Three big men needed only eight little words|Guest column

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 6, 2009

Years ago, while working as a volunteer in a local elementary school, I dealt with the issue of etiquette and having good manners. My group of fifth-graders was constantly bickering and making nasty comments to each other. I was constantly telling them to apologize. “Say, I’m sorry,” I’d hear myself tell them. Sometimes under protest, they would.

I wrote a story for them entitled, “The Most Difficult Words to Say.” In the story, the teacher asked the students to guess what those words were. The students came up with all kinds of words, but not the right ones. Finally, she told them. The most difficult words to say are: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

They were shocked, but none disagreed.

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I’ve revisited that story during the media frenzy surrounding the mistaken house break-in that resulted in the arrest of the homeowner, Harvard Professor Louis Gates by Sgt. James Crowley. Tempers apparently got the best of both men and the situation escalated.

Everyone had an opinion about the incident, including the president, whose choice of words set off a firestorm.

Let’s rewind this thing. Once the professor’s identity was known, I wonder what would have happened had Sgt. Crowley simply said, “This is all a big mistake. I’m sorry, I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

I wonder what might have happened had Professor Gates, once he had calmed down from the apparent humiliation he felt,  had said to Officer Crowley, “I’m sorry for the personal accusations I made against you. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

I wonder what might have been the impact, had the president said to the Cambridge Police Department, “I’m sorry for my choice of words. They were not well thought out. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

Eight little words spoken by either party involved would have spoken volumes to the rest of us, in my opinion. Blessed are the peacemakers. Being the imperfect creatures that we are, pride often enters the picture, creating an impasse. Unfortunately, pride goes before a fall.

Frankly, if a neighbor were concerned enough to call the police for fear someone was breaking into my home, I’d be grateful. If it turned out to be me, I’d be relieved. Plus I’d be thankful that I lived in an area where police actually respond.

If, as a police officer, I mistakenly identified a citizen of wrongdoing of any kind, I’d be a little embarrassed and quick to make amends.

If I misspoke and possibly damaged someone’s reputation with my choice of words, I’d like to think that I’d apologize without hesitation.

Was it racial profiling? I don’t think so. We’ll make up our own mind, I suppose.

Anyway, I ended the children’s story this way:

Challenging to say and more challenging to do: Eight little words from me to you.

No one is perfect. We all make mistakes.

 So learn to say these words, whatever it takes!

“I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please, forgive me.”

In this world, we’ll create plenty of opportunities to use them.

Debra Anderson is a former resident of Vicksburg who lives and works in Jackson.