“Can you say your little poem for me?” Grandma Ranscht, Grandma Jenkins, Aunt Sis, and Aunt Dorrie at least twice each. In the last hour.
Of course I could say my little poem for them. Did they think I was stupid? Hadn’t I been saying my little poem on command for the last week? Just because I was only two-and-a-half, didn’t mean I didn’t know what was at stake here.
My Aunt Sis, the beloved Sunday School teacher of the pre-school set, had chosen me to deliver the quatrain that would open the Christmas Eve Pageant at The Church. It was an honor I felt I deserved. She loved me, I loved her, she knew I could do it, I knew I could do it, and we both knew I wouldn’t let anybody down.
From where I currently sit on the timeline of my life, trusting a toddler to recite anything on command in front of a room full of strangers carries the same level of risk as jumping from a perfectly good airplane in flight without being absolutely certain there’s a chute in your pack.
I’m sure Sis thought cuteness overload at the beginning guaranteed a warm audience willing to cheer for anything that followed. Not that there would be cheering — we were in The Church, after all. But it was gonna be a great opener as long as the very tiny cute person could carry it off.
Moment of Truth. I walked alone from my seat in the front pew next to Sis, across the very wide space leading to the dais, and up the three steps to the edge of The Stage. I turned to face the congregation. I stood up straight, my fancy-shiny Christmas dress, its gathered skirt and petticoat with just the right amount of bounce, sparkling like the little star I was. Sis caught my eye and nodded. I looked out over the crowd, and in a sure voice loud enough to carry to the back pew with heartfelt expression, delivered my little poem perfectly!
I was supposed to wait till they applauded, give a little bow, and return to my seat to watch the rest of the festivities. I was already aglow with success. A beat of silence, and then…
They were laughing at me and their laughter crushed my insides. Had I said it wrong? Tears burned my eyes, embarrassment burned my face. As uncertain as I felt in that moment, I was sure I wanted to disappear in a blink, never to be seen again. I ran down the stairs and straight to Sis to jump up in her lap and have her hide me from the world.
But what was this? Sis had tears in her eyes, too — and she was laughing just as hard as everybody else.
I felt betrayed, which is a pretty big feeling the first time a little person has it. It fills you up and almost pushes out the humiliation. But not quite. Alone in the world, I stared at her while my tears flowed.
“It’s all right. It was funny. They were supposed to laugh.” Sis the Betrayer, She Who Fails to Share Vital Information
In that instant, I became what is commonly referred to as “painfully shy”. Fearful of being judged. Insecure. Withdrawn. No more little poem recitations. No sharing little songs I learned. I would watch. And hope no one expected anything of me but my presence. Better yet, I hoped no one would even notice I was there.
Over the years, I left most of that behind, but I carried an important parental lesson forward: Tell little children not only what’s going to happen, but what it means. They don’t understand nearly as much as you assume they do, but their emotions work just the same as yours.
“Explain as you would a child.” Sarris, Evil Alien in Galaxy Quest, World’s Best Dad on his home planet.