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‘Are you REALLY sorry?

The story

Decades ago, when I was a naïve 14 year old, an off-the-cuff comment I’d made to a classmate came back to haunt me.

A couple of years earlier, I had expressed interest in learning the clarinet. The school music teacher, primarily a singer and pianist, said she would teach me. After two years of lessons with her, I was offered the opportunity to learn with a teacher from one of the London colleges of music. I took it.

I soon discovered that even though I had easily passed various grade exams, my technique was sadly lacking in one particular respect. ‘You haven’t been taught properly’ said my new teacher.

Fast forward a few weeks – and I was chatting to a friend who had also taken up the clarinet with the school music teacher.

My friend had a problem with her instrument that the teacher had apparently not known how to fix. I noticed that a tiny screw was loose, meaning that air was escaping where a pad was not covering a hole sufficiently. I tightened up the screw – and the instrument functioned properly again.

As I was doing it, I said casually ‘My teacher says I haven’t been taught properly’, and thought no more of it. I was just reporting a piece of information. An innocent part of a teenage conversation. No malice intended.

But that wasn’t the end of it. My friend told her parents and her parents told the music teacher – and the music teacher summoned me.

She was irate and berated me in no uncertain terms. My shortcomings as a player could have nothing to do with her teaching because another of her pupils was doing brilliantly. It had to be my fault. A lack of talent. And how dare I imply that she hadn’t been teaching me properly.

I was reeling under the force of her onslaught. I had no resources that would equip me to handle it.

I let in the guilt and shame that her words implied I should be feeling. I mumbled an apology because that seemed to be the polite thing to do. But that added to her ire. She spat out her final thrust with spiteful energy: ‘Are you sorry just because you’ve been found out?’

I was too shocked and upset to know what to say (and too young to realise that her anger said more about her than about me). I went home and cried.

What was going on?

What I imagine happened was that my friend told her parents what I had said about not being taught ‘properly’. Her parents would then have quoted me to the music teacher and maybe queried her fitness to teach their daughter. The teacher most probably heard this as a challenge to her expertise and felt insecure and defensive. Reverting to the strategy that so many of us default to – using attack as a form of defence – she held me responsible and vented her hurt in the form of anger. To feel better in herself, she wanted me to feel bad.

My mumbled ‘sorry’ was not satisfying for her. Even if I had had amazing poise and maturity and had been able to say ‘I regret that a chance remark of mind has had such an upsetting effect on you’, I doubt this would have been satisfying either. And the reason, as I see it now with adult eyes, is that the only way she could accept her own inner turmoil was not only to blame me, but also to hear me admit that I had done wrong and was a bad person.

One of the tragedies of this strategy is that guilt and shame are not healthy motivators for change.