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.