Dealing With Embarrassing Stuff

10 June 2014 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Image courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski; 12frames.eu.

Image courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski; 12frames.eu.

This post isn’t about science communication. It’s about the idea that sometimes there are ways to address those little pieces of guilt that nag away at the back of your mind. And occasionally, if you tackle those things head on, you can replace a long-standing chunk of guilt with something both good and productive.

About 19 years ago, I did something stupid, if relatively unremarkable on the grand scale of poor decisions that 18-year-olds make. I dropped out of a class.

In the spring semester of my freshman year in college I took a course in biological anthropology. I found it fascinating and did fairly well. At the end of the course, I asked the professor if I could take a much higher-level course that she was teaching in the fall. Because I was only a freshman, and the course was aimed at more accomplished upperclassmen, I required her permission to register for the class.

She met with me during her office hours, explained that it would be a lot of work, and asked me questions to determine whether it made sense for her to give me special dispensation to take the course. When she gave me her approval to take the class, she made clear that this was not something she normally did, and urged me not to disappoint her. I was sure that I would be able to live up her to expectations.

And I was wrong.

To be blunt, my grades as a freshman were underwhelming. And it was during the latter part of my freshman year that I began working at a bar – which did little to improve my academic performance.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, in the longstanding tradition of teenagers with disgraceful grade point averages, I panicked about my ability to buckle down and meet all of my obligations.

While the advanced anthropology course was the class I was looking forward to the most, it was also the class that required the most work – and it was an elective that would not count toward my major. So I decided to drop the class.

I told the professor. She was frustrated, and told me so. Someone else could have taken that spot in her class, she noted.

My workload immediately became easier, but my decision really bothered me. I felt that I’d not only inconvenienced the professor (which I had), but that I’d also let myself down.

In fact, that decision bothered me for almost 18 years. Every time I thought of it, I felt guilty. And I thought about it a lot.

Then, in 2012, I decided to follow up with my former professor and apologize. I doubted she even remembered me, but I thought it was time for an overdue apology.

She did remember me. And she wrote me an extremely kind and thoughtful response. In fact, we had many things to talk about, including a shared interest in science communication. It was the beginning of an acquaintanceship and hopefully, in time, a friendship. And that shadow of guilt lurking at the back of my mind was gone.

This isn’t a call to action. There are no communication tips or insights here. And I’m not sure why I’m writing about this now.

There are many decisions, words,  and actions that do lasting harm. No apology will magically make those things better. But if there’s a lesson here at all, maybe it’s this: sometimes there are things we’ve done that can be forgiven. I’m certainly glad that I chose to reach out and apologize, even if it was 17 years overdue.


3 Responses to “Dealing With Embarrassing Stuff”

  1. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Note: the professor in question was Barbara King -- an excellent teacher and researcher at the College of William & Mary (my alma mater), as well as a blogger for NPR and author of a number of books that are worth a look. I left the professor anonymous in the post out of consideration for her privacy. But she has now read the post, and likes it, so I wanted to give her credit.

  2. Olle Bergman Reply | Permalink

    I carried two stones of shame in my backpack for years. One was about a young woman which I didn't treat like a gentleman, one was about some weird, somewhat hurting wordings in a thesis which I wrote because I suffered from anxiety and felt I must excuse myself in the acknowledgement section.

    Case 1: wrote a letter 12 years after the event. She was glad to hear from me and couldn't recall the passage whatsoever.

    Case 2: called the person in question. He praised my efforts for his department, and only had positive memories of what I done there.

    Bottom line: I believe that many of the burdens we carry are just products of our own imagination.

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