A story of earned shame
By the time I was eleven, I was starting to come out of my deep depression. My mother had moved us to a high-rise closer to town. It was a tougher neighborhood. Even school was not the haven it had once been.
I began to have feelings that frightened me. Anger. Resentment. Jealousy. I desperately wanted what all the people around me seemed to have. Especially my little cousin. She got more attention, had more things than I could ever imagine. I wanted someone to notice me, to care enough to give me something.
So I took it. Literally.
Every day I walked my sister and a younger girl from our building to and from school. Sometimes we would stop at the five and dime on the way home. We would look at the toys, the candy, and the miscellaneous junky stuff. Pencils, erasers in distinct colors and shapes, and all the cheap toys a child could ever nag their parents for.
One day I slopped a pencil under my voluminous cape my aunt had given me. A symbol of all that love and “stuff” I so desperately longed for. The world did not stop. God didn’t send a bolt of lightning. No one stopped and stared.
I hurried the girls to the checkout line. I purchased a candy bar. I held my breath until we were around the corner from the store.
Other cheap items joined that pencil, secreted away in my desk. I was too ashamed to use them. Still, my heart felt warm when I took them out to admire before stashing them away again.
Until The Day.
From the moment we stepped into the store Nervous dread wiggled inside me. I kept looking over my shoulder. Staring all around me. I moved furtively, rather than casually. As the candy bar disappeared below my cape, I felt positively sick.
I rushed the girls out the door without buying anything. Just as I pushed the door open a heavy hand landed on my shoulder. A deep, male voice demanded to know what was under my cape. I began to cry. I handed over the candy bar, offering to pay for it.
Instead, I was guided to a room above the sales floor. My sister and the neighbor girl were sent off with strict instructions to go straight home.
I sat on a wooden chair, my clarinet case at my feet. Eventually my tears slowed down. The security guard towered over me, demanding to know why I had done it.
He pointed to the case. I was too good for this, he told me. I was supposed to be one of the good kids.
After another eternity, a police officer arrived. He took my mother’s work number. He hung up and gave me strick instructions to go home and wait for my mother. I felt sick, exposed, ashamed, and very frightened.
At home I waited for my mother. I could feel my world crumbling under me. I feared something worse than death.
She walked in the door angry. Both for the shoplifting and because she had had to leave work early. She demanded to know why I had done it. My mind whirled, desperately seeking the magic words that might appease her. It came to me in a rush, and the lie came pouring out.
I muttered something about my father’s stories of thievery. My eyes were firmly on the ground as I went on. I just wanted to see if I could do it, too. I swore it was the first time.
It worked. My mother softened.
The next morning, before my mother left for work, I pleaded to stay home. I felt sure it somehow showed on my face. My face was full of fire just imagining it.
To my surprise, she agreed. For one day. It felt like love, like the greatest kindness she had every shown.
I never walked the neighbor girl to school again, and I never went back into the store. Just walking past it made my mouth dry and my stomach clench.
I did my best not to think about that day. Every time it flashed across my mind, I viciously shoved it down. Down with every other memory I simply could not face.