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My Most Humiliating Moment
Nothing can arouse anticipation more quickly in nearly everyone I know than a simple request: "Will you stand up before our group?" My most vivid memory of this kind of fear goes all the way back to my seventh-grade class at Immanuel Lutheran School in Mount Vernon, New York. This is a story I originally told in 1986 in my first book, Courage Is a Three-Letter Word, but it has a different--and happier--ending in this book.
I had turned thirteen only a few months before, and I believed all eyes were on me, burning right through the back of my neck as surely as if they were spotlights. I wanted to scream or cry or die. My heart beat so loudly in my ears, I was sure that others nearby could hear it too. As I look back over my life, despite thousands of other mistakes and embarrassments, this was my most humiliating moment.
Our teacher had ordered me to remove my shirt and stand at my desk. What bothered him was that I had my shirt collar up--a style worn by adolescents in the 1950s. He was going to make me an example before my classmates.
"Take off your shirt!" he ordered.
I promised not to wear my collar up again.
"I've caught you twice," he said, striding to my desk. "Take it off!"
He had me, and he knew it. Mount Vernon--four square miles of nearly seventy thousand people living just beyond the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City--is a town with a tear in its belly, a railroad cut right down its middle. I lived deep in the south side of town in a tenement on a street where kids often wore motorcycle jackets, greased their hair, talked hard,and tried to look unafraid--a neighborhood where the corner, however violent, was safer than the explosive tension at home. My home. Immanuel was deep in the north side--the "right side" of the tracks--in a section called Fleetwood. It might just as easily have been halfway across the world. It had prosperity, and it had peace. I crossed the tracks to go home every night, home to a block where kids wore their collars up.
"Take it off!" the teacher ordered again, hovering over me.
He was a tall man, and his body blocked any chance I might have had to run. Somebody giggled.
"Please . . ." I pleaded.
I unbuttoned the front of my shirt.
I opened my cuffs and slipped the shirt off, draping it behind me on my chair. My undershirt had holes in it. Several people giggled.
I stood up.
The teacher, who had been standing beside my desk, marched back to the front of the classroom. He had been bullying me all year. I thought then--and I understand now--that it was because I was different, or at least seemed different. My clothes were unlike what the other students wore; mine were familiar in my neighborhood but unfamiliar in that school. Having forgotten to turn my collar down, I had given the teacher what he had been looking for.
I stood alone.
"Turn to page . . ." he said, ignoring me.
I heard my heart beat louder in my ears; the heat at the base of my neck was becoming unbearable. For a thirteen-year-old boy, his worst secret had been revealed. The undershirt with its holes for all to see proved I was poor, proved I was a south-sider, unworthy of the north-siders in the classroom.
Maybe it was seconds, maybe it was minutes before I reached for my shirt. It seemed like a lifetime.
"I didn't tell you to move," the teacher said from the front of the class.
I ignored him as I buttoned my shirt and sat down. The bell rang for recess before he got to me.
"Wait!" he ordered. Everyone stopped.
"Just Walter," he amended.
One or two students hesitated by the door, hoping to hear what he was going to say. "Move," he told them.
"You are going to learn to listen to me," he said. I was silent.
"Go to recess."
I walked to the door, turned back to the teacher, and called out his name.
"Why don't you go to hell," I said, my eyes filling with tears.
From the depths of my anxiety, I had found the right response. It was not my words--which, because of the provocation, were deliberately disrespectful. It was that I had asserted myself. In that moment I had discovered the roots of my own dignity. I had dared to be myself. My mother, though she certainly did not condone my behavior, understood it and stood by me when I was threatened with expulsion. The following night, she pleaded with the school board to allow me to remain as a student until June. Then, she promised the members who patiently heard her plea, she would transfer me elsewhere.
"Anywhere," she was advised.
Vindicated, the teacher, for the most part, stopped the bullying; I quietly finished the school year. < P>I met Dr. Norman Vincent Peale when Courage Is a Three-Letter Word was published. Three years later, well after we had become friends, he asked me to write an article on forgiveness for his magazine, Guideposts. The piece, which appeared in November 1989, was titled "My Toughest Struggle." I described how, as an adult, I had learned to understand my father's alcoholism and thus was able, finally, to control the anger that had raged within me for years.
I received many letters as a result of that article, but there was one that touched me more than all the others:
"Dear Walter," it began . . .
I'm really sorry I made you take off your shirt and embarrassed you in front of the class. I had forgotten all about it until I read it in your book this morning, and, oh, how ashamed I am that I did something like that--especially since I was there to teach you and the other young people love.
It turned out, he wrote, that his wife had read the article in Guideposts and suspected that I was the same Walter Anderson who had been in his class at Immanuel three decades earlier. When he visited the local library the next morning, he found a copy of Courage Is a Three-Letter Word, and he discovered the passage that described what had occurred between us. He explained in his letter how, when he was a boy, he was picked on repeatedly and mercilessly by street toughs, and how this bullying had left a painful impression on him:
Walter, I was at least as afraid of you as you were of me. I thought you were the Dead End Kids and Blackboard Jungle all rolled into one. Who knows how much your inner self saw me as your threatening father, and how much my inner self saw you as the bullies who terrified me as a child? I'm so sorry things weren't different, and I know that as the adult it was up to me to set the example.
To help me understand his state of mind at the time, he wrote about terrible hardships he, his wife, and his family had endured. And he expressed a wish: "I hope and pray that you forgive me."
I had forgiven him, of course . . . years ago. First, however, I had to grow from an angry adolescent into a confident adult. The journey was sometimes painful--but isn't life all about ups and downs, and about learning from both?
So is The Confidence Course.
By the time you reach the Epilogue and read my response to the letter from this teacher who changed my life in more ways than he knew, I hope that you will have grown as well on your journey through The Confidence Course.
We Can Learn to Be Confident
There I stood--alone, trembling, hidden in the wings of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Over the loudspeakers a cultured male voice warmly welcomed the audience, reminding all that the use of cameras and electronic devices was strictly prohibited.
With each passing second, my pulse climbed a notch higher. There was no escape; it was too late to turn back or run away. Hundreds of people were out there, waiting. I knew that in only a few minutes I would have to leave the security of the heavy drapes that now hid me from view, walk to the center of this historic stage, and begin a one-man show, a ninety-minute performance I had written called Talkin' Stuff.
I shook my head. "How," I wondered, "did I get myself into this fix? What have I done? Why, oh why, am I here?"
Years ago I heard a fellow remark, "There are no happy endings." He's almost right, I thought. He should have added, "There's only struggle." Life is unfair, and it's sometimes tragic. The other guy gets to pick the fruit from the tree we plant, gets the reward that should have been ours, steals the credit for our work. We see lazy people get lucky and very bad things happen to the very nicest of people. Our own families and friends at times disappoint or even hurt us. And we hurt and disappoint them. No, life is not fair.
So, knowing that I may get kicked in the rump anyway, despite giving my best and most sincere effort, how can I possibly face the future with confidence?
By being one hundred percent alive.
The Confidence Course. Copyright © by Walter Anderson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.