I was facing a cement block wall painted that certain beige color only found in elementary schools with my back turned toward the classroom. It was first grade and I was sitting at a station for individual, quiet work. It was at this station, record spinning, giant headphones secured tightly around my bowl cut, that I listened intently to the words that were being spoken for my ears only.
When the record prompted Repeat after me, I said out loud what it requested—very loudly. A little too loudly. Loud enough to disturb the whole class who was working on another lesson. The teacher asked me from across the room to lower my voice, but I didn't hear her because of the headphones. I was facing the opposite wall so I couldn't see her attempts to get my attention. I didn't hear the class laughing. And when I started to sing along to the song coming through the headphones at top volume, I can only imagine that they laughed harder.
When my teacher crossed the room and put her hand on my shoulder, I was startled by the interruption. I slid the headphones down around my neck and before she could say a word, I heard the class giggling, and I knew. Then I turned bright red and burst into tears. Instead of laughing at myself because it was a silly, goofy, funny thing to happen, I was overwhelmed by the shame of not being in on the joke, of called out, laughed at.
As a child and well into adulthood, I wasn't able to laugh at myself. If someone was laughing at something I did or a mistake I made, I felt exposed and vulnerable. I was known for the deep shade of crimson my face would take on, and I often wouldn't be able to contain the tears that welled up. And so I taught myself to hide and stay protected from other people's laughter. Instead of learning how to laugh at myself, I learned to not put myself in situations where I could be laughed at. I learned not to expose any weakness.
When I became a parent, I saw the same thing happening to my own children. They would make a mistake or do something wrong and they didn't have a sense of humor about their own folly. They were following my lead. But where was I leading them? This might be the most humbling and magical thing about being a parent. You hold up the mirror and see all of your own missteps and finally realize that enough is enough. Something has to give or you will pass on your inability to laugh at yourself right alongside your green eyes and your ability to roll your tongue. I realized that they would never learn, unless I showed them.
Now I make every effort to laugh at myself. To show them how it's done. When I trip or fall, instead of looking around in embarrassment wondering if anyone saw, I call myself out, Did you see that? And I laugh. When I use the wrong word or mess up or break something or I can't seem to get something right no matter how many times I try, I make the effort to laugh at my mistakes instead of making them into things to be embarrassed about. I try to show my kids that we are all imperfect creatures, doing our best, and laughing through the tough spots. When I'm belting out the wrong verse at church and the people around me turn to look like I'm from another planet, I laugh. Because, really, what else can you do?