This is what shame culture looks like

This story begins like many stories do, with a girl. In this case, though, the girl is me when I was ten years old.

This little girl, this younger me, was a model student. I won spelling bees, had a solo in the Christmas chorus concert, was a math superstar ( not bragging, that’s actually the name of an after school club). My mom was, and still is, a teacher. I made sure there weren’t any bad stories to make it back to her.

During the Spring of fifth grade year, we got our yearbooks. I carried it everywhere collecting signatures, the way you normally do. I never fell in with just one clique. I hovered on the outside of all of them. It meant I had a lot of Hancocks to collect.

Being the dutiful student I was, the last person I asked to sign my yearbook was my teacher, Mrs. Miller (the second of three Millers I would have over the course of my primary education). She asked to hold onto it since she couldn’t sign it then. She assured me she’d return it once she’d had the chance to write something.

Class started. She taught. Maybe we learned. Later that day, Krystal Ball and I got called to the office (Honestly her name. She had a show on MSNBC and ran for Congress. You can Google her).

I remember my heart hammering in my chest, turning to Krystal with a question in my eyes. She shrugged, eyes just as wide as mine. Neither of us had ever been called to the principal’s office before.

Once we were in the office, I sat in a chair and stared at my feet. My cheeks were on fire. My eyes burned. There was the very real possibility I would burst into tears at any moment.

It was the two of us, the principal, and Mrs. Miller. They asked if we knew why we were there. I shook my head without looking up. Our yearbooks slid across the desk. It was supposed to explain everything, but I was still clueless.

They flipped mine open to the back page. It was filled with notes scribbled in the uneven hands of my friends. A stern finger pointed to a couple of the messages. My eyes burned too much to read them. They told me some boys had written inappropriate things. They said those things didn’t belong in my yearbook.

I stopped listening then. My shame and fear filled my ears instead. My mom would hear about this. She would be so disappointed in me.

They gave the yearbooks back when they were done talking. I held mine tight to my chest, afraid to let anyone else touch it. I shook my head and turned away when my classmates asked what they had called me to the office for. I didn’t let anyone else sign my yearbook.

It wasn’t until years later, when I happened upon the book while packing, that I would wonder if the boys ever had their turn sitting shame-faced in that office. I don’t remember them being called out the way Krystal and I were. The feeling of shame is all I recollect. The panicked breath. The burning cheeks. The implication that their behavior was my fault, that I shouldn’t have let such a thing happen.