“No one wears their uniform on the first day of school.”
She whispered those words to me on the playground outside Sacred Heart. Her tone felt like scalding water to my ear drums.
It was my first day of 4th grade at Sacred Heart Elementary in Norfolk, Nebraska. After attending District 20 — a one-room, country grade school for three years, I was so excited for my transfer to Norfolk Catholic. It was in-town. Three stories. There were at least two teachers per grade. And best of all: I got to wear a uniform!
Can you imagine the scene?
A sea of school children abuzz on the first day of classes. The Catholic school campus, church, and priest residence covering half a city block. My mom or dad dropping my brother Ben and I off in front of the church to make our way down the alley corridor to the parking lot playground where 300 or so other earnest young people were milling about for the bell and start of the new school year.
It was outside the 3rd -5th grade door entrance that my cousin Jill, an 8th grader, made a bee line across the campus to inform me of my dress code faux pas. “No one wears their uniform the first day of school.”
It was obvious, by that point, that I had gotten something wrong. Surrounded by blue-jean and tee-shirt wearing peers and me, donning my red plaid jumper.
I did not belong.
I reviewed my own apparel from top to bottom: white cotton shirt; that beloved plaid jumper; bare knees poking out from under the hem line; tube socks covering my lower legs; and navy saddle shoes adorning my feet.
I did not belong.
In the scrutiny, I was leveled by another humiliation: I was wearing two, mismatched tube socks. Put on in the low light of that September morning, I had not noticed their difference until that moment. Insult, meet Injury.
The wash of embarrassment moved through me; that lump in my throat; my tongue becoming thick; the feelings of not-enoughness lodging in my body — in what I now understand as shame. My cousin, the epitome of sheik, corrected me, and then turned her head and walked away.
Forty-three years later, this memory comes to me as a gift and an opportunity to heal.
In a recent experience where I felt out of place, wasn’t fully acquainted with the rules, (read: best practices/ cultural norms), I recognized all those physical reactions of my body experiencing shame, and this memory of the first day of 4th grade came back to me. This time, however, a spirit of compassion and curiosity companioned the memory. As a spiritual director, aware of shame resilience techniques, and grounded in Ignatian spiritual practice, I brought inquiry to my memory.
I asked: “I wonder where God was in that moment?”
In a split second of pure, imaginative grace, I saw Jesus standing next to me on that playground donning his own two, mismatched tube socks.
A joy erupted in my belly as I giggled with -and alongside– God. My little 4th grade body next to Jesus’ lithe, sweat-band clad, curly-haired self. He was holding a basketball under one arm and smiling as he stood next to me. In the memory, my shrinking self was able to stand tall again. Jesus wasn’t an ethereal, foreign figure, but one arriving as my friend. He was just as awkward as me, but we were there together. I felt a deep sense of love and belonging. To myself, to God, to the greater community.
This experience, for me, is a gift of the Ignatian Spiritual exercises. Journeying through the gospel stories in the manner set out by St. Ignatius of Loyola, I have a notebook full of recorded, imagined encounters with Jesus that make Christ’s presence accessible here, now. Not only was I in the boat with Him and fellow disciples on the sea of Galilee; there in the Jordan when He was baptized by John; gleaning His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; and ecstatic alongside Mary on the morning of His Resurrection; but in my own life of recall, I see Him. The fruits of Ignatian prayer practice arrive in a myriad of ways that open me, as our Jesuit counterparts like to say, to finding God in all things. Here, today, in this 4th-grade memory and healing the shame.
In the next breath of my recollection of that first day at Sacred Heart, with Jesus alongside me, my cousin Jill’s whispered words went from being condemning to compassionate, advice-giving.
A wide berth was granted to me in this prayerful reflection, bringing the healing of that memory to the experience of the healing of my shame in my present-day adulthood.
It’s incredible what healing shame feels like in your body.
The embarrassment and wrongness I experienced softens to compassion for myself – both as a 4th grader, and as a 52-year-old mom, wife, food-enthusiast, small-business owner and spiritual director.
With this kind of softening inside comes a softening and extension to others: Are you having a bad day? Responding from a place of not-enoughness? Consider asking yourself: Where is God in this moment? And see what image of Love comes to greet or companion you.