By Susann Gill Riley
All humiliations are the same. Each is a hot flush of shame, a scalding awareness of one’s inadequacy, peppered with anger over the injustice. This is what Anna thought as she experienced her latest embarrassment and her mind drifted back to her first.
The first time she remembered feeling humiliated was when she was very young. School-age, but barely. She had gone hiking with her father, older sister, and her sister’s friends on a cool May day.
Anna had been looking forward to this day for a while. It was to be the inaugural outing of a neighborhood club her sister created called “The Parasol Club.” Its members, her sister Mary Jane, two other girls her sister’s age from the neighborhood, and Anna, envisioned themselves as regal British ladies with parasols sheltering their complexions. The girls had no real plans for the club other than to seek adventure, with or without parasols.
Anna, being nearly three years younger than the others, was grudgingly allowed to tag along, probably at the insistence of Anna and Mary Jane’s father. Mary Jane had appointed their father honorary president in the hopes he would drive them to adventures beyond their neighborhood.
The hike on this first outing was an easy one. The group followed a gentle path through a small wood in the town next to theirs. The path brought them to the edge of a brook, barely a trickle during dry season, but flush now with spring rains. The brook had swelled to about four feet in width, and its waters churned with unaccustomed urgency.
Undeterred, their father found a place not far off the path where a tree had fallen, providing a bridge of sorts over the creek. The trunk was a little over a foot wide—wide enough and sturdy enough for crossing. Mary Jane and the other girls crossed like circus performers on a high wire—arms outstretched, heads high and sure.
When it came Anna’s turn, her father found a stick, large enough to be a walking stick, for her to use in crossing. He tested it briefly, leaning into it before giving it to Anna. “Just in case,” he said.
Anna gripped the stick nervously, her cheeks warm with embarrassment, wondering why her father assumed she needed it. Am I that much of a klutz? Is it that noticeable? She was suddenly afraid to cross the log, afraid of failing. But there was no backing out, the other girls were already across.
Anna took a few tentative steps out onto the log before she began to wobble. She had forgotten to hold her arms out wide and had no way to correct her imbalance. As she tilted, she thrust the stick down into the soft bed of the brook, hoping it would right her. The stick broke, sending her tumbling off the log.
She heard the laughter before she even felt the water.
Wet but unhurt, she waded across the remainder of the stream, finishing the hike in soggy shoes.
When they got home, Mary Jane and her father told the story to Anna’s mother, chuckling hardily at what they undoubtedly viewed as an amusing anecdote, a harmless mishap. Anna laughed too so as not to let on that she felt humiliated, ashamed.
All these years later, Anna had only to close her eyes and picture that little girl in wet clothes, wanting so badly to be accepted by the older girls, wanting to be seen as one of them instead of a clumsy little sister, to feel the burn in her cheeks. The same burn she felt now, as another, ultimately inconsequential occurrence made her feel inadequate and ashamed. And yes, angry at the injustice. She was not inadequate now, just as she had not been then. The stick broke, after all.