An Argument for Apology

On this holy Tuesday before Easter my thoughts are drawn to the teachings of Jesus as outlined in the New Testament: Love thy brother as thyself, The meek shall inherit the earth, Honor women and children to name a very few. Teachings are a gift from God. They come to us through our hearts and are generally messed with by our minds. I say that in light of another thought from yesterday’s Newsreel about human rights for women in Afghanistan. How easy it is to ignore those teachings or turn them to our own purposes. The human act of interpretation along with assumption and reframing is perhaps an attempt to find meaning and understanding in our everyday lives. Finding meaning has been going on for centuries. 

Last week my daughter’s gym teacher called me to explain that my daughter had cried for forty minutes during class. The reason for her crying was this: she forgot to get a note signed. A note that outlined that she had received 82% in physical fitness. The teacher explained that the children had one night to get the note signed but still she had given my daughter a 30-minute detention. 

I listened to the teacher and wondered why she was calling. Did she want sympathy, support or compassion? Did she want me to do something? So I asked if she wanted my opinion. ‘Yes’, she said. I told her that I thought she had chosen too harsh a consequence given the imposed one-day’s notice and the small nature of the mishap. I further explained that issuing ‘detention’ was equal to a prison sentence to a sensitive child. Detention being a criminal word implying wrong doing of a criminal sort. I left that idea with the teacher to ponder.

When I spoke about this issue with my daughter her argument was this: anyone can forget. Should I be punished for not remembering – especially when I had one day’s notice? Where is the compassion in this case? And most important – ‘I have no power in this situation’, she said.

Detention is a standard policy at my daughter’s school. It is used for daily lateness and obviously for forgetting to get notes signed. My thoughts on detention are this: we have outlawed corporal punishment in the school system but clearly we allow emotional punishment of shame and humiliation. What does detention say to a child? Does it promote self-regulation, self-esteem or self-empowerment? I suggest not. In my opinion, it promotes power of one individual over another – not equality. Unfortunately this appears to be our current state of affairs when it comes to wrongdoing. The might gets the right to decide. 

In this case I would suggest that a simple and sincere apology would have worked more effectively at reinforcing remembrance. It would have honored the frailty of the human condition with out power-over. It might have fostered self-regulation and it would not have detracted from self-esteem. I wonder what we are reinforcing in our choice of punishment at the middle school level. Is this the kind of world citizen that we want to grow?

Apology is a lost art. One that says I’m sorry for hurting your feelings or not sharing your point of view. Apology asks for forgiveness and seeks to move the relationship forward – in equality. The root of the word apology is from the Greek apologia (απολογία): to argue in defense of a cause or one’s beliefs or actions. Perhaps the concept of apology itself needs some defending and remembering.

So to be fair, I myself will apologize in advance for any bruises I may cause by revealing this situation at a local school. I suggest that ten laps around the gym might have been a better reinforcer – ten laps and an apology.

Published in TONE Magazine, May issue 2009