I sometimes wonder if such experiences didn’t play a major role in my seeking something or someone in life that accepted me warts and all, loved me, and gave purpose to my individual life. I’m here to say I believe such experiences prodded me to find such a one, such a person. I met that person not for the first time—as I was already acquainted with him—but when I was 19 years old and received him into my life, heart, and spirit. That Person was Jesus Christ who became my Lord and Savior.
A question recently posted on Facebook asked if you remember your most humiliating experience as a child. It took me by surprise how fast two experiences came to mind. Both took place in elementary school coming at the hands of adults—a teacher and principal. Memories came to the fore; pain was felt immediately. Those experiences weren’t forgotten but rather had scarred me and followed me through life. They accounted for some of my most prominent and constant insecurities.
The first took place in third grade. Coming from a poor family situation, I did not receive allowance money as other children received. I did not have the freedom to buy candy or gum. One day, a student who was friendly with me offered me a stick of gum. I took it and unwrapped, it sticking it in my mouth. The teacher espied me chewing gum and came to me, made me stand up, she walked me to the front of the class and made me stand there for what seemed an interminable amount of time with the gum on my nose. I was humiliated. When the class ended, I went to the restroom to remove the gum that had hardened on my nose.
The second experience occurred in sixth grade. We were in the auditorium. Some boys grabbed the stage velvet curtains and leaped off the stage to the floor crying out like Tarzan’s hoarse bark, flying through the air on a jungle vine. As a tomboy, I felt I could do whatever they were capable of doing. I grabbed the curtain, cried out like Tarzan and leaped to the floor. The principal came and caught us. She scolded us and went on to say to me in front of all the students, “. . . but you, a girl! I can’t believe you did it too.” The curtain had torn. We were all told our parents would have to pay for the repair. I cringed that I would have to report this to my parents who struggled financially. I went to my class, sat in the back of the room and silently cried in humiliation. I was eleven years old
Such experiences as a child lastingly impacted that child—in fact, any child. The first experience is recognizable today as abusive action by a teacher against a child who normally never had gum or candy at school. To stand in front of the class with gum on one’s nose until the end of class was abusive humiliation. I later recognized how deeply it scarred me causing almost a self-hatred and sense of rejection.
The second experience represented a childish prank of a child doing something foolish to prove herself. The principal’s rebuke was valid, but the action of singling out one child due to her gender put her in a more vulnerable position. Later as I stood waiting on a corner to cross the street, my brother in an upper grade came behind me and said: “I heard what you did. Boy! Are you ever going to get it when you get home”! I trembled crossing the street fearing what was in store for me. My mother scolded me and said, “Wait until your father comes home.” I did not receive a spanking but rather a strong rebuke and “How could you do that?” Both parents discouraged my tomboy ways, as they wanted their daughter to be all-girl. We waited with dread for how much the bill would be to repair the curtain. When it came, my parents paid it immediately. Since I didn’t receive an allowance, I couldn’t pay them back.
Why am I sharing this story? It’s because children are very fragile emotionally and mentally. Discipline can cross a line that goes beyond correction to permanently scarring them. Back then, educators probably didn’t study child psychology. Some children who experience abuse become abusers. Others become dysfunctional. All experience brokenness to some extent. Those scars remain hidden or latent, but they do remain; and to think more than seventy years later they still cause pain reveals how powerful they are in a child’s life.
A second reason for sharing this story is a reminder to me and, I hope to others, to never forget children are fragile and vulnerable. Discipline with love, sensitivity, and limits. It’s not just actions that matter, but words also matter.
Lastly—but not least—remember and give thanks to God who can enable us to be healed even if scars remain and to forgive those who either abused or humiliated us at any time in life, not just as children.
I sometimes wonder if such experiences didn’t play a major role in my seeking something or someone in life that accepted me warts and all, loved me, and gave purpose to my individual life. I’m here to say I believe such experiences prodded me to find such a one, such a person. I met that person not for the first time—as I was already acquainted with him—but when I was 19 years old and received him into my life, heart, and spirit. That Person was Jesus Christ who became my Lord and Savior, who brought pardon and redemption, who brought real purpose and even confidence to my life, and has steadfastly been faithful to me despite moments of unfaithfulness to Him. I didn’t seek Him; He sought me. As the African American Spiritual articulately reveals, “He never failed me yet.” I am nothing more than a debtor to God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
Helen Louise Herndon is a member of Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri. She is freelance writer and served as a missionary to the Arab/Muslim world in France and North Africa.