I don't know if Nancy even remembers this happened.
It was in the high school classroom that was Mrs. Sepkowski's, until she retired mid-year on account of being about 140 years old. She was replaced by Mr. Bilbow, who is now a principal and jumps at any excuse to leave long repetitious mass voicemail messages for parents that primarily prove he's in love with the sound of his own voice. That was yet to come, however. At the time he was a bit green and didn't control a classroom very well, which is why I'm pretty sure this happened during his time. Mrs. Sepkowski was not mean but she ran a tight ship and people didn't wander between seats during classes.
Unless it was a study period? Or a substitute? These details I have forgotten.
Whatever the circumstances, we were in this classroom, and there was a whole lot of nothing going on. If we'd had any work assigned, it was all done, and I was sitting at a desk minding my own business. I was probably in a bad mood. I'd been having issues with someone in the classroom, I won't mention names because he's not worth it, but it was in dealing with him that John Dziak coined the name Varjak for me, which has stuck ever since, so there's that at least.
But my mood, whatever it was, is absolutely no excuse for what happened. I was in the seat by, um, Michelle I think it was, and I was in my own little world, when Nancy came up to me. I didn't have many classes with her. We'd been in the same first grade class together and I remember her being very quiet and reserved, but this was high school and she'd come into her own in the years since—I'd gone in rather the opposite direction over the same span of time. Nancy got my attention and politely asked me if I would switch seats for the rest of class so she could sit next to Michelle. So I pulled together my books and stood up, and Nancy slipped into the seat I'd vacated, and that's the end of it.
And then the words "You fucking bitch" fell out of my mouth.
This wasn't just muttered, either. I spat it venomously, viciously. If she'd stolen thousands of dollars from the school and I'd just discovered that she was getting away with it by pinning it on me, cursing her out in that tone would have been warranted. As it was, my reaction was simply insane. There was no reason, no justification, absolutely nothing to warrant any hostility at all.
Before I walked away, I saw Nancy and Michelle look at each other, jaws literally hanging open as they laughed in disbelief and gave each other looks like "Did I just hear that correctly? Did he really just say that?"
As I walked away, I was thinking the same thing. That was so out of character that I didn't have words for it. Did I really just say that? What did I just do? What the hell just happened? Who WAS that madman?
I reached an empty seat and sat down, and went back to whatever time-killing nothing I had been doing previously.
You should apologize, a voice in my head said.
I spent the rest of the class agreeing with the voice that that yes, I should, absolutely it's the least I could do. I should get right up and admit that my response was ridiculous and apologize for it. And I sat there telling myself right up until the bell rang and we all filtered out, on our way to our next class. I never said a word to Nancy about what happened. Life went on.
This occurred twenty years ago. I still feel guilty about this.
Sometime after I graduated college, I read an article online about the value of apologies, which I'd link here except I can't find it. I wish I could remember more of it. In the article, the author recounted a moment of his own that he still regrets.
When he was in elementary school, his class had a gift exchange for Christmas. Everyone would get some small gift for a classmate. Just about all of us have done this at one point or another. The author stated that he had gotten a gift from a girl who, in retrospect, was not from a well-off family. Older clothes, possessions not in the best of condition, all the things that you look at years later and realize her family was just scraping by, but which at the time you just see as different and odd.
The author received from this girl an old dog-eared paperback, clearly something she'd had for a while. It was in fairly bad shape, but it was a gift nonetheless. From the perspective of adulthood, he sees that she wanted to participate, wanted to be a part of something the rest of the class was involved with, and did the best she could.
As a child, all he saw was a crappy old book. He mocked this gift in front of classmates, in front of her. And then he did the one thing that he now considers the most hurtful thing he possibly could have done.
Right in front of her, he threw the book in the trash.
The author stated that, having been reminded of this incident while writing the article, he tried to find her to offer an apology of his own. But all he had was the name of a girl he hadn't seen since elementary school, and that wasn't enough. He couldn't find her.
The article included several stories he'd heard of apologies issued years after the initial offense, and the good that came from them. Without getting into the deeper philosophical issues of whether there's any such thing as an altruistic action or whether apologizing for something that bothers you can be considered a selfish act, the point was that these apologies have nothing but benefit. You feel better for admitting what you did wrong. The other person feels better for the acknowledgement of what happened and the genuine apology for it. It's win-win.
When I read all of this, I thought back to the incident in high school, and an opportunity I had to apologize to Nancy that I missed.
There is a gas station on River Road near where the Cross-Valley Expressway spans the Susquehanna River. This station is near where my parents live, and though I haven't gotten there very often since I moved out, I used to go there semi-regularly. One day, a few years after graduating college, I went down there to fill up, and when I walked in the cashier was Nancy.
At least, I think it was her. If it wasn't Nancy, it was her separated-at-birth twin. Looked just like her.
She didn't appear to recognize me, but I wasn't exactly spilling over with visible recognition for her either.
I went out and filled the gas tank, and the whole time I'm standing there pumping the gas the voice from all those years ago was saying the same thing it did then. You should apologize, it told me.
When the tank was full, I went back in and got my change. I turned away and took a step or two toward the door, and then hesitated.
This is a golden opportunity. Apologize.
I wasn't even sure it was her.
Then just ask if it's her. It's not rocket science.
Okay, I decided, I'm going to do this. It was harder than it should have been, but so what. I can do this. I took a deep breath and turned back toward the counter.
And as I did, someone else came in and went right to the counter, staring at the lottery tickets. This was one of those intense lottery players who likely blew every dollar of spare income on tickets. He stared intently at them for several moments, and it was clear this was going to take a while.
I wanted to do this.
I really didn't want an audience.
"Screw it," I decided, and walked out. In a way, it was a relief that I didn't have to deal with it, to have a reason to walk out without asking if it was really her.
On the way home, the voice in my head had changed tunes.
Coward, it said.
I couldn't disagree.
I recently wrote an essay for this site in which I had reason to remember a lot of things that happened back in grade school, and this particular incident came back to me again. What I wrote was about the damage that bullying can do, and it brought back to mind a large number of times that I was on the receiving end of crap that no one should have to deal with but which we all experience sometimes. It focused a lot on one specific person, Joe, and the troubles I had with him.
While I was writing that, it struck me that for this one incident, this one inexplicable outburst, I was clearly in the role of Joe.
That doesn't sit well with me.
And we live in a different era than we used to. Yes, when you graduate, you lose touch with most of your classmates just about immediately, but it's not like you need a Private Investigator to track them down. People are easier to find in the Information Age than ever before.
Finding Nancy was as easy as typing her name in on Facebook.
So no more excuses, no more pretending, no more dodging this. I have a reason to apologize. I have opportunity. And even if she doesn't remember this incident, that's no excuse. It still happened. Time to listen to the voice in my head (and boy does THAT sound bad out of context).
Nancy, I don't even know if you remember this, since it was never mentioned again between us, or by me to anyone else ever for that matter, but it happened, and it shouldn't have. I have no explanation or excuse for what happened. You did nothing wrong, and my reaction was unjustified, unwarranted, and uncalled for in every way. I was completely out of line.