I pooped my pants in the first grade. I can’t remember much, but I know I had to part with my favorite purple pants.
I was in Kids Club after-school care for parents who worked late. I think it was less expensive than having a babysitter who could also pick us up from school.
I was in the arts and crafts and homework section for the afternoon working on a long labor of love — signing my name over and over — when I felt a pang in the depths of my bowels.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d needed the bathroom. I am proud to say that by the first grade, I was already a seasoned pooper. But something in this pang felt … sinister.
I gathered my strength and my terrible fear of authority and headed for the teacher’s desk. As I stood behind the visiting teacher, who was catching up with ours, I became truly horrified at the urgency my body was communicating to me. How in the world could I stop the conversation between two adults to tell them about my bathroom business?
We all know how this ends. I simply pooped my pants. My beautiful, comfortable, deep purple stretch-knit gauchos. The teacher tried to cover a laugh and said, “Oh, no! Why didn’t you say something, dear?”
I instantly started crying, and one of the aides escorted me to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet, waiting for another pair of bottoms, and thought about how my mom would replace my comfortable, deep purple, stretch-knit gauchos.
Of course, this scared me. But one of the main things it gave me was the understanding that life has mortification built-in. This was also one of the first times I felt perceived, and though I didn’t have the words for it, I did not know how to handle that. At the same time, I learned how to bother people when I needed something, which absolutely made my future experiences more difficult, and typically, more cringey.
Everyone encounters the butthole-tightening experience that is cringe. Sometimes it’s secondhand — painful to watch but much easier to laugh off. Other times it's all you, and the memory will burn in your bones for eternity. But that bone burning is not useless.
In my experience, the cringe moments stick around in memory for a reason. It typically means an ugly reality check is needed.
Each of these benchmarks of growth in my life has been marked with humility, a painful dosage of self-awareness and absolute nonsense — like the time I thought I was above the law and forged a check.
I was in my second grade class when I remembered it was Friday, which meant student store! Finally, the long-awaited day of the week where I could pine after a Poké Ball eraser had come. This time, I decided I would not pine but prosper.
Step one: I needed to clean out my desk. The number of times I was able to find cash in my desk was honestly concerning for a 6-year-old, so finding some again did not seem impossible.
I dug through crumpled papers, lead bits and Pop-Tart crumbs to no avail, until — hey! An old check for teacher appreciation lunch. Considering how old it was, I figured the lunch was over, and I knew from my weekly lunch money exchange that checks were basically the same as cold, hard cash. Even better, our teacher had just taught us how to fill them out!
I went back into the depths of my desk in search of a single pen, and came up empty. I was just about to give up and resign myself to pining when I saw a humble blue crayon sitting on the little pencil ledge of my desk. We’re in freaking business, baby. I filled everything out, put "Poké Ball eraser” in the memo line, and waited for my time to come.
As I walked up to the student store, I was feeling damn good. I asked the cashier, “Do you take check?” and handed it over once I got the all-clear. The cashier took one look at the check, then back at me, back at the check, and the color drained from their face.
They looked up at me once more, handed me the Poké Ball eraser and then also handed over the check. What? I know I was nine, but I was aware that a transaction involves some kind of reflexive or reciprocative activity. Not to mention the teacher had not said anything about the other party handing the check back in his lesson. Something wasn’t right. But hey, I got my eraser, so I decided to call it a day.
I finished my lunch, and right at the end of it, I saw my dad at the cafeteria door! Remember, this is the second grade, so a parent showing up is like a personal visit from a celebrity.
I ran up to him with the hint of a smug smile, I won’t lie. But as I got closer, I could tell he was not bearing good news. He said, “Baba, I have to get back to work, but what you did with the check is not okay. It’s something called forgery, and it’s a felony.”
So I was fully going to jail. I was about to beg him to give me another chance before turning me in, when he clarified that the law would let me off with a warning as long as I gave the eraser back and didn’t commit forgery again.
I did give the eraser back, but I absolutely did not stop with the forgery.
The first thing this taught me was that my instincts with rules were not always on the money. In fact, this was probably when I started channeling goody goody behavior, simply because I wouldn’t have to leave things up to my judgment.
I went into this with a lot of moxie and a propensity for diving headfirst into projects based on what I was curious about, just to see what would happen.
No matter the guilt I felt for breaking the rules, I saw enough of other people’s reactions to hearing about this to know that it meant I was not just a rascal, but a shrewd rascal. Perhaps it meant I was a genius. Perhaps it meant I wanted an eraser and didn’t have the money to pay for it. We may never know.
One thing I do know, though, is that in the third and fourth grade, I had a full-on child stalker.
Brennan was in my third grade class, and all I can remember about our interaction in that class was that at some point, he cut out a handlebar mustache from red construction paper, held it up to his face and called it his “mustachio.”
Thus began two years of absolute nonsense.
It began with odd experiences in the hallways. I would see people I hadn’t met before in the halls, and they would know who I was. I asked them how they knew me, and they’d always say it was because Brennan had told them about me. Even my fourth grade teacher mentioned that she’d heard about a boy who had a crush on me.
The next instance was during lunch. Brennan was not in my class, so he was at the table clump next to ours. This did not stop him from attempting to court me.
As I was digging into a lukewarm cheese crisp, I noticed a rustling down the end of his class’s table and the beginning of ours. I looked over and saw a small, black, velour jewelry box, and it was passed to me.
Inside was a heart necklace sitting on a bed of cotton balls. Brennan, speaking up for the first time, said, “I need the box back. It’s my mom’s.” Let me be clear. This boy had nearly no interest in speaking to me. He mainly just told the world that I existed and gave me a Claire’s heart necklace.
The necklace was concerning, but his mom’s jewelry box was where I drew the line. I was ready to make noise.
We had an actual mediation. My fourth grade teacher, my crush, my stalker and I all sat at a table in an empty classroom and talked through our feelings. I do not remember whether or not justice was served, but I do know I was never bothered after that.
I don’t think I realized what I learned from this or how it affected me until reflecting now. On one level, writing about this story made me uncomfortable. So much of this experience was funny, but it was also upsetting to only notice now how horrible this could have been and that something probably should have been done about that earlier. I do not want to undermine the severity of a serious issue by making light of it.
At the same time, that has been a huge part of these experiences —accepting that they happened, and there is nothing we can do to change what we or others did. Most of our stories are funny and horribly unfunny, serious and silly, painful and healing. This is the lesson of cringe—it’s a physical manifestation of the discomfort we have to work through in order to reflect and grow.