nickname of shame, but the submarine was enough.
I told my mother about it that evening while she was making dinner, and she told me that a few years earlier, my older siblings had figured out that the English teacher both of them had during their sophomore years was also their swim teacher. "So you got the woman who threw you kicking and screaming into that pool, huh?" 

Yes I did. And I got a very sincere apology and admittance of guilt from her, too. Two things I had never received from an adult before. I was used to receiving excuses, not apologies, from adults. So yes, I still remember being thrown into the pool, and I don't recommend it as a teaching method. What I do recommend, however, is owning up to one's mistakes. The way my freshman English teacher owned up to hers. With sincerity, honesty, and humility. 

My English teacher didn't have to do anything, but give me tips on my writing. I would have never known her secret. I could have even made my English grade an easy A, by throwing guilt her way, all freshman year long. But I wasn't made like that and neither was she. 

To this day, her honesty and sincerity have stuck with me as testament to the proper way of dealing with our own mistakes, big and small. It is refreshing to remember her candor, after  years of watching our politicians and world leaders, on all sides of the aisles, throw accusations around at one another like spoiled toddlers, rarely admitting mistakes and misdeeds. 

With my English teacher's confession and subsequent apology in mind, I have a few etiquette tips for "owning" one's mistakes, misdeeds, faux pas, and fibs.

Some polite way ways of owning up to one's mistakes, missteps, flat-out lies or social blunders:
  1. Admitting the lie by saying something along the lines of, "I am sorry. I was not truthful." or "I knew what I was saying was a lie and I take full responsibility. I am sorry. Please forgive me." or even, "I'm so sorry. I should have told you the truth."
  2. Never shooting the messenger, even if the messenger is there only to reveal your blunder, mistake, misstep, or lie.
  3. Never drawing attention to other people's mistakes or blunders. Acknowledging your own mistake or blunder, and adding a sincere apology, helps put you in a better light.
Some impolite ways of owning up to one's mistakes, and worst reactions to missteps, flat-out lies or blunders:
  1. Trying to get out of a lie by saying something along the lines of, "I misspoke." or "I misunderstood what I was saying." or even, "I should have been more careful with my words."
  2. Quibbling over one's definition of a simple word like "is."
  3. Drawing attention to other people's mistakes or blunders, without even acknowledging your own mistake or blunder.
  4. Completely ignoring the issue, people hurt or those affected by your actions. 
Many people are still trying to come up with their New Year's resolutions for 2017. I am recommending "Owning it" be on the top of the politicians' lists!