Humiliation Over a Desert

boy running in the hallway
Photo by Caleb Oquendo on

First day back at school. Second grade. Altoona, Pennsylvania. My teacher smiled at her class of eager learners and then started the day’s activities.

“What did you do this summer? Did you go anywhere special?”

She then went around the room as each child proudly explained their summer activities: “We went to Grandma’s in Johnstown. We went camping. We didn’t go anywhere. We went to Lakemont. Did you know their roller coaster is the oldest in the whole wide world?”

And then she got to me. “Linda, what did you do this summer?”

“I went to the Desert of Maine,” I told her.

“Oh, honey.” She smiled. “Maine doesn’t have any deserts.”

“Yes, they do,” I told her. “I was there.”

Now she spoke a little more firmly. “No, Linda, deserts are in hot, dry places, not places like Maine near the ocean and with lots of trees.”

“But I was there.”

Her voice was beginning to sound like she was scolding me for doing something wrong. “Did you read a book about a desert? Maybe you imagined that you were in a desert.”

I sighed. “NO! I was really there,” I insisted.

Kids were now looking at me and snickering with a “she-doesn’t-even-know-where-she-was” look. I didn’t like being the center of attention. And I especially didn’t like the kids laughing at me.

“Linda, you know you should tell the truth.”

Humiliation settled into me like so much sifting sand.  I wouldn’t lie to a teacher. Tears trickled down my cheeks.

The teacher noticed my tears and said, “If you didn’t go anywhere this summer, that’s OK, just don’t lie about it. Now, let’s try again. Did you go anywhere this summer?”

“To the Desert of Maine,” I said between my sobs.

“We’ll talk about this later, Linda,” she told me and went on to the next student who had visited the downtown park.

Later, at recess, I overheard my teacher tell some other teachers about a child in her class who insisted she had been to the Desert of Maine. That made me feel worse. EVERYONE was hearing about it.

This was back when kids often went home for lunch and I was super anxious to run down the hill (remember, we lived in the mountains) to our house and tell my parents what had happened.

My mom patiently listened to me, wiped my tears, and smiled. “I know just what you can take to school this afternoon.” She went into the other room and came back with five or six pictures — all pics of me standing in front of signs that said, Desert of Maine.

I don’t think I have ever eaten my lunch as quickly as I did that day. I clutched the pictures in my hand and ran back up the hill.

Meanwhile, the teacher had gone to the principal about her “untruthful” student and the principal had said, “Let’s look it up in the encyclopedia.” And there it was: the Desert of Maine.

The teacher gave me a half-hearted apology (I think she was embarrassed), but she did let me pass the pictures around to show the other kids.

But the thing is … I remember the incident to this day. I remember the humiliation (my teacher thought I was lying to her) and the kindness of the principal who believed me enough to look it up instead of instantly deciding I was lying.

Yes, a lot of kids lie. And yes, a lot of kids don’t lie.

As adults, we get impatient with them when we don’t quite understand what they are saying. Maybe they’re attempting to explain something and aren’t real sure how to do it. Or maybe they’re mispronouncing a word. Or maybe they really are telling the truth … about something we aren’t familiar with.

Or maybe we’re just too impatient to hear what they’re really saying.

In Proverbs, we read:

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
    and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. (Proverbs 17:27) 

We think of verses like this as being from adult to adult, but these words can also be applied to adults with kids.

How quickly we brush off a child’s explanation, not really listening to what he’s saying. How often do we cause a child to say, “No one ever listens to me.” How quickly we assume that our child is saying something hurtful or untruthful.’

In the case of my Desert-of-Maine-fiasco, the principal was the one with the cool spirit. Instead of assuming I was lying (after all, I hadn’t gotten in trouble for lying before at school), she decided to check it out and see if there really was a Desert in Maine.

Yes, kids do lie and yes, they should be called on it.

But my desire is that I listen to the children in my life and don’t jump to conclusions. My desire is I take the time to hear what they are saying. My desire is I don’t make a child cry because I refuse to believe him/her.

I challenge you to do the same.

And if you get to Maine, be sure and visit the desert … I read on the web that it’s under new management and doing well.

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