On our first day at grammar school, each of us had to state out loud our name and address while the teacher wrote down our individual details. Around the class the roll-call went until it came to me. When I said my address, the teacher looked up from her register.
“Oh! I didn’t know we allowed anyone from that place to come to this school,” she said.
My cheeks blushed and I cast my eyes down at the desk while the whole class looked down on me and sniggered. The emotion I felt, most powerfully, was that of shame. I was ashamed that I had been allowed to attend grammar school when it was clearly against the rules of their society. The teacher had given her humiliating judgment and the class agreed.
It was clear that the emotions those class members felt were a mixture of judgment and pleasure. The pleasure of shaming a poor boy from state housing coming to a wealthy grammar school.
There is a huge difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is a sense of being exposed without having violated some personal or social norm. On the other hand, shame is a painful feeling about oneself, often as a result of being judged in a social context for being sinful.
It’s ironic that society mostly looks down on people who have very little and looks up to people who have everything. Should judgment really be so shallow that I should look with disdain at a hungry child but look with admiration at someone who has a sprawling estate and a personal cinema room?
Frank McCourt, the sadly deceased author of Angela’s Ashes, said he could not watch an appeal for hungry children on TV without weeping. He wept because he knew the gnawing pain of hunger. He also knew the absurd sense of shame that society can make you feel for being impoverished. The same feelings I had in that grammar school classroom.
If we look at the other end of society’s measure of wealth, we see that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Yes, billion. Is that a shame? It depends what they do with their wealth and whether the contest to see who has the biggest super-yacht is more fulfilling than giving a destitute child a glass of milk each day. It’s not for me to judge.
Regardless of wealth, we can all live in a state of constant poverty. A poverty of compassion, a poverty of humanity, a poverty of true happiness.
But I do want to thank my teacher for something. She taught me that it’s a crying shame to judge people by their possessions or by where they live.