He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river, he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man …. (from chapter 1 of The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame)
I no longer have this book, but I kept it for many years. Somehow through marriage and babies growing up and through divorce, through the packing and unpacking of every move, it was always there with the other books. Bound in light green cloth, it was instantly recognizable to me among all the others. It was a favorite read. It was also a source of deep, disabling shame that worked to silence me for more than fifty years.
Up to that point I had spent my academic career struggling to pay attention. Much of the time I spent staring out the window making up stories about being someone else. In third grade, my teacher Mrs. Bookman often materialized next to me screeching, “PAY ATTENTION!” It was painful to be startled out of a comforting daydream, so I learned to follow her with my eyes without actually looking at her. I deliberately unfocussed my eyes so as not to see her disapproving frown. I spent a lot of fourth grade hiding a book in my lap. Since my teacher seemed to me chiefly concerned with neat penmanship, long division, and being quiet and orderly, I got away with reading as I wanted. But when I was 10 years old, in my 5th grade English class, something wonderful happened. A new teacher appeared – Miss Dulcea Keith. She was young and enthusiastic, tall with lots of messy dark hair, and she had that knack of always surprising us with new things to learn.
With Miss Dulcea Keith I had no need to tune out. I hung on every word because she was interesting, and funny, and kind. One day she wrote the lyrics to a song on the blackboard, “The Sounds of Silence,” written by Paul Simon. (The album, Wednesday Morning, 3am was brand new – Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album. Miss Keith was so cool.)
She slid the record out of its cover, put it on the box record player, and placed the needle on the track. Turning off the lights, she told us to relax and listen to the song and think about what the words might mean. Hello darkness, my old friend; I’ve come to talk with you again; because a vision softly creeping; left its seeds while I was sleeping … I loved it. Visions, dreams, the pain of being unheard and misunderstood. The song didn’t just touch my heart; it unlocked it. I felt seen. I was astonished. It was pure joy!
She played the song for us three times, and without comment. Turning on the lights, she asked us to write down what we thought the song meant. “No wrong answers!” “Just write!” And so I wrote. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember the experience. I remember that jolt of confidence that comes with understanding and being understood. Every other time I had struggled to dredge up enough words to satisfy the teacher. But this time it was so easy. I knew what I had to say.
When we got our papers back, I’d earned an “A++” in red ink. Miss Keith wrote comments in the margins like, “Wonderful!” and “So insightful!” The whole paper was marked up in her graceful loopy script. She spoke to me when she gave me the paper back, saying something kind and affirming. I took my paper home to show my parents. I remember my father, who wasn’t ordinarily generous with words of affirmation, actually stomped his feet on the floor and declared to my mother, “A college student could have written this paper!” I was unused to this kind of praise. It felt weird, like clothes that didn’t belong to me.
When we came back to school Miss Keith took me aside to congratulate me again on my work and asked me if I would be willing to read my paper to the class on Friday. That made my heart beat faster, but I said ‘yes’. The next assignment was to write “a description of something” so that we could practice our use of metaphors. “A description of anything at all,” she said, “whatever you choose.” I sat there for a long time, my mind a swirl of nothings. I was blank except for a rising dread I could not name. Everyone else had their heads down, scribbling away. The room was quiet except for the sounds of pencils on paper. Miss Keith sat at her desk looking at papers. I began to panic. I had to come up with something, and it had to be good. Really good. Something a college student would write. In my desk was the book I had been given for my birthday, Wind in the Willows. I had only read the first few chapters, but I knew it had some good descriptions in it. I made a choice. I slid the book out of my desk and opened it in my lap. Opening toward the beginning of the book, I quickly scanned for the place where Mole sees the river for the first time. I began to copy. My heart jolted as I realized I would have to leave some words out and change others, but I carried on, glancing down to snatch up a phrase at a time and write it down. [So, as he] meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before … All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. [He] was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. I knew it was wrong. I knew it ridiculously didn’t sound like anything I could write. But I kept on. My heart was pounding and I was sweating by the time I heard Miss Keith say quietly, “That’s it. Stop. Time to hand your papers in.” I wrote my name on top of my paper and put it on her desk.
I never got that paper back. Miss Keith never acknowledged it in any way. Except I do remember that I didn’t read my “Sounds of Silence” paper to the class that Friday. It just didn’t happen. She didn’t say anything about it, and I didn’t ask. I don’t remember how the rest of that school year went. I expect I finished, as usual, as a solid B minus – mostly because of incomplete work. I kept my head down. My shame made me keep my distance.
Shame. Withering, scalding shame. Every time I tried to write something, that hateful voice spoke in my mind, “Of course she knew. She decided I wasn’t any longer worth helping. I betrayed and disappointed her. I am a fraud, and I have nothing worthwhile to say.” Through the years, the idea of writing, of having a voice, was like a daydream of a far away country. A country that I was disqualified from entering. How many times I imagined escaping to live on the river with Mole and Rat! From time to time I would try to find that country, but never made much progress. I entered into other kinds of work and busied myself with different kinds of projects. Although I developed some skill at reading and summarizing the ideas of others, I almost never took the risk of communicating my own. I generally avoided anything that required me to speak in my own voice.
It may be hard to understand how this event could have so powerfully impacted my life. But that single event planted another bitter seed, one that grew along with others, into a twisted disabling weed that tangled every step. I have walked a long road dragging that weed. I despised myself for my halting steps, but part of me was afraid to let it go. Without it holding me back, I might screw up again. I could do something even more shameful!
Learning to follow Jesus requires that we reject any voice that contradicts His. We have to refuse the lies and tyranny of shame. Belonging to Him requires the humility to believe what He has to say about who we are.* Jesus says I am His, and I am worth listening to, and that my voice is His because He made it. And because of Him I am learning how to disable shame instead of allowing it to disable me.
I think there are three steps to freedom from shame. First, bring it into the light. Find someone you trust who will listen to you tell it. If there is no such person in your life right now, there is the Person who will always, always, hear you with endless compassion. Confess it to Him. It is amazing to see how shame is drained of its power when it is brought into the light. Second, go back to that memory of shame and reclaim what you left there. There is no doubt a part of yourself that you have left behind: your innocent self. (I don’t intend to imply this is easy. Sometimes we don’t like our younger self, much less love ourselves. After all, that is the kid who screwed up and kept getting us into trouble, right? But Jesus loves that scared, childish, and incompetent person. He will show you how to love like He does.) Third, forgive everyone. Forgiveness is not saying that what happened didn’t matter or didn’t hurt; it is simply choosing to release them to God and ask Him to bless them. I was surprised to discover that I needed to forgive Miss Keith, to release her from all my disappointments and from the judgments I believed she had made about me. I also had to forgive Mrs. Bookman. The interesting thing that happens with forgiveness is that when we forgive those who have hurt us, other memories are refreshed. I remember now with gratitude other teachers who blessed me with their patience and encouragement. Of course, forgiving everyone includes forgiving yourself. Forgiving myself means, to begin with, refusing to listen to that mean old voice any more. Forgiving myself is taking authority over that accusing voice of shame and commanding it to be silent. This is the repentance Jesus invites us into: turning your back on shame and stepping into new life.
From this memory, I am reclaiming the confidence of understanding and being understood, and the joy of discovery of new things to learn. And I reclaim my scared and awkward 10-year-old self. I love her and forgive her. This young and interesting and talented part of me has found her way out of the silence. And I’m bringing her with me wherever I go. I have waited 50 years for my work to be read aloud. No longer my sound of silence, but my song of redemption!
* This wisdom struck like lightning from a recent sermon preached by Eric Moore, Pastor at Summit Worship Center, Austin, TX. “Biblical humility means believing what God says about you over anyone else's opinion, including your own.” 04-24-22, https://www.summitatx.org