DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a 22-year-old college student. To avoid having student loans, I work hard and don’t have a lot of funds left over after paying for tuition. Thus, my wardrobe is not exactly high-end. My clothes are always clean and neat, but admittedly my winter coat is showing a lot of wear and tear.
At the beginning of a recent class, my professor told the class (of 12 students) that before we began, someone had a special announcement. Another student pulled out a gift bag, and presented me with a new coat that the entire class had pitched in to buy for me.
She gave a little speech about how some are less fortunate than others, and those who are in a better position want to be a blessing. Several students and my professor were videoing the whole thing on their phones.
After turning crimson from embarrassment, I said “thank you,” then welled up with tears. I think they thought I was crying because I was so touched, but actually I was humiliated. I had never felt so ashamed in my whole life.
They were all so happy and cheering. I just wanted to run out of the classroom, but I stayed until the end of the session, then made a quick exit. I heard that several classmates posted the video on social media.
How should I respond to this? How do I thank them when I am not at all thankful for their embarrassing me? And do I have to wear this coat to class now? They, of course, will notice if I don’t. It is a nice coat, but I’m embarrassed.
GENTLE READER: We have to suppose that they meant well, but this is what Miss Manners would call selfish charity.
The coarsening of society, where solvent people are shameless about asking for money — as presents or outright funding — has made them insensitive to feelings of self-respect and pride. They cannot imagine that anyone wouldn’t be thrilled to get something for free.
So you must explain. This is, in fact, a class, so teaching a lesson is warranted.
They will be expecting a torrent of gratitude, so you must begin by acknowledging their good intentions. Then ask them to please take down the video, because it embarrasses you.
Then you must counter assumptions that you are being modest, and explain how you really feel. Miss Manners suggests something like this:
“I believe in charity, and I recognize your charitable motive. Thank you for worrying about me, but I am not a charity case. I am not as well-off or as well-dressed as the rest of you, but I have my pride. I hope you will understand why I cannot accept this.”
Then you could add, “I will be donating this coat to a homeless shelter, and I will do so anonymously, so as not to embarrass anyone.” Or, if you want to keep the coat: “I will be putting aside money until I am able to pay your kindness forward by donating the amount to the truly needy.” (c) MISS MANNERS
Well, that’s… horrific.
In middle school I had a group of friends. We were all misfits who didn’t quite hang with the cool kids, and we got along quite well, for the most part. (The cool kids were nice to us, but I for one was too shy and intimidated to interact with them regularly.) Uh, let’s see… my friends’ names were: Denise, Kathy, Kelly, Taylor, and Martha. One of them also shared my last name (no relation).
Martha’s family was quite poor, and she wore the same jumper to school every other day. The rest of us were careful not to mention this and thus draw attention to it, so I find it appalling that this sort of occurrence is happening at the college level. Good grief!
(Coincidentally, my mom had the same wardrobe problem when she was in middle school.)
I think this was a misguided disaster. I feel beyond sorry for the letter writer.
If I were this letter writer, here’s what I’d do, although this may or may not appeal to the letter writer: I’d talk to the department head and ask about switching classes midsemester to a different teacher. This is so… horrific that I can’t imagine. If possible, I’d try to stay the course if switching wasn’t doable. I’d wear the coat, but a part of me would be dying inside. But when I really think about it, I honestly think that the college, if she could talk to the dean, ought to give her a financial credit to drop the course without monetary loss, because no one should have to keep going to class under these circumstances; and the dean ought to make good on that.
And then I’d seek out on-campus counseling, which is generally included with tuition, because this sounds borderline traumatic. My concern is that this could heighten the letter writer’s overall self-consciousness and make her feel more conspicuous. The psyche can be a fragile thing.
DEAR ABBY: Back around 1987, a girl asked me to take her to her high school prom. I was several years older, didn’t know her well and wanted to say no but couldn’t. In the end I stood her up. I don’t even remember her name. She worked at a grocery store with my brother.
That was more than 30 years ago. I am married now and have two fine children. I was recently asked what my biggest regret is, and I said standing her up. Not one week has gone by in the last 30 years that I haven’t thought about her and wished I could find her and tell her how truly sorry I am.
It’s funny. Although I can’t remember her name, there’s no one from my past that I have thought about more than her. I would give anything to find her and apologize. It haunts me. Any suggestions? — BIGGEST REGRET IN THE SOUTH
DEAR BIGGEST REGRET: What you did to that girl was brutal. Because it’s not possible for you to directly offer the apology she deserves, concentrate harder on the present and always try to treat everyone with kindness and sensitivity. (c) DEAR ABBY
God, I hate guilt. It hurts. This is the sort of thing I’m afraid of. Yeah, I’m actually afraid of experiencing this level of guilt. I think I grew up seeing what guilt did to my mother, and it’s not pretty. But most of my life has been so overly emotional and disorienting that fortunately there are no huge moments of guilt rising up above any other moments. Whew!
Hmm…. I do wish he wouldn’t be so hard on himself. She put him on the spot, and he was rendered incapable of forming a negatory response. That’s hard to deal with at any age.
I’m not making excuses for him… okay, yes, I am. It’s just that when something’s said and done you can’t keep torturing yourself. I think that justifications and rationalizations actually play a good role when the alternative would be abject self-hatred several decades later. You were young and stupid. We’ve all done stupid things when we were young and stupid.
What you did to that girl was brutal.
See? That’s not helpful. Geez. I’m angry at Dear Abby over this.
He could hunt her down and apologize. His brother might know her name. Regardless of whether that would be in her best interest, I feel so sorry for this guy that I’m thinking of his best interests at this point.
If he can’t figure out her identity, he could see it as a karmic debt to be repaid to the universe at large. I sometimes offer people karmic debts if I’ve screwed them over and I’m really, really sorry. It’s where you do whatever the person asks or give them whatever they want, within reason, of course. If given to the universe as a whole, he could pledge to perform a good deed, or that sort of thing, in order to absolve himself. Offhand, I’m thinking that confessing in a Catholic sense might help him, too, but I don’t know much about Catholicism.
It seems as if Dear Abby didn’t put any effort into her answer. It’s pretty much the worst answer that I can imagine.
I was talking to Mr. Self-Absorbed once (this guy I used to know who’s pathologically self-absorbed to the point that I got badly burned by it). This was after we reconnected and tried to work things out. He said that he was ashamed of how idiotic he’d acted when we were teenagers. He didn’t mean that he felt bad about having hurt me. He meant that he felt stupid for having acted so idiotic all the time. (One time he showed me how much snot he blew out of his nose. You get the picture.)
I told him that I understood, and that we were all idiots with overflowing hormones, self-consciousness, and emotions. (This is all true. We were all hormonal, emotional idiots.) It made him feel better.
I’m glad one of us benefited from reconnecting. [Groan.] (All he wanted to do was trash-talk me to everyone in our former youth group because of how mean I’d been to him over the years, as if he was only pretending to want to work things out.) I’m pretty much through with him at this point in my life. I have mixed feelings about helping him forgive the idiocy of his adolescent self, even though he’s never done a thing for me but be a bad friend. A very, very bad friend.
But minor regrets, like having been an idiotic teenager, are so common as to be a regular aspect of the human experience. I’m sure we all feel stupid about how we acted when we were younger–in small ways. I mean, when I was a teenager, I used to brag about tasting earwax. There you go. Would I do that today? Probably not. Do I want to beat myself up over it? Not particularly.
But I understand the letter writer’s distress. His regret is bigger and somewhat heartbreaking. I’d also recommend that he watch an episode of The Golden Girls called “What a Difference a Date Makes”. Dorothy’s prom date stood her up, too, and when they reconnect a million years later Dorothy learns why: when he showed up in casual clothing, Dorothy’s mother Sophia sent him away and told him to put on dress clothes before returning. He never came back. Dorothy never knew that had happened, and upon discover of this, she blamed her mom several decades after the fact for how she (Dorothy) wound up pregnant at nineteen and stuck with a lousy husband like Stanley Zbornak.
I doubt that Dorothy’s prom date spent his whole life beating himself up. That should give the letter writer some solace. Sometimes TV can help.
At any rate, he has my permission to forgive himself, for whatever that’s worth.