In preschool, I used to love to play with blocks. You could gather a few together, stack them up, and–like magic–a wall would appear, or a house, or a tower. You could make anything, even something bigger than yourself – which, at 4 years old, is a phenomenon of untold awesomeness. I might have been small, but my block towers? Those were glorious.
On one particular day, I had constructed a stunning specimen out of wooden blocks about the size of small bricks (in the days before pink plastic princess blocks for girls, all children shared the same ones) that towered over my head. I reached to place the final piece on top of the rickety structure, and before I knew it–
The blocks had tumbled onto the head of the boy next to me who had been playing with a truck, unaware of the impending doom. I was stunned.
“I’m sorry!! I’m sorry!” I exclaimed. This is what you said when you hurt people.
“Sorry doesn’t help!” he shouted indignantly through tears, running to get the teacher, Ms. Loker (who, incidentally, had a terrible habit, when walking with you–at least, if you were 4–of holding your entire hand in a tight ball, rather than holding your fingers and thumb separately, like a normal human being).
Ms. Loker approached, and I fidgeted, worried. “I said I was sorry! I said I was sorry!” I yelled pre-emptively.
Her reply was short and swift:
“Sorry doesn’t help.”
It’s hard to describe what I felt at that moment. It was as though someone had told me that Santa Claus didn’t exist and that I would be getting coal in my stocking for all eternity. There were no magic words, and there was nothing I could do to atone for my mistake. I was at a complete loss. Where could I go from here? What kind of world did we live in, if saying “sorry” were ineffectual? What was to be done?
Apparently (this time anyway), time out.
Still, there were hundreds of other situations in which Ms. Loker’s assertion was patently contradicted. People said sorry all over the place. I was ordered to say sorry to my brother on multiple occasions, my parents said sorry to one another, and I’m sure that I had to tell Sharon I was sorry for waking her up in the wee hours of the morning to watch cartoons or get a snack when I slept over. Sorry had to help, or at the very least it wasn’t nothing – why else did everyone keep saying it?
When Sharon and I were in third grade at the Unnamed Religious Private School, there was a new girl in our class. She was socially awkward, talked too much, and had a vaguely disturbing need to draw her dog, Benji, on everything she owned, including an oil-pastels art project that was supposed to be an under-sea view. In that one, much to the art teacher’s chagrin, Benji was a mermaid. Her name was Dana, and to make matters worse, her last name sounded like a playground insult.
While it’s true that Sharon and I were decidedly not cool, I think we shared the sense that it was important not to be associated with Dana, and, while we were generally nice to her, we did not befriend her. I saw her occasionally at after-care, since her mom sometimes worked late, and we shared a fairly normal play relationship…until something happened.
One day when Dana and I were both in after-care, some of the older boys who were also after-care regulars (and who I thus had a serious social interest in impressing) started picking on her, making fun of her name and suggesting that she was disgusting. This was mean, but it was (in retrospect, anyway) pretty generic playground fare–especially for a boys-versus-girls kind of confrontation. But it didn’t stop there. Things escalated. Another older girl said something about Dana being gross, and having a disease. I laughed uncomfortably. I wanted to be part of the group. Dana was whining in her loud, annoying voice, “Stop it! Stop it!” And then I said it:
“Dana has AIDS!”
I didn’t know what that meant, not really. I knew how people talked about it, of course: like it was a combination of leprosy and sin itself, a contagion that would infect one’s blood and soul through mere proximity. As soon as I said it, I knew I had gone too far. Dana burst into tears and ran away crying. The other kids laughed uncomfortably, and quickly dispersed, to avoid any ensuing trouble.
I hid behind the playground equipment for the rest of the afternoon, certain that punishment awaited me.
But none came. My mom arrived to pick me up and take me to my friend Cate’s birthday party, which was scheduled for that evening. I fidgeted uncomfortably in my seat, sure that she was waiting for just the right moment to let on that she knew what I’d said. But she said nothing. At Cate’s house, I walked into her room–and there was Dana.
“Do you still think I have AIDS?,” she pointedly cried as I walked into the room, her face still blotchy and red. Cate and the other girls in the room stared, wide-eyed. “We were just joking…” I lied.
“Well it wasn’t funny!”
“I’m sor–” I began.
“Sorry doesn’t change anything!” she cut me off.
I stood there, bewildered, guilty, and ashamed. I felt the other girls looking at me. I hated the sound of Dana’s voice. I wanted to hide in the closet.
And then it was time to have cake and open presents. Somehow, I made it through the rest of the party without having the entire story recounted. Maybe it was because everyone else in the room merely tolerated Dana’s presence, or maybe it was because Cate didn’t want our drama to ruin her birthday–but not another word was said about it. Still, I lived in fear of my mother finding out for at least a week, and dreamed about it for years afterward. If Dana were still upset about it, she never told anyone. I have no idea what all of it meant to her, or even what happened to her later.
When I left for public school a year or so later, I had to switch classes 2 weeks into the semester. I had completed some state-mandated testing, and was to be placed into the 5th grade “Gifted” class, which was, it seemed, an elite and exclusive world to which few had access. During the first week in my new room, I was talking to Marisa, one of the coolest girls in the class, at recess.
“We were worried when we heard that there was a new girl coming to our class,” she said coolly, “since, you know, there are already only three cute boys.” I nodded, pretending to understand, and waited for her to finish.
“But then, when we saw you, we said, oh, good, at least she’s not pretty. Now we can be friends with her.” Marisa smiled at me a bit condescendingly, as though she had just congratulated me on winning a remedial spelling bee. I was shocked. It was the first time I’d been insulted so brazenly, so unapologetically. I said nothing. She walked away to talk to her other friends, and I sat alone, waiting for the bell to ring.
I didn’t ask for her to say that she was sorry. I knew that she wasn’t, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. What was said was said, and there was nothing that could have been done to take it back.
That isn’t to say that I’ve lost my faith in apologies. Since the playground, I’ve done and said my fair share of terrible things, and my neurotic obsession with mentally replaying those mistakes (yes, even in dreams) continues to throw me onto “I’m sorry” as a wild, grasping effort at changing the unchangeable.
I want to believe that Ms. Loker’s mantra wasn’t entirely true. I want to believe that though a “sorry” will not right the fallen blocks or words, it might change something. I want to believe that my “sorrys,” to Dana or Sharon or any of the other people I have wronged, will not have been so many empty words. And perhaps just as fervently, I wish I could believe that a simple “I’m sorry” would heal the wounds that I’ve acquired myself along the way. There are times, though, when I simply cannot.
It’s in those times that I wish all we were dealing with were a few wooden blocks.