This past summer my daughter spent a week at a cross country running camp with a number of her high school teammates. One day she and her friend Paige decided to play a joke on another friend, Julia. While they were out canoeing they pretended that they thought her shins were disproportionately long in relation to the rest of her legs. They kept going on about this until they had Julia convinced that it might be true. Julia is in fact beautiful, and her legs well-proportioned. But she is also a teenage girl, and therefore susceptible to such suggestions; after a while she started to believe the other two. At one point Paige, in order to keep their joke going, sounded the following note of false sympathy: "Julia, it's not that bad to have long shins. I mean, at least it's better than being a dwarf."
Soon after, both girls explained to Julia that they had just been teasing her.
Two nights ago the cross country team had its annual banquet. As part of the banquet they hand out "paper plate awards," a series of jokey awards that are a longstanding tradition. Rebecca and Paige decided to give Julia an award for "Best shins." My daughter presented the award. She stepped to the podium, and blurted into the microphone, "This year at running camp there was a new girl, who really didn't know what was going on, and at one point we decided to have a little fun with her, so we convinced her that she had really long shins but that it was better than being a dwarf." Rebecca was in fact laughing at the insensitivity of the joke rather than with it. But with her giggly delivery, and without fully explaining the context, it came across as if she were disparaging dwarves. In front of roughly two hundred people.
I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said, "Thank God there are no dwarves in the audience tonight."
Ironically, Rebecca was later given the team sportsmanship award. My wife and I each separately told her afterwards that they might not have given it to her had they known what she was going to say.
By the time my daughter got home she was utterly mortified at what she had said, and simply beside herself with contrition. She moaned softly, "I can't believe I said that. It was so stupid. And I hate people who talk that way."
I told her, "People probably won't remember."
Rebecca groaned, "I always remember when people talk that way....Oh, I feel so bad."
She was completely and utterly ashamed.
While I was channel surfing later that evening, I stumbled across the show, Little People, Big World, which presents a sympathetic portrait of people with achondroplasia. I couldn't resist. I called Rebecca into my room. "See?" I explained helpfully. "Dwarves are people too, you know."
Rebecca said in a pained tone, "I know. I don't dislike dwarves. I just....oh, I can't believe I said that." She then let out a wail of agony.
Even I felt sympathetic. Ordinarily under such circumstances I would continue to tease her, but her mortification was so complete, her contrition so abject, that by the next morning I found myself saying, "Rebecca, you've beaten yourself up enough about this. Just remember the lesson you've learned -- that you should have your remarks prepared ahead of time, and that what seems funny in one situation may not come across that way in another."
Rebecca seemed a little better by last night, though she was still ashamed. (She was feeling far more remorse, I would guess, than the fellow in the previous post ever did.) I told her again that she had agonized enough.
But this is just too rich a vein not to mine. In a few days I'm going to start calling her "Snow White."
Whenever I contrast situations, I'm going to say that one "dwarfs" the other.
I'll point up at the sky and say, "Look, a dwarf star!"
I'm going to start calling her what I used to call her when she was a little girl, "My little Munchkin."
And if Rebecca makes any mistakes, I'll call her a "mental midget."
That's what dads are for.