I remember the first time I was really laughed at.
I was six, and my older sisters and I had taken a walk to our favorite pizza parlor a few blocks away from our house to get lunch. We crowded around a dimly lit table with our slices on paper plates and sat on our knees on the domed, red vinyl chairs. Along with our food, each of us had picked out a precious bottle of soda. In those days, and most after, carbonated drinks were a rarity in our childhood. We didn’t have sugar cereals, we couldn’t watch television during the school week, and soda was only for birthdays. So it was no surprise that I took the opportunity to have my very own bottle. I snagged a Sprite – my favorite.
One of my sisters read along the label that Coca-Cola was running a sweepstake with their drinks. You could win a trip, a cassette player, and other prizes! Each of us took turns opening our caps to see if we were a winner. One at a time, we found that no one won. As the youngest, I went last in every ritual, so when I twisted the top of my Sprite, took a look at the blue plastic under the cap and saw the words “1 Free Soda” typed in small black letters, I felt elated. I rejoiced the way only a small kid could, and shouted, “I won, I won!” Pure enthusiasm and happiness ruled me as I held up my right arm and thrust the cap in the air between my two fingers in triumph for all of my sisters see.
After my excitement died down, and we went back to our pizza, a few tables away I noticed a group of slightly older kids (maybe ten-years-old), who started imitating me and shouted in mockery, “I won, I won.” One even stood on his chair.
They were all laughing at me.
It was the first time I ever felt really ashamed, ridiculed and humiliated. I didn’t know these kids, I didn’t realize I had done anything wrong, and I had no idea that strangers could hurt you like that. People you didn’t even know could harpoon your personality, hold it up, and ridicule you in the public forum. I was who I was, and until then I never knew to hold back happiness, enthusiasm or excitement. My head sunk low, my face turned red, and when we left the pizza parlor, I felt like a different kid.
Today, I still love to win things, even if they’re little prizes or two bucks from a scratch ticket. It thrills me much like that first soda pop cap. But after that experience, and many others growing up, I learned that showing genuine enthusiasm and excitement in public is a risk. And it’s a shame because we should all be striving to be more ourselves every day, even if we’re a little ridiculous or weird.
It’s funny how we start off as kids. Eager and open, naive and trusting. Then we experience ridicule and social expectations, and we pull into ourselves, fearful of exposing who we really are because others can hurt us. Then as we get older, we relax again and figure out that we don’t care what other people think. That the people making fun of you are the ones with the problem.
It makes me sad that those nameless kids across a 90’s suburban pizza parlor dimmed my star a little. But I hope, in the throws of finding myself again, I’ve more than made up for it. So if you feel like shouting in triumph at the top of your lungs over winning a free soda – do it! Don’t let the fear of ridicule ever stop you from being yourself.
Do you remember when you first experienced embarrassment? How did you deal with it?