When I was 15 or 16, my friend and I went down to the mall, like we usually did on a Saturday evening.
We had our Chinese food at the food court, got a milkshake with extra whipped cream, and kept an eye out for cute boys (of course). We headed over to one of the stores that sold hair accessories and things like that.
My friend looked over at me and whispered, “Hey, let’s put this in our purse and walk out.” She was holding up a black and white checkered scrunchie. I immediately got nervous. I started sweating and fidgeting, not knowing what to do. Feeling the pressures of wanting to be “cool,” I agreed.
We both left the store with something that we didn’t pay for. Neither one of us said anything as we strolled the main strip of the mall. We turned into a major department store and decided to try on some clothes. Once again, the not-so-bright idea came up to go to the dressing room and put a couple of sweaters in our bag. This time, it felt much more real to me. We’re talking about expensive items here, not a 99¢ hair band. (not to say that the price is what matters)
It was apparent that I was not accustomed to this type of thing, as the whole time I was feeling fear like I had never experienced before. I knew this wasn’t right. I was not raised that way for goodness sake! But there I was, putting items in my bag.
We walked out of the dressing room and headed out of the store. We cleared the main walkways of the mall and headed to the parking lot. I could feel someone behind us getting closer and closer. We then heard “STOP!” Panic infused my entire being, as we stood there in shock.
We’d been caught.
A “secret shopper” from the department store must have sensed my fear in the Juniors section earlier. She caught on to us right away. We were escorted to the back offices of the store, were ordered to sit down, and listened as our parents were called. We were then escorted to the back of a police car (for shock value, I’m sure).
It was surreal. Shame flooded through me as we sat there in that cop car. My friend peed her pants. We were beyond crying.
Our parents arrived and we were released, with appointments to see the juvenile detention officer the following day. I remember sitting in the car with my Mom, trying to explain what had happened. I had no words. She could see that any punishment that was given would be nothing compared to the punishment I was directing toward myself.
I met the officer the next day and received quite a few hours of community service and had to write apology letters to the store and my parents.
When I walked in to school the following Monday, I was convinced that everybody knew. I don’t think even one person had a clue, but every step I took felt like I was walking in front of a jury. I’ll never forget that feeling—pure shame.
I completed those hours of community service down at the Goodwill store. The people there never asked any questions, although I’m certain they knew why I was there. They expressed so much kindness; not once giving me the treatment I thought I deserved. According to the officer, I finished my hours faster than anyone he’d ever seen. By the end, he let me know that I’m not a bad kid, this is not who I am, and if anything, this experience will help me to be a more honest person.
I took his words to heart.
Ever since that incident, I haven’t intentionally taken a thing that’s not mine. Whenever I get undercharged in a checkout line, I point it out to the cashier or drive back to the store and pay the amount I wasn’t charged. If I forget to leave a tip at a restaurant, I head over again to leave an even larger tip than I would have originally. Several times when I used to work in the hospital, I’d unintentionally put a pen in my bag, thinking it was mine. That, too, would be returned as soon as I discovered it.
I learned so much from that experience all those years ago. Honesty is one of the most important values in my life now. The truth, although sometimes hard to handle, is always the best route to take. I take full responsibility for the choices I make, even when it’s difficult.
I learned on a deeper level how compassion can really make a difference. While I was “serving my time” at the Goodwill, I got to know the manager’s son. He went to my school, but wasn’t accepted by the “cool kids.” After getting to know who he really was, I left my desire to be accepted by the cool kids and sat with this amazing boy during lunch instead.
One of the most significant things I gained was the realization that the only forgiveness I really need is self-forgiveness. I spent a long time feeling ashamed of myself—not just guilty. Guilt is what we feel when we think we’ve done something bad, shame is what we feel when we believe we are bad. I believed I was bad. It took a lot of work, well into my adult years, to finally forgive myself and open up to loving who I am. I’m honestly grateful for that entire experience, and the people who led me back to my true self.
Sometimes, we make decisions that we wish we hadn’t. Although we can’t turn back time and do it all over again, we can take the wisdom and awareness we gained from the experience and allow it to guide us through the rest of our life. This is what that day at the mall did for me.
I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions since then, there’s no doubt about that. I’m quicker to learn from them now. I’m gentler on myself for the mistakes in my life because I know they don’t define me. I really do know that now.
They’re there to guide me back to my truth.
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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Bryonie Wise