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.