Mrs Miller moved like a tortoise. All her movements were slow, nothing sudden, nothing jerky; she was certainly not someone to be hurried. It was a concern about her shortness of breath that brought her to the clinic, and the diagnosis was soon clear; she had developed asthma. But, for her sake, her eerie slowness also needed a diagnosis. I assumed it was caused by a hormone deficiency, more precisely, a lack of thyroxine, the hormone produced by the thyroid gland. In fact, the levels were normal and only after detailed questioning was the cause revealed: it was the legacy of some injudicious advice given to her, and no doubt also to her family, when she was a child.
In her early teens she had developed rheumatic fever and her doctor told her that, because the illness had severely damaged her heart (not so – it was normal!), she should never exercise again. His explanation was simple: any exertion would put her life at risk. From then on she avoided all forms of sport or fast movement and, through much perseverance, developed her tortoise persona. Someone in authority had sentenced her to a lifetime of unnecessary inertia.
My own legacy was also the product of injudicious comment, but the effect was very different. For me there was nothing physical, just a paralysing lack of confidence expressed as shyness and embarrassment when I spoke in public. It did not arise on every occasion but often enough to make even taking a tiny part in the school play impossible. A vivid childhood memory, and defining moment in the development of my embarrassment, occurred on a day-trip to Cambridge when I was aged about seven.
We were in a punt on the Cam, my father was on the platform at the back, I was at the front. He had brought along a friend. My father decided that we should go ashore and when we neared the bank I asked if I should use a stake to “wench” the boat in – obviously the right word would have been “wedge”. My father laughed out loud at my error, shouted the correction, and, in too much detail, explained the meaning of the word “wench”. His belittling was to become commonplace. Throughout my childhood I had great difficulty distinguishing small differences in sounds or spelling and, for years, if I made a mistake my father seemed to take pleasure in ‘correcting’ me.
As a child, it was difficult to cope with these feelings of shame and impending embarrassment, Now, almost seventy years on, episodes of embarrassment are very rare and public speaking is easy, however triggers can still cause the selfsame anxieties to resurface, but when they do, they are more controllable. Such an occasion occurred a few weeks ago.
The embarrassment this time arose not from a mistake in English, but one in French, and one written in an email. I had just made this year’s Seville orange marmalade and, in my French class, had expounded on difficulty in getting the taste and the texture just right. Several of the students asked me for a pot, but I had to decline; there were simply not enough jars to go round.
To resolve the problem, I emailed my teacher asking if I might run a marmalade tasting session during next lesson’s coffee break. She agreed but, in her reply, pointed out a linguistic howler – instead of suggesting a ‘tasting’ (‘degustation’), I had written a ‘disgusting’ (‘dégoûtant’). At my current level of French, I saw the error as unforgivable and the embarrassment I felt was all-invasive; severe enough to stop me thinking about anything else. To make matters worse, I imagined my error being the butt of jokes in the French Institute’s staff room.
One strategy I now have for coping with such events, is to share, rather than bottle up, my feelings. Accordingly, the tasting went ahead and, in it, two marmalades were presented for comparing – one mine, the other a gift from a friend. On the table I put two hand-written cards; one showed a grid for voting on each marmalade’s ‘appearance’, ‘taste’, ‘smell’, ‘colour’, and ‘consistency’; the other gave the title for the event – ‘Tasting, not Disgusting’. Through this manoeuvre, and in its planning, I was able to quickly diffuse my embarrassment. And, as an added bonus, the ‘Collier 2017’ was voted the class’s preferred vintage.
By the way, after I told Mrs Miller that she could safely go back to moving normally, her look of relief was radiant, but I never knew if she made a full recovery. Somehow I doubt it; from my own experience, childhood legacies can be difficult to erase.