The 25-Year-Late Apology

David Hutchens spent his elementary school years in New Orleans, Louisiana. At the age of five, he met a classmate who would become his best friend for most of those elementary years. We’ll call him Pete. David and Pete spent much of their time together as best friends will do. Until fifth grade, that is.

That year—and for reasons that David can’t even remember—he decided he didn’t want to be friends with Pete anymore. But he had no idea how to break that kind of news to another ten-year-old boy. So he didn’t. He just stopped being friends with him, which means he just stopped talking to Pete. He stopped talking to him in class. He stopped talking to him on the playground. He stopped returning his phone calls at home. He just stopped. No conversation. No explanation.

To David, it must have seemed the quicker and less painful method for both boys. But to Pete, it surely felt like a cruel and inhumane thing to do. But since he wasn’t talking to Pete, David didn’t really know that, until Pete stopped showing up at school.

David learned that Pete’s parents had taken him out of school and registered him at another nearby elementary school. And while David couldn’t be sure at the time, his suspicion was correct. That move was a caring act by Pete’s parents to protect him from the daily torment of a best friend who wouldn’t even face him at school.

Then, as happens with children, both boys grew up and went their own way in the world. David ended up in Tennessee and Pete in North Carolina. “For years,” David recalls as he fights back tears,

I was haunted by the memory of what I’d done. I ached knowing I was responsible for such a cruel act.”

Then social media happened.

By the year 2008, David had already connected with several old elementary and high school friends on Facebook. And occasionally the thought would enter his mind that eventually he and Pete would cross paths. “I was dreading that day. But oddly looking forward to it at the same time,” he admits.

And then one day it happened. Pete showed up in a list following the words “You may know these people.”

“I saw his name and my heart stopped. I knew this was my moment to make this all right.” But before he did that, David decided there was one thing he needed to do first. By this time he had two children of his own, not too far from the age he was when he committed his transgression.

“I went downstairs for dinner and I told my kids, ‘I have a story to tell you.’ ” And he proceeded to tell them everything: about his friendship, the cruel way he ended it, the two and a half decades of guilt and regret and shame he’d been carrying with him, and finally the opportunity that just dropped in his lap to reconnect with Pete.

My kids looked completely drained of color. One of them asked me, ‘Daddy, why would you do something like that?’”

And I had to tell them I didn’t know. Then they wanted to know if it was all okay with Pete now. And I had to tell them I didn’t know that either, because I hadn’t contacted him yet. I wanted to tell them about it first. I wanted them to watch me go through with something I should have done twenty-five years ago. I wanted them to see their father struggle a little with his guilt and his shame, and then to see me do the right thing. And I could see they were disappointed in me, which was understandable. I was disappointed in myself.”

The next morning, David sent a friend request to Pete. In it, he said, “I’d like to talk to you about some things I’ve carried with me for years.” David admits to not getting much work done that day, preoccupied with wondering what response he would get. When his kids came home from school the first thing they asked was, “Well, what did he say? Is he your friend again?”

But all David could tell them was, “I don’t know yet. He hasn’t responded.”

That, of course, set off a chain of speculation on their part about why. “Maybe he hates you and doesn’t want to talk to you.” Perhaps. They would all have to wait to find out. It was a cliffhanger for everyone.

On the following day, the suspense was broken. Pete responded, accepting David’s friend request along with a message that said he was excited to connect after all these years. The two men traded several messages that day that surely included the requisite small talk about family life and careers.

But David quickly got to the point: his apology. And it wasn’t the kind of wishy-washy non-apology a bigger ego might have offered, like “I don’t know if you remember, blah, blah, blah . . . but if anything I did offended you way back then, I guess I’m sorry.” It was a full-on, no-holds-barred apology:

Pete, I was so very wrong for the way I treated you in the fifth grade. And I am truly sorry. Would you please forgive me?”

Much to David’s relief, Pete accepted his apology. And he went on to try to shoulder some of the blame. “David, we were just kids,” he said. “And you know, I was kind of a nerd anyway. I guess I maybe brought some of that on myself.”

But David knew better and wouldn’t let that pass unchallenged. “No, Pete. You didn’t deserve any of that. It was my fault. I’m to blame.”

And with Pete’s blessing, David felt a twenty-five-year burden lifted from his shoulders. “It was the most cleansing and freeing thing I’ve ever felt.” He didn’t know whether he should cry or shout for joy. But he did know what he had to do next. When his kids got home from school he told them everything that happened.

“I’ll never forget the look on my kids’ faces when I told them. Their disappointment was gone. And I could tell they respected me even more.”

It’s ironic really, that something as vulnerable and humbling as asking for forgiveness can give you so much energy and strength, even after twenty-five years.”

As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. How do you think Pete felt coming to school every day not knowing why his best friend wouldn’t talk to him?
  2. What would have been a better way for David to let Pete know that he didn’t want to be friends anymore?
  3. Do you think Pete was glad David contacted him after twenty-five years?
  4. Is there someone you still owe an apology to? How and when will you give it?

Source: Parenting with a Story, by Paul Smith.

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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