Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Quantum Mechanics of Apologies

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” ― Benjamin Franklin

One of the hardest debts we ever have to square away can be an apology. Consider this an open payment toward crawling, ever so slightly, out of the red.

The reason it can’t be formally deposited at the Bank of Humility is achingly simple: I don’t know who I owe it to. Not by name, anyway. Nonetheless, someone specific out there is overdue for an apology, and this is as good a time as any to tender payment. Because this person - someone I only knew briefly many years ago, and even then only in passing – also deserves the respect of being addressed by name, I’m giving her one here and hoping that an apology by any other name will still be as valid.

Her name here is Zeena, and she was a day camp counselor from my youth who bubbled up in memory recently. And she has a story that’s worth sharing.

* * * * *

When you’re a kid, every single year between you and other kids makes a tremendous difference. When I was twelve years old and attending the Homewood Brushton YMCA Summer day camp, the few years between me and my younger relatives, also in the camp, made me their de-facto leader. I automatically carried higher degrees of authority and responsibility, some of which I was aware of, and some I didn’t realize until years later. Conversely, I had to concede authority to a number of the junior counselors, some of whom likely had as few years separating them from me as I had between my relatives and myself. In my eyes, these junior counselors were “almost-adults”, and those of us with a modest degree of house-training were inclined to respect them.

Zeena was maybe between 16 to 19 years old, and my thirty-year-old memories of her are so hazy, it’s almost easier to tell you what I don’t remember about her than what I do. I don’t remember directly interacting with her, or any specific conversation we may have had. Routinely, counselors and junior counselors were assigned groups of kids to watch for the day, but I don’t remember being in one of her groups, although I’m sure I was. I don’t remember the sound of her voice. I don’t remember where in Pittsburgh she was from, or if she made any genuine friends at the camp.

I have half-memories of Zeena being a vegetarian, which was odd in those days, especially in the nearly all-black makeup of camp attendees and counselors. She was small, maybe a little bit taller than me, thin and unassuming. She wore her hair close-cropped in a buzzcut, which was also unusual for girls at the time. She was very fair-skinned, possibly biracial, something which made her stand out. (She wasn’t the only person who was, by far, but this leant to her distinct persona.) And her name, her real name, was unusual. “Zeena” actually feels phonetically familiar and may very well be close to being right.

Zeena, our protagonist, was different, and that earned her an antagonist.

One of the kids I tended to gravitate towards hanging out with was a boy named Michael. He was one of the Alpha-males of the campers, about a year older than me, cocky and self-sure. I didn’t formally know what swagger was then, but he had it in abundance, and I liked that quality. He was smooth with the girls in a way I’d never seen before, which was intriguing. He seemed to like me as well, because of my artistic talents and my own budding distinct persona…and also probably because I followed him around a lot, and admired him on some level.

I don’t remember much, but I do remember that Michael did not like Zeena.

There’s so much about that time I wish I could time-travel back to and re-explore. Maybe Michael was actually attracted to Zeena and had been rebuffed, or he just didn’t know how to channel what he felt. More likely, he may have been a spiteful kid, acting out to stay popular. Whatever the case, he targeted Zeena with his mockery, sometimes overtly, which immediately undercut her position of authority. He made fun of her clothes and food and appearance, and over a relatively short period of time – which probably lasted an eternity for Zeena – he generated a noticeable undercurrent of resentment towards the junior counselor. I dimly recall some of the senior counselors joining him under half-hushed breaths in making fun of her.

I don’t remember joining in, but I suspect I did, which wasn’t setting a good example for my sisters and cousins. At the very least, I laughed when Michael joked, which was bad enough. Even if my hands had been clean up until that point, they literally got dirty eventually when the situation reached a boiling point.

One day at Frick Park, Michael escalated his tormenting of Zeena to an entirely new degree. He was openly scornful and hurled taunts and insults at her with such a cavalier manner it was shocking. Zeena, as always, tried to ignore him, but the strain on her this day was worse than before. All of us had moments of humiliation during the Summer – that was expected at camp. But this was new, something raw and fierce and completely mean-spirited. The second worst thing about the episode is how tolerant the counselors were when Michael launched into the attack.

The worst thing, however, was that when some of the other campers joined in hurling insults, I was one of them.

Even then, insulting people didn’t come naturally to me. I knew how to do some of that, just to keep the respect of my peers, and I had even risked a joke or two at Michael’s expense. (That was dangerous ground to walk on. Friends could turn around and smear the playground with you if you weren’t careful, but I was funny and charming and usually escaped any lingering hard feelings.) This girl hadn’t done wrong by me at any time, and I didn’t have anything vested in hurting her. But I wanted to maintain my status with Michael, and it just felt like the thing to do.

Then Michael went from hurling insults to hurling stones, literally. And other campers joined him, with handfuls of roots and twigs and berries. And I was one of them too.

Much like the verbal taunts, the stones progressed from being tossed lightly in her general direction to being thrown harder and harder, with more and more accuracy. There was a moment when she got hit in the face with something, and for a heartbeat most of us regained some small measure of composure and stopped. Zeena however snapped and grabbed a branch and began chasing her tormentors, especially Michael. I recall him laughing, as though it were a game, even though it had long since stopped being funny.

There is much I don’t remember about that day, and how the situation finally ended. I don’t remember what Michael’s punishment was, or if he’d even been punished at all. Like so much else, it’s all been lost to time and new experiences staking claim to my brain’s limited landscape.

But I do vividly remember Zeena, draped in a blanket, crying herself to sleep in the camp’s bus for the rest of the afternoon. And I remember the knot of guilt I felt about what had happened, and my own role in it.

I don’t remember ever seeing Zeena again.

* * * * *

When this memory resurfaced a few days ago, out of nowhere, it stilled me to silence as I considered the life that Zeena might have led in the months and years following her experience that day. Did it make her bitter? Did she ever try being a counselor anywhere again? Did she have kids, and if so, what did she end up passing along to them as a result of this? Had she talked about it since then, to anyone? Did she recognize that none of it was her fault? Did she know she was entitled to be the person she was?

And was it possible, even remotely, she might consider that at least one of the people involved was genuinely sorry for what happened?

It’s likely that 16-19 year old Zeena would have had a much different experience living in the world of 2012. I can easily imagine her spending time in Lawrenceville or the South Side, getting tattoos and piercings, going to shows with friends, enjoying a quasi-hipster-ish lifestyle. Today, I doubt she would be considered so “different”; at the very least, there’s enough of a culture of “different” people that she would have had a peer group.

Heck, she’d have had facebook to jump onto and vent about those evil brats at day camp. They’d have deserved it.

I know the chances of Zeena ever reading this recollection is small at best, but if the quantum mechanics of our spirits are at all entwined, I’d just like to put out into the Universe, from my mouth to God’s ear, that twelve-year old Marcel has an apology to offer by way of his older self. It’s gained lots of interest over the years, so it’s a big one now. (And there are other people I owe similar debts to, but I have to start off somewhere.)

I’m sorry, Zeena. You didn’t deserve any of that, and I hope you’ve had a good life.

For anyone reading this, I ask you to consider two things: first, if you’ve been wronged by someone you haven’t been in touch with for awhile, consider they might just regret what they did, whatever it was, and there may be an apology resonating through the ether in your direction.

Maybe not. But maybe so. It’s worth considering.

Second, if you suspect you’ve wronged someone else in some way, if you are at all able to, reach out and let that person know. A two-minute phone call or a postage stamp can sometimes go a long way towards easing years of resentment and bitterness.

Sometimes. Not always, but sometimes.

It’s worth considering.

“In this life, when you deny someone an apology, you will remember it at the time you beg forgiveness.” ― Toba Beta, My Ancestor Was an Ancient Astronaut

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