From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II

My Most
Embarrassing Moment

[AUTHOR’S NOTE TO HER MOM AND DAD: I’m sorry you have to find out about this at the same time all of America does. I never told anyone.]

Honor student, tennis team player, Spanish Club president. Sunday school teacher assistant, Swing Choir piano accompanist. Although these publicly recognized accomplishments of my teenage years went on to influence my life in many ways, there was one particular group activity I participated in that had an even greater impact on me: Mustard Gang Member.

The fall of 1977 found me enrolled as a freshman in the school system I had attended since kindergarten. My student file over the last ten years could be summed up with positive comments such as “consistently above average,” “enjoys extracurricular activities” and “cooperates with teachers and fellow classmates.” No suspensions. No detentions. Basically, a model student. However, within a total time period of approximately one hour, this trademark behavior would fly right out the window (at the speed of sound).

Three of my lifelong girlfriends—who would fall under a fairly close ditto description of that above—caught up to me after school on a Friday afternoon. One of them had just received her driver’s license and was going cruising in a nearby town to celebrate. She asked if I would like to come along. (Rhetorical question.) The final bell was sounding as we piled into an older model Dodge Charger on its last leg of life. Regardless of its condition, it had a full tank of gas and the ability to get us from Point A to Point B.

Within minutes of leaving the school parking lot, we were on the open highway. As I look back now, that highway was pretty significant. It not only separated two towns, it separated those of us in the car from the people who knew us and the people who didn’t. We became daring.

When the novelty of just driving around wore off, someone suggested it might be fun to squirt mustard on parked cars as we drove past them. (Author’s sensible reaction twenty years later: WHAT?!) A unanimous agreement must have followed, because all four of us stood beside each other in the checkout line where the bottle of mustard was ultimately purchased.

Loading back into the car, each of our faces looked as though we couldn’t believe what we were doing. We couldn’t. Four kids, four clean records. Lost time was about to be made up for.

We decided that the person sitting by the passenger’s side window would be the Designated Squirter, while the others in the car would be responsible for choosing the target ahead. Since I was cowardly, trying to hide in a corner of the backseat, I thought this sounded swell. Feeling my guilt would be somewhat lessened if I didn’t actually touch the mustard bottle, I thought. I was off the hook. A nervous sigh of relief was escaping me until the words “and we’ll pull over every other block and switch seats so it will be fair.” Hook re-inserted.

The “talk” in the car proved to be more productive than the “action” as the first and second girls took their turn in the passenger seat, both chickening out at the last second, squealing, “I can’t!” Before I knew it, the car had stalled and it was me who was climbing in beside the driver. Sliding my sweaty palms up and down the bottle’s sides, the target was being pointed out to me, loudly and with demanding encouragement. The attack was to be launched on a little red Volkswagen up ahead, fast approaching. “Do it! Do it! Do it!” my friends chanted. . . . And I almost did. But, as was the case with the girls before, feathers grew from within me and we soon sped past the car, leaving it as solid red as it had been when first spotted.

Since the driver couldn’t take a respective turn as the shooter, we headed for home, the mischief supposedly ended. Just when we were nearing the highway, we passed two girls jogging, their hands moving up and down in front of them. Still looking for trouble, we interpreted their innocent actions. “Hey! They just gave us the finger!” And of course, if we had been needlessly insulted, they certainly would have to pay. Simple as that.

Within seconds, they were jogging into a Kmart parking lot. . . . And we were right behind them. Jumping out of the car, we ran toward our unsuspecting prey yelling, “Get ’em!” We did. Well, I did. After all, there was only one bottle, and it was my turn. Silently, they just stood there.

My hearing must have been the last of my senses to fail, for the car door did not slam shut behind me without the words from one of these mustard-covered strangers ringing in my ears: “That wasn’t very funny, Rochelle.” Clear words. Echoing words. Rochelle. Rochelle. Rochelle. Not only had I just left two people covered with mustard back in a parking lot, but at least one of them wasn’t a stranger.

Although no one in the car physically recognized either victim, there was no doubt among any of us that the voice that just spoke was a familiar one. But whose? The longest minute of my life followed until I figured it out: Miss Greatens, MY TYPING TEACHER!

Miss Greatens, fresh out of college, was committed to making a strong professional impression on the business class students she taught. Her hair was always gathered on top of her head, large glasses covered her eyes and crisp business suits were her chosen attire. And yet outside of her work environment, she suddenly changed. Drastically. Her hair looked as though it grew a foot or so (since just this afternoon), she shrank a solid two inches (heels removed), contact lenses replaced glasses and her business suit was traded in for a sweatsuit. She no longer looked like Miss Greatens; she looked more like . . . well, us!

Situation assessment: WE HAD A PROBLEM. The Dodge Charger immediately went chasing back to the parking lot, but the joggers were nowhere in sight. Plan B was implemented. A telephone booth directory could provide her home address. Success. She lived right across from Kmart in an apartment complex.

Little did we know that Miss Greatens was doing some of her own phone referencing while we were trying to find her. First she called the school principal at home, then she called my parents. (My life, as I knew it, was about to end.) However, she hung up after the first two rings before anyone answered either call. She had decided to speak to us first.

And here we were.

Miss Greatens answered the door graciously, standing before us with mustard-stained clothes and tear-stained cheeks, wanting to hear what possible explanation warranted her pain. There was none. Absolutely none. What we had done was uncalled for. Our consciences made that perfectly clear as we poured out a flood of genuine remorse and tears to equal her own.

Then something extraordinary happened: She forgave us. Fully. Right there on the spot. She could have spoken to all of our parents about what happened, but didn’t. She could have contacted school officials and sought stern reprimands for each of us, but didn’t. And she could have held the incident over our heads for a very long time and reminded us of what we had done at will, but didn’t.

Will we ever do anything like that again? NO WAY. You see, that is the power of forgiveness.

Rochelle M. Pennington

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