Erin

Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

In churning butter, I accidentally churn myself

In Sharon on September 30, 2009 at 10:31 pm

I remember churning butter.  Vaguely.  And I remember that we didn’t succeed at it, and that it was hard.  But I remember these things for very different reasons than Erin does – and for the first time since we’ve started this project, I think, the difference in the way we remember says something about who we were – and are – as people.

I remember thinking that my arms weren’t strong enough, and that that surprised me.

You wouldn’t know it now to look at me, but I was a big kid in the 3rd grade.  I always stood in the top row of photographs, was always bigger than the boys.  I had height, and speed, and a strangely adult body for my age.  Once in the 4th grade this kid Jordan and I had a pizza-eating contest to see who could devour more slices at lunch.  I’m pretty sure I won.  I liked being the big kid.  It’s something I was known for.  So when we churned the butter at Prairie Day, all I remember is being certain that I would be the one to finally make it turn into something.  I was big and tough.  I even remember other kids thinking the same thing about me, although this might be a trick of my small mind, enforcing the way I thought of myself.  I have no proof.

I couldn’t do it, of course.  None of us were going to.  But when we failed to produce the desired result, all I could think was, “I wasn’t strong enough.  I’m supposed to be strong.  Why wasn’t I strong enough?”  And I walked away.

I had a very strong sense of self as a kid.  And with that very strong sense of self came the notion that there was somewhere I ultimately “belonged.”  So where Erin saw a lack in herself, I saw a lack in the world.  It wasn’t fitting around me the way it was supposed to, and I was befuddled constantly.  I was the big kid, the strong kid.  That cream should have bent to my will.  When it didn’t, that was obviously because I wasn’t “meant” for churning butter.  It wasn’t my calling.  My strength was best used elsewhere.

Erin’s tale of her journey from childhood through young-adulthood is poignant for me because she describes a quality that I never possessed: patience.  All the while that she was waiting for her faith to arrive, all the time she wondered if she should have tried a little harder – all those moments, I was turning away from things, leaving things behind because I didn’t see the point in waiting – on anything.

Things I have quit at various stages of my life include:

Churning Butter

Girl Scouts

Calculus/anything math related

Assorted friendships

Assorted boyfriends

Acting

Teaching

The clarinet

Dancing

Beta club

Graduate school

Eating Meat

Vegetarianism

Eating in general

Most of my jobs

California

… I could go on.  And now I’m starting to wonder if all of this leaving can be traced back to Prairie Day in the third grade.  Because every time I’ve ever experienced a failure – or even a slight hiccup, a tear in the veneer of perfection – I have walked away, thinking “Well, I guess I just wasn’t meant to (churn butter, be a girl scout, work in a clothing store… etc.)” If I don’t come equipped with the perfect skills, then the job doesn’t belong to me.  It’s someone else’s destiny.  Forget hard work.  Forget patience.  If I don’t fit right in, it isn’t mine.  I don’t belong.

My biggest reason for leaving relationships behind has always, always been that the other person “just doesn’t understand me.”  I want to fit, like a puzzle piece.  I want to open my eyes and have the world inside of them be visible to someone.

There are lots of moments in childhood where we realize that we are separate from the world around us – that we don’t create it with our own will.  These are difficult moments for everyone.  They’re incredibly popular fodder for stories.  The problem with me, I suppose, is that I never learned anything from these moments.  I simply refused to believe them.  When Erin’s incantations failed to bring her unicorn to life, little bits of doubt slipped into her world.  I didn’t like doubt, and so I ignored it.  And somewhere along the way there’s a lesson I failed to learn – that things will never be exactly as they are inside your mind.  You cannot will the world into being around you.  And you will never fit exactly.

For these same reasons, I am very susceptible to narratives of children taken away to magic kingdoms and alternative realities.  I cried when I saw the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are.  When I have a bad day – when I bump up against one of those pesky imperfections – I still imagine the main character of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon; he draws a rocket ship for me, so that we can fly away to a place where we really belong.

Since early childhood I have displayed a very strange notion of authenticity.  I have a particular selfhood, and I have always seen that self as unalterable – pure, somehow.  I grew up being certain that somewhere out there was a place, a way of life, a vocation that my identity could slide into perfectly, unchanged.  I would not have to wait.  Once I found this place, this thing, I could simply be. Who I am would be enough.  I would be perfect.

I imagine that’s what I thought Heaven was.

Even today, even as I write these words this very second, I am still looking for this place.  Even though I sit here claiming to know better, I still refuse to settle for anything other than finally, at long lest, finding my place of being.  I know it isn’t real, and yet I still manage to walk away from so much.  I’ve changed so many times over the years in the name of finding myself that I’ve lost track of that kid who was once so cock-sure.  I don’t feel solid anymore.  Instead I am malleable – someone who changes to fit the situation, but who never returns to being herself.  I am consumed with the desire to return home – to go back in time, so that I can find that identity again, and protect her.  She’s been tossed about on the wind a lot, and I miss her.  I wish I could go back to being that strong-headed kid who was bigger than everyone and knew her arms were powerful enough to bend the world.

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Failed Incantations

In Erin on September 27, 2009 at 9:33 pm

In kindergarten one day, I cut my hair.  Just a little piece, about 2 inches long, off the back.  I don’t know why I did it, and after I’d lopped it off with my brightly-colored scissors, I didn’t know what to do with it.  I knew, however, that this was probably bad, and that I should do something to get rid of the evidence.

So I put it in the bookshelf.

I realize that this was an unconventional choice, but it was borne out of necessity, as the teacher was approaching on her rounds about the classroom.  I shoved it between a couple of books, put the scissors away, and said to myself “No one will know.”

Moments later, the teacher had discovered the little tuft of white-blond hair–but much to my surprise, she did not look to me.  “Shawna!” she gasped at the only other blond-haired girl in our class, “Did you cut your hair?!”  Startled, Shawna was unable to produce a convincing argument to the contrary, and she was given the dreaded “time out.”

My spell had worked.

Or, it almost did.  The point was to keep me out of trouble, and that part came through.  I did feel bad for Shawna, but since my greatest fear as a child was to be in trouble, I was more relieved than anything.  And, I was just as convinced as ever that belief was like a magic wand, brandished when something was really important–or at least when I really, really wanted it.

After all, it wasn’t just at church and school that I heard over and over that belief changed things.  My favorite TV shows, the Care Bears and Rainbow Brite, also regularly told me that if I only believed, and concentrated, and said the right words in the right frame of mind, magical things would happen.  I remember vividly standing in my room at home, positioning Rainbow Brite’s horse just so, turning my back and whispering a fervent incantation designed to turn the plush toy into a real unicorn.  When it didn’t work out as well as the hair thing, I was disheartened–but more with myself than anything else.  Someday, I thought, my faith will be strong enough.

So it was confusing to me, as a child, to hear the story about Jesus and the children–and not only because of that odd use of the word “suffer,” which made it sound like Jesus was really struggling to put up with my childish faith.  “The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these,” He said, as quoted by my parents, my Sunday School teachers, and the blond-haired principal.  This was exciting and terrifying all at once.  We were supposed to be Kingdom-of-Heaven-perfect, just by being kids…and I was the doofus pinning my hair-cutting scandal on other people and failing to bring my stuffed unicorn to life.  I was a child, and my faith was secretly flawed.

When you’re a kid, you think everything will be more awesome when you grow up.  You’ll be able to reach things on the counter top, and drive the car, and run faster, and decide when to go to bed, and have faith that can really make mountains move, just for the heck of it.  But when you grow up, things never quite turn out the way you think they will.

Twelve or fifteen years later, I was in college.  I had gone to another protestant school, where we memorized Bible verses and talked about what they meant, and where all the cool kids were the leaders of their very own worship bands.  And I was still waiting for my perfect faith to arrive.  I’ve never been much of a shrinking violet, and my outspokenness, I was then learning, was read by some people–at least, the ones I wanted to impress–as abrasiveness, as a lack of humility, as unbecoming of a “Godly woman.”  I wanted very much to do/be/love the right thing, and so prayed the same prayer, over and over again: “Lord, make me completely humble and gentle.”

And I waited.

And I prayed, and I cried.  And after all my struggling in vain, I was admonished (by someone I will not name here, but whose opinion mattered deeply to me) that my faith was not the faith of a child.  My faith was complex and battered and confused yet resilient–but it was not the simple faith of a child.

*     *      *

When we were in third grade, the class Sharon and I were in did a unit on Little House on the Prairie, which ended with a set of day-long festivities called Prairie Day, when we all dressed in pseudo-period costume and did pseudo-period activities, like churning milk into butter and square dancing.  There’s a lot I could say about it here, but for the purposes of this current post, I just want to mention something about the butter churn.  I think the point of this activity was some sort of historical consciousness-raising about the miracles of modernity, but all I remember thinking was “Gosh, this must have taken a long time.”  In fact, though we all took turns running the churn with our little 9-year-old arms, we could not seem to turn the cream into anything but cream, and because there were square dances to do, Ms. Busystreet let us leave the the churn and have mass-produced butter with our picnic lunches.  I was glad to leave it alone, because–let’s face it–it was both boring and exhausting, but felt a vague sense of remorse that we hadn’t seen what might have happened.

This was the way I thought of most things when I was a kid…and, as it turns out, when I was a young adult.  If only we’d waited longer, tried harder, really believed, or said just the right words: who knows what might have been? When I finally grew up, when I learned to be a child again, when my faith at last became what it was supposed to be…

And all around: discarded locks, failed incantations.

I Can Make Anything True

In Sharon on September 26, 2009 at 2:00 pm

There’s this new show on TV – you may have seen it – called Community, about a lawyer who loses his license and has to go back to community college.  In one scene, the lawyer is talking to his friend (the college dean) about why he doesn’t feel bad when he cheats or lies.  “Look,” he says, “I learned when I was very young that I could make anything true or false just by talking long enough.  Either there’s no god, or I’m god.  Either way, Booyah!”

It’s a silly scene, played for laughs with the host of E!’s The Soup in the lead roll.  I doubt the writers really meant to hit on anything transcendent when they wrote the line.  But for me, that moment sticks out about as much as Erin’s realization about Mormonism.  And it’s interesting to me now to trace the different lines our lives took, and to wonder how many of those lines were nudged along by our different religious backgrounds.  Because while Erin was experiencing what she calls her moments of “egregious religious zealotry,” I was experiencing moments of a different sort of zealotry.  As Erin grew more devoted in her religious practices, I began to have a looser and looser hold on the things I’d once believed as “right” and “wrong.”  I was developing very quickly into a moral relativist – and one with all the passion and conviction possible in a teenager.  And this determined relativism began blossoming back in the early days of my education at the Unnamed Religious Private School.

As far as I’m concerned, 3 very different things were happening at that school, to 3 very different groups of kids:

1. The school’s religious elite – the kids whose families believed in the precise doctrine practiced in our halls, whose faith was based in the same fundamentalist ideals – were having all their beliefs and worldviews confirmed for them.  They were growing stronger everyday in the values their parents had taught them, and they were growing more and more self-righteous as they confronted those of us whose beliefs didn’t match their own, pointing us out as wrong, the same way you might point out a kid who thinks “cat” is spelled “qvx.”

2. The kids like Erin (and I imagine we had quite a few) were having to confront the differences in their family’s beliefs and the beliefs espoused by our teachers and administrators.  Their brains had to process gray areas and matters of difference, and in some cases had to choose sides between a parent and a teacher.  They were learning about negotiation.  They were learning about feeling outcast amongst people who ought to have been like-minded – people who were coming from the same basic faith, the same basic system of rules.  Some of them likely lost confidence then, only to (hopefully) regain it once they began to understand the strength of their own position, to rely on their ability to choose their own path.

3. Kids like me (I felt like the only one, but somehow I doubt I was) were learning that there is no such thing as truth.  Everyone gets to make up whatever they want, and then you get to fight it out to the end.  “You can make anything true or false just by talking long enough.”  You’re right, guy from The Soup.  Or at least, that’s what I learned at religious school.

Now keep in mind that my father is a scientist and would hotly dispute the idea that there is no such thing as truth.  I never learned that from him.  And I didn’t exactly learn it from my mother either.  I’m sure if I called her and asked her right now, she would say that some things are definitely good and others are definitely bad.  But what I did learn from her is that ideas will change over time.  There are several issues she sees differently now than she did when I was in high school or middle school.  And she sees no shame in that.  Ideas are constantly in development.  We grow and learn, new people come into our lives, and those people help us see things differently.  But there is still right and wrong.  She has a values system, albeit a self-created one.  But if you asked them what my values are, I bet they couldn’t tell you.  What they could tell you is that I have always had a very loose grip on the truth.  And I believe wholeheartedly that this came from my early education – exactly the opposite effect that evangelical education hopes to have.

I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, so I’m going to try a different method.  Bare with me here.

When you come from an a-religious background, these are the things that strike you about fundamentalism when you first encounter it:

1. Words are magic.  Literally.  You close your eyes and bow your head to pray, and those prayers are made up of words.  And the words go somewhere.  They go to God, and they are supposed to get results.  Something will happen.  All because of words.

2. Interpretation is everything.  This is a division of “Words are magic,” because part of their magic is that they mean lots of different things.  They are slippery.  This is NOT the lesson you learn about words during regular school, where you are drilled on definitions.  It IS the lesson you acquire accidentally when you memorize verses each week out of context.

Think about this for a second.  When you’re in second grade, you learn words like “through”.  You learn the definition of “through.”  You learn how to use it in a sentence.  You learn that you have no choice but to use it in the precise way it is intended.  During the same years that I was being asked to memorize precise definitions of simple words, I was being asked to parse out complex concepts that had no previous meaning for me.  When a second-grader encounters a Bible verse at home or in church, they are usually also taught what the verse means by their parents or a pastor.  No interpretation is necessary  No interpretation is possible.  But when you learn a verse as part of Bible drills, and you are a child who has never attended church, those verses are a bizarre form of archaic language you’ve never encountered.  You are left to interpret it for yourself, however you want.   You have power over language for the first time.

One of the first verses I remember learning was Romans 10, verses 9 and 10: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart God raised Jesus from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation…”  (NIV, I think).  That’s a verse that probably any evangelical could recite for you.   It’s part of the “Roman road,” the series of scriptures that outlines for non-Christians how they can be saved.  It makes sense that it’s one of the first I’d learn.  But imagine encountering these words without ever having heard of the Roman Road, or the concept of “salvation.”  Imagine encountering this at the age when so much else about education is hard and fast, concrete and definitive.  2 plus 2.  A,B,C.  With the heart man believes.  With the mouth he confesses.  What you end up learning is, “If I believe something in my heart, it must be true.”

Let’s try another of the Roman Road on for size.  Romans 10:13: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord shall be saved…”  Again here words act like magic, an incantation that saves us from ourselves and our sins.  Stir the pot a little, add a spell.  Words are what make it happen.  If you say the words, and you believe the words, nothing can touch you.  You are invincible.

That’s a dangerous thing to teach a kid.  I know a lot has been said in the incredibly leftist community (of which I am a part, keep in mind) about the dangers of indoctrinating children as religious zealots.  But what about indoctrinating them as just general zealots, with no real anchor?  That seems awfully dangerous too, and I’m pretty sure it’s what happened to me.  I can make anything true just by talking long enough… and loud enough, and with pretty words.

I have lots more to say about this topic, and I’ve been holding this post for the last two days, just mulling it over.  But instead, in the spirit in which this blog is intended, I’m going to post it as-is, with a more open end.  Because I think we can take this to some interesting places.

And so I’ll tack on instead a story, because I’m curious to know whether this is something Erin experienced differently the first time she heard it:

We are in chapel.  This is probably around the 2nd grade, although it might have been even earlier, in 1st.  Our principal (a woman with short blonde hair, I think) is talking about the verses in the New Testament wherein Jesus tells stories to little children.  The disciples ask him if he really wants to spend his time doing that, if he couldn’t be teaching the adults how to behave instead.  Jesus says the quote that’s famous even outside of religious circles, “Suffer the children to come unto me.”  Our pastor/principal talked about this section for several minutes, reminding us that as children we were the absolute treasures of God, that we were seen as untouched and blameless in the eyes of the Lord and the world.  We were automatically righteous.  And I remember so clearly thinking, “Then I just can’t grow up.  Because if I grow up, I won’t be right.  I’ll be broken.”  Words were magic, but they were more magic for children than for anyone else.

Bearing Witness to Weirdness

In Erin on September 22, 2009 at 1:30 am

This past summer, while having lunch with a couple of friends,  the conversation somehow veered to the topic of Mormonism.  My friend Natalie (who was raised Catholic) and I were in agreement that Mormonism was beyond the pale of reasonability in terms of  faith commitment, while our friend Mary (who grew up as–in her words–a Militant Atheist) strongly disagreed.  In fact, Mary revealed to us in the course of the conversation that, despite her background, she had very nearly chosen to convert to the Mormon faith as a teenager, partly out of spite for her parents, and partly because the Mormons she met were such lovely people.  This was truly shocking to me, since Mary was certainly a reasonable person, and I had been so accustomed to thinking of Mormonism as outlandishly unbelievable.  When I expressed this feeling to her, however, she said something that struck me as deeply important: “When you grow up in a completely a-religious context,” she said, “Mormonism is no weirder than any other religion.”

My point here isn’t to suggest anything about the status of religious belief as such, but rather to highlight something that helps me to make sense of the differences in my memory of education at a religious school and Sharon’s.  Specifically, I think that our experiences and memories of Christian school will necessarily vary because of the differences in the religious environments we grew up with at home.  I did grow up going to an evangelical church every week, and so it is not particularly surprising to me that I can’t recall specific instances of teachers quizzing us on the Plan of Salvation.  That was just in the water for me, like getting a week off for Mardi Gras and taking a Spelling test every Friday.  But I do have vivid recollections of other moments where my experience of mainline protestantism butted up against the fundamentalism of the school–and it’s interesting to me now, as an adult, to compare those moments of apparent religious zealotry with the ones that stuck out to Sharon.  Because, as my friend Mary would say, it’s all equally unreasonable for an outsider.  It just depends on your context.

I do, of course, remember Chapel–and the moment when I learned, courtesy of Sharon’s mom, that the song I knew as “Jesus the King Has Risen” was a reappropriation of  “What do you Do with a Drunken Sailor?”  But because church services were such a regular part of my life, nothing about them seemed especially significant to me.  What did strike me as bizarre were moments when religious belief began to inform the goings-on of daily life in ways that went beyond praying before meals or obeying your parents.

One time, as I recall, two girls in our class got into a vicious fight–over what, I don’t remember.  All I do remember is that, as punishment, the teacher forced them to stay together–alone–in the classroom during recess, until they managed to “forgive each other.”  As we walked out to the playground, I remember discussing with Sharon what a terrible idea this was…though I think we may have both hoped that these particular people would destroy one another before the bell rang.  It was not to be, though.  The girls made nice, the teacher prayed with them, and I was thoroughly confused, having believed up till that point that fighting  necessarily entailed a trip to the principal’s office.

But this was hardly the most bizarre moment of religiosity I encountered.  There was the time in Ms. Ditch’s class when I brought my Paul Simon t-shirt for Show and Tell–which, by the way, I had just gotten at my very first trip to a live concert (the Born at the Right Time Tour, for those of you keeping score at home)–when some jerk on the front row pointedly asked whether Paul Simon was a Christian singer.  Before I could say anything, Ms. Ditch said ‘No,’ her eyes narrowed.  I knew then that Show and Tell was over.  And then, most upsettingly, there was the time in third grade when one of my classmates informed me that Halloween was The Devil’s Birthday.

I loved Halloween.  It was my second-favorite holiday: the candy was ok, but the best part was dressing up.  Given my propensity for performing, I was always eager for a costuming excuse.  And since my birthday was in October, I often had Halloween themed parties, which provided the opportunity for two separate costuming events.  Plus, since I’d met Sharon, trick-or-treating had become more feasible–since, as she mentioned, my family lived on a main road of town that was totally un-traversable by little kids on foot.

Just as Halloween was becoming all I hoped it could be, things at school seemed to be getting out of hand.  The curly-haired boy named Matthew came to school on Halloween day with his fingernails painted black, and the school administrators freaked out, calling his mother and demanding she take him home or find some way to remove the offending polish.  As we discussed this shocking turn of events on the tennis courts during recess, a cadre of our class’ religious elite approached:

“Christians aren’t even supposed to celebrate Halloween,” a kid named Scott declared, knowingly.

“Why not?!” I squealed, “What’s wrong with dressing up and trick-or-treating?”

“You know what Halloween is, don’t you?” a girl whose father was a minister sneered. “It’s The Devil’s Birthday.  If you celebrate Halloween, you celebrate The Devil’s Birthday!

“Nu-uh!” I had nothing else to say.  I was aghast, but had no proof.  The argument was interrupted, however, when the bell rang to go back inside.  Once we were back in the classroom, the Know It Alls refused to concede their point.

“Ms. Busystreet*,” Scott yelled, “Tell them that Halloween is The Devil’s Birthday!”

I am here to tell you that Ms. Busystreet did not deny that Halloween was The Devil’s Birthday.  She didn’t exactly affirm it either, but the knowing and concerned look in her eyes told me that Halloween was something that I wasn’t supposed to like so much.  I thought about nothing else for the rest of the day.

When I got home, my parents asked me if I was ready to go trick-or-treating.  I was evasive.  Confused by my sudden change in demeanor, especially on this, the second-grandest of days, my father asked me why I didn’t want to go trick-or-treating.  I’m pretty sure I made up a lie about being too old before finally spilling the beans about what had happened at school.  Upset at what he saw as the school taking things a step too far, he explained to me that there was nothing wrong with dressing up and getting candy, but that maybe we could draw the line at dressing as a Devil.  This lessened my growing sense of guilt, as did the reaction of my mother who was–as usual–just not having it.  Her outlook was something along the lines of “Please, you’d know if you were giving the Devil a birthday party,” and she thankfully helped me construct a last-minute Cat costume out of a long sock stuck to a leotard and some tinfoil ears on a headband.  We went to the 3 houses that were easily accessible from our main-road home, and that was enough for me.  For the moment, anyway.  As soon as I went back to school, I was filled with anxiety that the Halloween Police would find me out.

I don’t remember what happened after that.  I do remember that I was grateful to know people like Sharon, who didn’t make me feel judged about every little thing I liked to do.  Indeed, there would have been much heartache averted if I could have remembered that lesson a bit more clearly later in life, during my own moments of egregious religious zealotry!

That, however, is a story for another time…

*Not her name.  Her actual name was the same as one of the busiest streets in the town where we grew up.

Dad, Do We Believe in Jesus?

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2009 at 3:06 am

Erin’s post reminds me of something I’ve been wanting to address but haven’t found the proper segue for yet: the religious beliefs of our school.  Because even though I had countless moments of “learning the facts of life” like Erin mentions, none of them are as memorable for me as those involving religion.

As much as we had in common, there was one other major difference between the two of us.  Erin’s family went to church.  And at our school, this was an important factor.  As we’ve mentioned, this school was a fairly religious institution.  It was founded by a church, and “Bible” was a subject covered in every class.  We went to “chapel” every Wednesday – basically a big church service where the school’s principal (or was it someone else?  I don’t remember) gave a sermon and we sang Bible songs, some of which were cleverly set to the tune of old significantly-less-holy standards.  (My personal favorite was the song about Jesus set to the tune of “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor.”)  The school had some (fairly) extreme beliefs.  I can’t speak to how much what Erin learned in church or at home fit with or contradicted what we learned at school, since that wasn’t really something we talked about as kids.  But I can tell you that her family actually attended a church.  Mine hadn’t been since I was 3, and I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in school with that fact hanging over her head.

My parents aren’t exactly irreligious.  It’s hard to explain – or at least more complicated than a single blog post can get across.  Suffice it to say that the reason I was in the school had nothing to do with God and everything to do with  the fact that forced busing in East Baton Rouge Parish would have had me getting on a bus at 5 am at the age of 6, being carted halfway across town, CHANGING buses, and then finally arriving at school for 7.  I wouldn’t have made it home until well after dark each day.  My mom was having none of this, and she and my dad put me in private school.  As far as I know, there were no nonsectarian private schools in the city, at least not then.  And the Catholic schools certainly weren’t likely to take me, so non-denominational Christian school it was.  ( I also now recognize what I didn’t then – that while I was priviledged enough to be able to afford private school, my cohorts from the neighborhood – those who weren’t in Catholic school – would have no choice but to get on that bus at 5.)

There’s a lot I could say about this, but any point I could make can be summed up with one story:

In elementary school I loved getting the right answers.  I was a teacher’s pet and used to being told how smart and clever I was.  (You know that episode of The Simpsons where the teachers go on strike and the schools close?  Lisa can’t handle it, and she runs up to Marge saying, “Please please please grade me grade me!  Evaluate and rank me!”  I was Lisa Simpson from age 6 until around age 12, when I started studying mostly just the things I liked.)  And I was NOT used to being uncertain of an answer.  Usually religion class didn’t pose a problem with this.  After all, there’s a book.  All I had to do was read it.  But occasionally a teacher would ask a real stumper, and I would panic, afraid that my non-church-going status would be revealed.

The first time this happened was in Not-Tina-Turner’s class.  We were all sitting in a semi-circle (probably “Indian style”, with our legs folded in front of us) in front of her chair, and she was telling us about Heaven.  (Teachers at unnamed religious private schools LOVE talking about Heaven to little kids.  Obviously.  I’m always floored by those tv shows that portray religious teachers discussing hell with 5-year-olds.  I don’t remember this ever happening.  They stuck with Heaven until we were closer to 10.  Got us hooked, then told us what would happen if we didn’t stay that way.)  “And what is the only thing you have to do to get to Heaven?” she asked.

I knew this one.  It was in the book.  “Believe in Jesus!”

“That’s right!  So how many of you will go to Heaven when you die? Raise your hand if you KNOW you’ll go to Heaven.”

I had no idea what to do.   I mean, technically I knew what she wanted was for us to all raise our hands.  But somewhere in my very young brain, I understood that a belief is different than an answer.  I had no idea if I would go to Heaven.  I had never thought about it.  But as every other hand in the room shot up, so did mine.

Still, that night I remember vividly walking up to my dad and asking, “Dad, do we believe in Jesus?”

I have no idea what answer he gave.  Whatever he said, though, I came out of it understanding that when it comes to believing things, there is no right or wrong answer.  Belief was something personal, and it was up to me to decide what I believed.  And I didn’t have to tell anyone at school – teachers or students – what I believed if I didn’t want to.  One of the things I love most about my dad is that he never talks down to anyone.  He never shied away from complicated questions, and no matter how young I was, he would provide me with a truthful answer, no equivocation.  I mentioned before that he’s a scientist, and I think that has something to do with his belief that inquisitiveness should be rewarded with knowledge.

I never asked him if I would go to Heaven when I died.  I guess somehow I already knew what the answer would be.

I went back and forth about what I believed a lot over the course of those years.  I wanted very badly to be “good,” and it seemed that believing in God and Jesus made you “good.”  But I also thought my parents were good, and I knew that they didn’t believe exactly the same things that the teachers at school did.  In many ways, though, I’m grateful for the confusion.  I learned early on that ideas are constantly evolving, that questions should always be asked, and that beliefs are something that have to come from within.  If they come from outside forces – from parents or teachers forcing them down your throat – then they’re never really beliefs at all.  They’re just more facts for you to stuff inside your head.  Whatever you’re told about God as a child, it doesn’t really hit home – doesn’t really MEAN something – until you decide for yourself whether you accept it.  (The same is true, by the way, for rejecting a belief.  I don’t cotton to forcing children to reject beliefs anymore than forcing them to hold one.  Just for the record.)

I would also like to put in here that I’m certain Erin’s parents must also have had an attitude at least resembling that of my parents.  I don’t ever picture them as indoctrinators.  And they never reacted strangely to the fact that my parents weren’t church-goers, the way that many of the other parents did.  I know my mom often felt uncomfortable at school events, but she was never uncomfortable with Erin’s family.  She can speak to that better than I can, obviously.  I just wanted to mention that I have only positive memories of them in this arena.

Of WASPs and Knowledge

In Erin on September 20, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Sharon’s last response about the kids in our class jogged my memory quite a bit, and I realized that much of what sticks out to me about school between the second and fourth grades are moments of revelation: those times as a kid when you hear something that shatters your sense of stability–of how the world works or should work, of what “normal” is, of who you (or your teachers, or your parents) are.  I nearly lost my mind, for example, when I was told in fourth grade that, despite what I’d heard up till that point, it was possible to subtract a larger number from a smaller.  (Don’t even get me started about how much that messed me up, especially after the saga of struggling to learn math “facts.”) Anyway, as I was preparing to tell a couple of these stories, I also realized that they had in common central characters whose names were all laughably and uncommonly WASPy, so in the interest of humor, I’m going to tell them with names that –as much as this is possible–capture the distilled essence of these people and their names, as they exist in my memory.

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Memories through a fog of flu-like symptoms. Also, kids who might have been in our class.

In Sharon on September 20, 2009 at 3:13 am

Erin,

I am going to save the philosophical post for tomorrow morning, as I worked a long 13 hours today (from 5:30 am til 6:30 pm!) and now feel like I might be coming down with flu.  I don’t think many of my theories about childhood would be very sound.  However, I wanted to make some quick points before I go to bed:

1.  I did not remember that (un)TinaTurner did that to you!  She was not at all fun, and I’m glad I could remind you of that.  I like the point you make that there are things that happen to you as a kid that just get sublimated as normal, everyday stuff that you don’t recognize as an injustice or a truth or a pivotal moment until you begin to tell your own story as an adult.  (In other words, it doesn’t really become a “moment” at all until we prescribe it some significance and structure through storytelling.  Otherwise, it’s just “stuff that happened”.)  I had a similar adult-life recognition about our high school art teacher.  I was, as you mentioned, a horrifyingly neat and polished little kid and used to doing everything in a very straight line.  (What happened to that?  I don’t think I EVER do that anymore, but maybe somebody can contradict me.) My Keds were VERY bright.  My belt was ALWAYS straight.  But in art class, you and I switched roles.  You could draw and paint and handle oil pastels.  I most definitely could NOT. And there was one year when we were assigned to make an art project that involved drawing a vase with flowers in it in pencil lines, then, rather than coloring the picture, gluing brightly dyed popcorn kernels to it to give the flowers and petals color.  I guess it was supposed to be like a mosaic?  Anyway, I remember the teacher (ugh, I REALLY want to give away her name, because it was like something out of a Dickens novel) walking past my table and saying, “No, no, no Sharon.  Those flowers don’t look lifelike at ALL!  You need to make some of them look like they’re drooping.  They can’t all stand straight up.”  She later called my finished product “sloppy”.  I took it home to my mom, crying, and she of course told me that I should tell Ms. Haversham that SHE was sloppy.  (My mom could get away with telling me to do things like this because she knew I’d never actually do it.  I would, however, think it, and it would make me feel a little stronger and more powerful – a little bit more deviant.)  I retell this one a lot as a childhood indignity (you can’t FORCE a kid to have a talent.  You can ask them to learn things, memorize things, practice things.  But you cannot force a little girl to have a talent she just doesn’t possess.  I have some artistic sensibilities, but I cannot draw worth a damn.)  I follow it up by explaining that a few days (or maybe it was a year?  who knows) later a bee flew into our classroom and , of all the places it could have landed, flew straight into Mrs. Haversham’s open mouth and stung her on her tongue.  For vengeance, of course.

2. I have remembered two kids from specifically our second grade class.  One was named Matthew S. (he had a very Dickensian last name too.  It sounded sort of slythery or snakey) and he had a crush on either you or me or maybe both (again, sort of indistinguishable at the time).  He had very tightly curled black hair and wore the kind of glasses that Steve Urkel wore on Family Matters – you know, the kind with the string attached to them.  He was super skinny and used to sit across from us at lunch and mix big globs of ketchup and mayo together and then stir his fries around in it.  (This was disturbing to me, with my neatly separated bag lunch items.)  There was also this REALLY BIG (as in tall for his age) kid who might have been named Kirk, or Kirt, something like that.  He really liked America’s Funniest Home Videos.  I really only remember him because I don’t think he was ever in our class again after that year.  Oh!  And another one!  His name was Mike, and he was my other best friend besides you.  We had first grade together too, I think, and he was really sweet.  His brother used to pick on him for hanging out with a girl.  I wonder what happened to him.  He left the school earlier than we did.  We used to play this game with him and another kid named Josh (he was very small, with a big mole on his face, I think) where we’d pretend to be animals on an adventure.  Dogs and cats, mostly, since unicorns were reserved just for us.  And we’d go eat those honeysuckles off the big bush that grew at the playground fence.

3.  You know who I did like that year?  Our librarian.  That’s just further proof that I know what I need to do with my life.

4.  Oh! Was this the year we had “Prairie Day,” or was that the next year?  I have MUCH to say about Prairie Day.

5. You “went out with” Kyle in 4th grade.  He and Jordan were best friends, so I decided I needed to like Jordan, since you liked Kyle.  Once at the skating rink during the creepy disco-light fiasco we made up yet another mystery story (this time a spy story, I think) in which we involved them somehow as characters.  We might have even played their parts, which would be yet another moment of crazy childhood gender-bending.

6. I’m pretty sure Jordan eventually went to military school.  His mom was REALLY cool, even if she was a mom-of-priviledge.  My mom still sees her sometimes and always loves talking to her.

7.  I remember pretending you fell into the quicksand.  And I remember it EXACTLY the way you told it, right down to your mom not having it for a second.  And I’m pretty sure that we also never imagined that falling into quicksand would be something dangerous.  It was more like you got sucked temporarily into another dimension and would be home later, maybe after dinner, thank you very much.

8. My brother was still a BABY during all of this.  Can you imagine? He’s 22 now. He graduates LSU in December.  Just wanted to point that out.

9.  There MIGHT have been a plastic tape recorder (white) with red microphone.  But there was DEFINITELY a white plastic pretend video camera with red lens.  We used it a lot too, to pretend we were filming our adventures.  My Pop probably got it for us, given how much he loved his camera.

On Not-Tina-Turner and Overachieving

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Sharon,

First of all, I agree with your mom: hold your pencil however you want!  I’m glad that you shared this story, because it helped me to remember that Not-Tina-Turner was also Not-a-Nice-Lady.  At the time, I didn’t think of it this way, I think because it took years before I learned to verbalize dislike of or upsettedness with adults…I just tended to assume that when they were mean or critical, it was because I had messed up.  This was often true, obviously–I was a messy, goofy kid–but sometimes it was just unnecessary.  Case in point (which, if my parents are reading this, they will recognize, because I became so indignant about it as an adult that I repeat this over and over):

At some point during second grade, we had to make picture frames for our parents out of cardboard and dried beans.  The point was to glue the beans in a pattern on the cardboard cutout frame, and then to put our school pictures in the frame.  I was minding my own business, spreading glue over the frame and beginning to stick on the beans, when Not-Tina-Turner appeared over my shoulder.

“Erin!” she yelled, “Don’t use so much glue!”

Embarrassed, and looking sheepishly at the Elmers that was dripping off the sides of my frame and oozing around the few beans I’d managed to secure, I said nothing and tried to wipe the excess with a paper towel.

“Don’t do THAT,” she shrieked, whisking the gluey mess out of my hands.  She held aloft the sticky white frame for the benefit of the class.  “Don’t ever hire Erin paint your house; you’ll wind up with paint everywhere!!”  Returning the frame to my glue-covered desk, she softened her tone slightly: “You only need a little.”

Thanks, Not-Tina-Turner.  I’ve never wasted glue since.  Oh, and by the way, I’m a fabulous house-painter.  It’s just that my talents are better exercised elsewhere.

As far as other kids go, I can’t seem to remember them.   No one else was such a horrendous glue-waster, apparently.  Now that you mention it, I do remember the pink-loving boy, and I believe that there was a boy named Kyle who I later developed a crush on in 4th grade.  And yes, I remember the cast of characters who followed us throughout our time at this private school, but I don’t have explicit memories of them in our second grade classroom.

As far as private school Bible-verse memorization goes…well, it’s funny.  It’s hard for me to characterize that practice now, because I feel so conflicted about it.  At the time, I loved it, because I loved the feeling of memorization and the feeling of pleasing adults, both of which contributed to my lifetime of over-achieving.  I was good at memorizing, because it was really just another form of word-repetition, which (as I’ve mentioned) was intensely enjoyable to me.  I loved being good at things, getting good grades, being the first one to memorize that week’s verse.  In retrospect, I’m suspicious about the practice of forcing children to repeat particular phrases as an ideological tool (especially when, as you point out, only certain phrases are permitted to be repeated).  And this suspicion is exacerbated in this particular instance, when the person training children in religious repetition is the same person who trains them in the recitation of math facts…there’s a conflation of authorities with which I’m not particularly comfortable.  When you take all of the authority at work there–the math, the religion, the glue-use…it all seems like a bit much.

Of course, if Not-Tina-Turner hadn’t been such an overbearing authority figure, who knows where we’d be?  I should probably write her a thank-you note for my academic success and general parsimony.  I’m sure that without her encouragement, I’d be a slovenly painter with an average memory.  Horrors, indeed!

Performing

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 3:03 pm

The camcorder and the cassette recorder (the black one had an orange “Record” button–and I would swear in a court of law that there was a plastic red and white one, too) remind me how prominently performances figured in our playtime.  Sometimes we’d require our ever-so-patient parents to watch or listen to the performances, and sometimes they were just for us.  I mentioned before how much I loved the feeling of spoken words and phrases…though I don’t remember consciously articulating that thought as a kid, my memories of performing–radio plays, church skits, mugging for the video camera–are thoroughly visceral.  Embodying a character (my over-the-top acting notwithstanding), feeling a different voice come out of my mouth, experiencing physical expression in an unfamiliar way: this is what stands out to me now as pleasurable.  This, and the making things up part, of course.  I love that Sharon remembers this as my not being afraid to be silly–because while I think this is absolutely true (I’ve always been a little on the side of ridiculous), it’s something I never really conceptualized in that way, because (at that young age, anyway) it never occurred to me as something to be afraid of.  Being larger-than-life felt good, and though I actually was shy around people I didn’t know well, I reveled in the opportunities to perform when they arose–or better, when we created them.

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A Sidebar on (Not)Tina Turner and Treehouses

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 4:03 am

Erin,

I have just written an absurdly long post philosophizing about working moms, economic conditions, and mystery theater.  And I had all of that tumbling around in my head all day, so I had to get it on paper to see what you’d say.  But in leaning toward the philosophical, I feel like I left out some of what I wanted this blog to be: the visceral.  So here’s my secondary post, addressed straight to you, included my visceral reactions to the other stories you mentioned in your initial post:

1. I do not remember the Tina Turner poster, but I’m glad that you do, because I definitely remember that woman.  She had a bowl haircut.  She was very tall.  She terrified me.  And I’m also pretty sure she was the most masculine teacher I ever had.  In fact, I initially scolded myself because I remember REALLY not liking her, and I started to wonder if that was because she was big and agressive and I responded negatively to those qualities in a woman as a child.  But your mom is also assertive and smart and opinionated, and I always loved her.  So I’m pretty sure the reason I did NOT get along with NOT-Tina-Turner was because of the way I held my pencil.  We had handwriting practice everyday, and she would send me home with notes about how I held my pencil ridiculously and I would never learn to write until I could hold it better.  My mom found this patently ridiculous and instructed me to keep holding my pencil however I wanted.  I’m pretty sure this contributes some to the personality I have today.  Also, didn’t she teach us swimming?  Maybe that’s the other reason I didn’t like her.  I hated swimming.  (I’m pretty good now.  Surprise, no?  I even dive.  It only took til college.)

2. I’m pretty sure the treehouses were built by one of the first grade teacher’s husbands, because we had one in my grad 1 classroom that was built by my teacher’s husband.  His name was Kirk, and this reminded me of Captain Kirk from my dad’s favorite TV show.  In a bizarre act of childish displacement, I imagined that he looked like Spock.

3. I am not surprised that the other teachers did not like Tina Turner.

4. Who else was in our class?  I literally only remember you and me for sure.  That’s weird.  I mean, I remember who else went to our school in general, cause it was the same people for AGES.  But I can’t place who was in that specific class, with the exception of Ross, because he held his pencil even worse than I did, loved hot pink, and was left-handed.

5. I am floored that you remember the red jewel.  Awesome.

6. When you talked about forming a collection of your past selves, I felt like I could relate in a big way.  Part of the significance of this project for me is that, after leaving grad school and teaching and Los Angeles, I felt more than a little like I’d lost myself somewhere.  In the past couple of years, I’ve been coming into my own again and recognizing that, even when I feel completely adrift and confused, there are aspects of myself that have been exactly the same for AGES.  And somehow that makes me feel more like a complete person (mirror stage, anyone?).  I especially reacted to your reaction to my crying during Labyrinth.  The person I was to you then – this representation of distilled emotion – is the person I’ve been to  a lot of people during my life, and I’m only just now coming to realize that I’ve ALWAYS been that way.  Apparently I just never learned how to temper ANYTHING, but especially not my emotions.  I was a full-fledged adult in my twenties before I understood that other people notice this, and that it affects them.  I also react at inappropriate times and to inappropriate things, never to the actual event that triggers the emotion.  So my emotions are powerful, but they cause waves even more because they’re usually displaced.  (When I was in grad school I took a writing class from a professor who taught something called “creative critical theory” – basically creative writing for theorists.  He pointed out that whenever I wrote anything about myself, I tended to break off in the middle of a story and start writing poetry.  Then, once I made whatever emotional revelation I needed to, I would return to prose and finish the story.  I now believe this has a lot to do with those displaced emotions, always there, but always directed at some abstract thing in a book or a movie – something outside myself.)

7. I think it says something that you still adore Bill and Ted, and I still watch Labyrinth periodically.

8. When the person you are now looks back on those Bible verse drills, does it disturb you?  Or do you see it as just another form of education and memorization?  Because I can’t ever decide.  Sometimes I feel like reciting force-memorized chunks of text out of context was scary and cruel.  But other times I’m glad for the skill of language memory that I think I derived from it.  I can recite lines from almost any text I’ve ever read the way I recited those Bible verses in childhood, and I carry those lines around with me (some of them are still from the Bible, but not all) like little talismans of protection that I recite to myself when I’m upset or anxious.  Or even when I’m happy and can’t find a way to express it.  I made a cocoon of words for myself over time, and those verses helped jump-start that.  I’m hoping we eventually delve way more into the religious aspect of our upbringings, especially because that’s one place where our backgrounds were very different – and so I imagine our experiences were too, even if we were going through the same basic things.

9.  An addendum to that thought:  one thing that I do remember as a scary aspect of the verse memorization was the time (in 4th grade, I think) when we were allowed to choose our own verses to memorize.  I’m sure we were supposed to choose things about love and kindness, but a very close friend of ours (who shall remain nameless since I don’t know if she’d want to be named) chose a verse out of Revelations describing, very artistically, the gates of Heaven.  The teacher told her she couldn’t pick that one.  I have no idea which one I picked.  But I do know that the one I remember best is the very last verse of the book of Matthew, when Jesus says “And I shall be with you always, until the very end of the age.”