When my mother-in-law was in middle school in Beirut around 1946, she arrived late to class one day.
The teacher scolded her.
“You owe ten cents,” he said.
It had already been a long day for the 12-year-old girl. She was tired.
“No,” she said.
“I’m not paying ten cents.”
The class went dead silent.
“And why is that?” said the teacher.
“I don’t have ten cents. And even if I did, it’s not fair.”
She was sent to the principal’s office.
When she arrived, the principal was working at his desk. She waited for him to finish writing.
Finally he looked up.
“Why are you here?” he said.
She was embarrassed and upset, but also angry. By nature she felt emotions intensely. Sometimes it was hard to gather her thoughts, to explain matters correctly.
But as she looked at her hands in her lap, she noticed something. She saw little traces of bread dough along the edges of her fingernails.
“Sir, I am sorry I was late for the class,” she said. “I woke up very early this morning. Our mother is in the hospital right now. She has pleurisy in her lungs. While she is gone, I am doing everything. I’m getting my one sister ready for school, and getting the other one ready to drop off at relatives. I get them dressed, I braid their hair, I feed them, I clean up. Today I had to knead the dough and take it to the bakers. Look, you can still see the dough on my fingernails.”
She held up her hands.
“It’s not a joke, what I’m doing every morning,” she said. “My classmates all live near the school. They can hear the bell from their homes. I live far away. It takes me 45 minutes just to get here. So I am very sorry I was late. But I’ve been running all morning. I’ve barely had time to breathe.”
When she finished, she looked at the principal and was surprised to see him looking down. It seemed as if he was pretending to look at papers on his desk.
He reached for a slip of paper, wrote a short note. He held it out for her, still not looking up.
“Give this to your teacher,” he said.
As my mother-in-law walked back to class, she felt relief. The anger and shame from the classroom scolding was gone. She had dispelled those feelings by speaking her mind, by giving the long account of her morning activities.
She felt happy and vindicated, yes, but there was more. The principal had looked away from her in order to conceal that his eyes had welled with tears. Her words had moved him to tears!
That was really something.
She thought about it as she walked back down the hallway to the classroom. She was holding a note which instructed that the 10-cent penalty be lifted and that no other punishment be implemented in its place.
My mother-in-law was not one for fake modesty or humility. As she entered the room, she knew her classmates were curious what the principal had said, what the note said.
But she ignored them. She walked to the front of the room, laid the note on her teacher’s desk, and returned to her desk.
Never mind the others. She could tell them the story later. For right now, she just wanted to show, with her cool and confident demeanor, that yes, she had won. There was no shame or embarrassment. She didn’t owe anyone anything — not an apology, not ten cents. She was ready to get down to work.