You always want to kick yourself after you have said something stupid or wrongly accused someone. It’s really hard to humble yourself and gather the courage to apologize to that person. Unfortunately, we recently found firsthand how much worse that feels when you have to deal with it in a foreign land and with a foreign language.
One afternoon Jon was picking up the boys from school. The boys’ classes were outside on the playground playing. Jon picked up James first and noticed that he was not wearing his hat. James did not know where it was. Then, they walked across the playground and picked up Brucie. Bruce’s teacher approached Jon and, speaking in Russian, asked Jon if Bruce was wearing his own pants. The teacher brought over another boy and asked if the pants he was wearing were Bruce’s instead. Jon honestly didn’t know; he doesn’t pay attention to such things. So Jon called me up and asked me if I would walk over to the school. On the phone he also asked me how exactly James’s winter hat looked like. The same little boy who was possibly wearing Bruce’s pants was also wearing a hat exactly like James’s. Bruce’s class is on the bottom floor, and James’s class is on the third floor—how could this little boy be wearing both Bruce’s pants and James’s hat?
I hurried over to the school and as soon as I arrived, I confirmed for sure that the other little boy was wearing Bruce’s pants. The hat was James’s too. The teacher took the two boys to a bench and switched their pants right there. Afterwards, I asked, “What about James’s hat?” Jon shrugged. The little boy claimed that the hat was his, but he had also been insistent that Bruce’s pants were also his, even though they didn’t fit well. James always wears his hat, even when it’s too warm to wear it (he is a creature of habit), but now he didn’t have his.
A little voice inside of me told me to leave the hat alone. The language barrier was too difficult to explain things, and it was only a $10 hat. It was just a hat. However, another part of me said, “No! That’s James’s hat. We don’t have an extra. And, if we had to buy a new hat in Russia it would be over $20. That’s $20 more than we needed to spend, and every dollar really counted in our finances. So, Jon approached the teacher and told her that the kid was wearing James’s hat. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t give it to us because the little boy still claimed it was his own hat.
Honestly, how could it be that boy’s hat? We had purchased it from The Children’s Place in the United States! The odds seemed absolutely zero that he could just happen to have the same hat. Obviously, he had taken Bruce’s pants, why was it so hard for them to believe that he had James’s hat?
When Jon and I really thought about it, it did seem like a preposterous conspiracy. How could this little boy know both Bruce’s and James’s exact locker locations, especially since they were on different floors? And, why was he so interested in stealing from American boys? It honestly seemed unlikely, but the evidence seemed right there in front of us. We felt like they were offending our intelligence by not admitting it was James’s hat when it’s so obviously was.
Just in case, we trudged up three flights of stairs and thoroughly searched through James’s locker, but just like we thought, there wasn’t a hat inside. When we returned to the playground, the little boy was being picked up by what looked like a nanny and boyfriend, or older brother and sister. They didn’t know if the kid’s hat was his own or not. They seemed somewhat apathetic about it. How could they not know?
Jon and I were super annoyed! In our broken Russian we insisted, “Look! It’s our son’s hat! It looks like Bruce’s (Jon indicated that one had a football appliqué and the other had a soccer appliqué). It’s from America!”
Bruce’s teacher and James’s teacher talked among themselves. Finally, they said that they would work things out tomorrow. They did not want to send the little boy home without a hat. Well, they were sending James home without a hat!
As we walked out of the gate of the school, feeling defeated and frustrated, the little boy ran in front of us, turned around and looked straight at us and gave us a snotty grin. It was like he knew he had gotten away was something. Grr!
Since we didn’t have James’s hat on our walk home, I tried to focus on my first-impression feelings. It was just a hat. It wasn't THAT big of a deal. That last smug look the little boy had given us was enough to put us over the edge, but we couldn’t be a bad example and bad-talk about him in front of our boys. Once we were home, we put down our bags and hung up our coats. At first glance, James’s hat was nowhere in sight—just as we had figured. The children got into their pajamas and Jon and I started dinner. Then, I had a feeling to look more thoroughly through the entryway. I was not expecting to find anything in my search and I thought amusingly to myself, “Wouldn’t it be so embarrassing if I found James’s hat?”
But then, there it was! James’s hat! It was hidden under a couple bags, so it was no wonder that James had not picked it up that morning to wear it. Feeling sheepish and embarrassed, I went to Jon and said, “You will not guess what I just found.” I pulled the cap from behind my back and showed Jon. His groan mirrored mine, “Oh, no!”
What were we going to do? What were we going to say? How could we give an explanation and a thorough apology when we didn’t know the language well enough? Why had we not just left well enough alone? Now we would have to apologize to the little boy, and Bruce’s and James’s teachers. But, how?
We decided to buy a small gift for each person (a Kinder Egg for the little boy, and a chocolate bar for the teachers). As far as an apology, all we could really say was the most basic, but sincere, “sorry” and show them that we had found James’s own hat. No, our apology could not be extravagant. We wouldn’t be able to express our feelings of embarrassment and regret, but we still accomplished our main goal of letting them know we were in the wrong.
(I also discovered on another day that the little boy's locker is the one right next to Bruce's, so they probably just accidentally switched pants while they were changing that day.)
We learned two valuable lessons that day -- to make sure and label our children’s names with a permanent marker on everything they take to school, even down to their underwear and socks, and also that nothing is impossible, even the seemingly impossible coincidence of a little boy wearing a winter hat from America that is exactly the same as our son’s while also wearing our other son's pants. (After all, we knew at least one Russian friend who would travel to America just to buy clothing because it was so expensive here in Moscow.) Really, we should have just let it slide, even if it HAD been James’s hat. If the kid had indeed stolen it, perhaps he needed it more than we did. Life is for learning.
“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”
~Abraham Lincoln, or Mark Twain, or someone else (the Internet can not seem to decide for sure)