The Samurai and The Art of the Apology

I wrote this essay in August 2016 after working at a leadership camp in Malaysia. It's about one of my favorite moments of working with high school students.

This is the story of when a student became a hero at his school by shedding tears in front of 100 of his peers.

We’re at a high school camp in Malaysia leading one of my favorite activities; the basic summary is this: students represent their teams and take on obstacles that challenge them intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally. The catch is that they are performing in front of over 100 of their classmates from school. Success inherently requires them to be, look, and feel uncomfortable. There are usually about 10 teams, and each round, one student per team is summoned.

In this round, about halfway through the activity, we offer a simple challenge: make a sincere apology to someone else in the room for something that you have done. Whoever’s apology was deemed the most authentic and meaningful would survive the round; the rest would be eliminated and leave their team with one fewer competitor. Down the line, each student made an attempt, some more genuine then others.

The last student of the round is a popular kid, let’s call him Michael. He’s an athlete, one of the best soccer players at his school. But he’s not proud and he’s not a jerk — he’s quiet and a little shy; he doesn’t speak often, but when he had something to say it was usually kind. He’s the type of kid that everyone wants to be friends with him.

It’s Michael’s turn. All eyes are on him. At first, silence. Then he quietly turns his body and faces his group. He looks at the smallest boy on his team, a kid we’ll call Tim. Tim is short and has shaggy hair that sometimes covers the lenses of his glasses. He’s a little socially awkward, smarter than most of the other kids, and struggling to figure out how he fits in.

So Michael’s looking at Tim, and before he even begins to speak, he starts to tear up. He looks down at his feet. Quietly, barely audible from the back of the room where I’m sitting, he apologizes to Tim for being in a group of friends that had bullied and picked on him last year. Michael is a sweet kid – everyone knew he was more of a bystander than a bully – but you could feel the remorse and the guilt when his voice trembled. After he spoke, there was a brief period of silence where everyone realized that things just got real.

What happened next was beautiful. Michael’s apology was clearly the most heartfelt, so the other competitors of the round were eliminated. But, in having bullied another student, Michael had violated one of the core principles of the activity, so he, too, was publicly eliminated. It was an unexpected but powerful moment. Michael knew this was just; he hung his head and walked silently to the back row to sit.

When the next round had begun, the other students’ attention had shifted, and eyes were no longer on him, tears streamed down his face. You knew he was replaying in his head all the mean things they had said and done. Meanwhile, Tim quietly leaves his team and pulls up a chair next to Michael, and says two words: “It’s okay.” Tim puts his arm around his shoulder and they sit together silently for a few minutes while they compose themselves.

What struck me about that moment, aside from how real it was and how important it was for both of those kids, is how poorly prepared young people are to do something as ordinary as apologizing. That was a really hard thing to do for Michael, and it was nothing short of heroic to the other students and all the adults in the room. It legitimately was a huge, yet brief moment. That short, simple apology was the highlight of the week for me. And the apology never would have happened if a constructive, safe space hadn’t been created to allow for it.

We all know that apologizing when we’re wrong is essential to having functional relationships and living a happy life. Many a relationship has been ended over someone not taking responsibility for their mistakes, or for not realizing how their actions impact their partner – actually, that probably covers most relationships. I know that I’m not the best at apologizing and it’s something I consciously try to work on.

But where in life are we supposed to learn how and when to apologize? We don’t talk about it in school, so are we supposed to learn from our parents — half of whom are divorced, and many of whom are terrible at/incapable of apologizing themselves? From our pop culture, where it’s way cooler to say “I do what I want” than “I’m sorry”? Certainly not from our civic and political leaders who almost never apologize until it’s too late or they’ve been publicly shamed into it.

It’s amazing to me that there’s no space in our public schools, not in the thousands of hours that we spend sitting classrooms, to talk about what an apology should look and sound like. It’s amazing to me that we don’t create more opportunities for students to apologize without feeling embarrassed, belittled, or coerced. Think about the value to our students, their families, and the greater society if taking responsibility and apologizing was a social expectation that was taught in school and reinforced by their peers. That’s a goal as worthy as any for our education system.