Creation Museum

One Sunday, minutes after leaving church, I experienced a revelation: at 10, I discovered that everyone is not the same. A girl, Helena, from the congregation had read during the service that morning. She was my age, well–educated, British. As she read, I heard words come out wrong and backwards and sometimes just not at all.

I don't remember what Helena wore that day. I imagine that she stood at the lecturn in patent leather shoes and knee–high socks, like a Catholic schoolgirl, although it was an Episcopalian church. She was blond, I know, but not the cherubic golden kind of blonde, nor the sickly shut–in kind. Her blondeness was the kind that comes with semi–transparent skin, and permanently flushed cheeks. She owned a bird with clipped wings. His delicately ornamental birdcage seemed like something from Kate Chopin.

After the service, I told Helena how funny she had been. I had never thought to mess up the readings and change the sentences around. Perhaps I was nascently preparing for my high school years, when I would find religion itself amusing.

Child pageant portrait

Then, without any idea of why, I was being berated. Helena's mother, who isn't even a shape in my memory, just an association with shame, came bearing down on me and my mother. Of course the crass American girl would make fun of her daughter's dyslexia! Why had she ever let us into her home? Helena was inconsolable, tears threatening to never stop!

Mostly I remember this revelation from the story being retold later. My mother defended me, and my father ranted later at home. Or maybe they didn't—memories mostly stick around for me in still shots. I do remember, though, the realization, the revelation. I thought she was being funny because I couldn't imagine any other reason for her to look foolish in front of others. I had no meaningful experience yet with looking or feeling the fool for reasons out of my control. I learned that Sunday, that people can be embarrassed in public, that they cannot always avoid it, and that I should not call attention to it. Perhaps the lesson I carry most, though, is that pairing of embarrassment and guilt. Guilt is never a private affair. Just as embarrassment requires an audience, guilt requires a victim.