As a child, she had always been self-conscious. Living on the edge of town didn't help. She always felt like an outsider, an extra cog. She had no close friends, hardly ever played with other girls, never went to anyone's house to play. It was impossible to conceive of anyone ever coming to her house. What would they do? Go out in the barn and play with her brothers?
Joining the 4-H Club had been a brave move. It was scary and, at the same time, exciting. Having an adult leader, though, helped a lot. It gave structure to activity with the other girls, and that made her feel much more secure.The first project she participated in was a sewing class. She had picked out an Indian-red material from the store and wanted to make a bolero. The fabric was expensive. But her dad rode into town with her on a Saturday morning after chores and bought it for her.
It was wonderful. When she got the material home, she laid it out on the table and admired it for the longest time. She was almost afraid to cut it. But the lessons from 4-H gave her the little boost of confidence she needed, and before she knew it, the pattern was pinned, the material cut and she was sewing the delicate pieces together.
It took time . . . and patience. She stayed up late under a dim, single light bulb. But she was so excited to take the finished work to 4-H that not a night passed without working on it. What would they think of it, she wondered? Did it look OK?
On the day of 4-H the next month, she carefully folded her creation and tucked it into a paper sack. She stored it in the side of her desk at school, and every little while would reach under the desk top with her hand and touch the sack to make sure it was still there.
Not until she was at the 4-H Club meeting did she touch the bolero itself. With apprehension, she reached into the sack, pulled it out and unfolded it onto her lap.
"How beautiful!" exclaimed the teacher. "Put it on and let's see how you look."
As she pulled the jacket over her shoulders, with a great many compliments from the teacher, there was still a sense of discomfort. The other girls, whom she had hoped to be approved by, said nothing.
Her teacher was so impressed that she insisted that she enter it in the sewing contest at the upcoming county fair. In fact, she took care of all the details, filling out the forms, and seeing that it got taken over to Provo along with a few other entries that she was handling.
Not only did it win first prize, but it was automatically entered in the state fair, where it also won first prize.
But winning was no victory. In fact, quite the opposite. On the day the bolero was returned, along with two beautiful blue ribbons, several of the girls pulled her to one side and told her that they knew she couldn't have made it herself. Her mother probably did it, and it was cheating to accept a prize for something you didn't do.
She was devastated and cried all the way home. She didn't know whether to hold the prize-winning garment close like a homely pet or to throw it in the creek where it would float away and she would never have to think about it again.
That night, her mother sat on the edge of her bed and comforted her the best she could. "Don't feel bad," she said, "you know you made it yourself, and that's the only thing that counts."
Her mother's words swept over her like a salve applied to a wound; it softened the hurt and the shame. But it was not enough to heal the wound. Wounds such as these, for a child in a time of self-conscious search for approval, heal very slowly and sometimes never. Underneath, the scars bite deep into the fragileness of the soul.
I know, because the little girl who told me this story is now in her 70s, yet she remembers the incident as if it happened yesterday. And as she recalled the feelings, I saw the hurt rise again, and the tears well up in her eyes as she tried to explain how it felt when the other girls taunted her.
I doubt the other girls remembered the incident at all nor realized the extent of damage wrought by a few thoughtless words. In a flood of experience, it flowed for them, like all of our experience, through the constant stream of words and feelings that make up our lives, a stream that usually can be controlled quite simply with only the slightest nudge of empathy . . . as simply as the turning of a thought from one channel of perspective to another.