Erin

Posts Tagged ‘Bible verses’

Chasing Turkeys in the Country Club

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Erin is cornered in the Great White North this year, and is hosting a party to teach the People of Other Lands the true meaning of American Thanksgiving (with Tofurky!).  In honor of her party and the upcoming holiday, I thought a post reminding her of Thanksgiving via the Unnamed Religious Private School would be apropos. 

I’ve had to mull this post over a few times, because this is the first time that I’ll be posting a memory that’s very scattered.  It doesn’t exist in my brain as a narrative, but rather as a bunch of scattered, disparate parts that might actually come from a series of years rather than a single event.  So rather than fudging anything resembling linear narrative, I will provide you with a series of remembered events, which may or may not be connected to one another.

 Erin has already mentioned the Thanksgiving Play, and my memories of this are much the same as hers.  I’m certain that the plot of the play was “Pilgrims set out for America.  Pilgrims land and are extremely righteous, but in order to teach them a lesson God sends them a Very Harsh Winter.  Some people get sick.  Some people even die!  Helpful Indians (played by dark-haired children such as myself) help them grow crops.  Helpful Indians join Pilgrims at First Thanksiving, where the women cook the meal while the men teach the Indians about Jesus.  The Indians readily accept Jesus despite what must have been some really difficult translation barriers.  Everyone is happy, and thus thankful, despite all the bodies still lying around from the Very Harsh Winter.  (I believe that one year we actually did have some kids play sick people, and I think one of them stayed on stage longer than he was supposed to, thus giving the impression that the neglected dead were still lounging about during the festivities.)

 Thanksgiving is always a troublesome holiday at religious schools, because it’s the only holiday (besides Halloween, which is OFF LIMITS) that isn’t specifically referenced in scriptures.  When teachers talked to us about the “true meaning” of Christmas, they inevitably spent several days pouring over the birth of Christ with us.  The meaning of Easter was similarly divined through readings of the Crucifixion.  But the Pilgrims aren’t technically IN the Bible (as much as our teachers might have wanted them to be), and so somehow we escaped with having a fairly secular time at Thanksgiving.  We made the traditional Hand-Turkey crafts and lists of things we were thankful for.  And I can’t imagine that our play was that much more culturally insensitive than anyone else’s.  The myths of Thanksgiving are a pretty ingrained part of American childhoods, public- and private-schooled alike.  (This makes me wonder what kids who grow up on Reservations think of the holiday.)  We also did additional crafts projects to eat up the time that would normally have been dedicated to something less secular, like a scripture reading.  The year we did the play, we created our own set (featuring a giant cave!) out of papier mache. 

A few years later (I think), someone must have made the decision that crafts were not adequate to teach us about the meaning of Thanksgiving.  Because that year, we were sent to the M family’s house to learn about all of the chores and tasks that go into planning a True American Thanksgiving.

Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with the Family M.  They are the family that includes Melissa and her twisted sisters, along with their theatrical mother and the father who donned tiny bathrobes.  Erin has already mentioned that they were the family who attempted to provide our class with “culture”, carting us all to plays and Junior League events.  This year their role as cultural attaches was extended somewhat, as they taught us the proper way to plan a Thanksgiving feast.  One morning the week before Thanksgiving break, we all hopped in cars driven by chaperoning parents and took a field trip to the country club, where Mrs. M greeted us at the door to her stately mansion and informed us we would learn how to be real ladies and gentlemen this Thanksgiving.

Did I mention that we were all wearing Pilgrim and/or Indian outfits?  We were requested to come in costume as members of the first Thanksgiving.  Most of us just used our costumes from the annual play, meaning that I was dressed in my felt Indian vest and headband, complete with feathers and two long pigtail braids.  So a group of mostly Pilgrims and a few select Indians stormed the mansion door, still uncertain what, exactly, we were going to learn.

This is where my memory gets splotchier than I would like.  I am certain that a day at the house of M must have been beyond hilarious, but I can’t get a clear picture of what, exactly, we did once we were there.  I know that a major portion of our “lesson” involved cooking and cleaning.  Mrs. M had arranged for us to prepare specific T-day dishes – potato salad, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green been casserole.  And she also taught us the importance of having a clean house; some of us were assigned to polish various furnishings and mop the hardwood floors in preparation for our feast.  (I feel that I must commend the school here, as this lesson was surprisingly gender neutral.  As far as I can remember, the boys were assigned to cook and clean right alongside the girls.)

What I remember most vividly, though, is the moment when Mrs. M and our teacher gathered us all together and talked about the importance of remembering the first Thanksgiving as we set about preparing our own feasts.  The Pilgrims, they reminded us, had not only to cook and to clean, but also to hunt, fish, and gather.  They lived off the land, and the preparation of any feast involved the hard legwork of the hunter.  (I would swear too that when we cooked the meal, Mrs. M made the preparations as primitive as possible, leaving out the use of electric appliances wherever feasible.  But this might be a misremembrance.)  Thus, on this day we were going to learn how hard it was to hunt a turkey.

I have no idea why someone in the country club had turkeys.  But someone did.  Specifically, he was a grouchy old man who shouted a lot and didn’t seem all that happy about having us on his property.  He had a pretty extensive plot of land that included foul of all kinds, cows, and I think even a pig or two.  Now that I’m older I look back on him and wonder if he was one of those old men who thinks the government is coming for his money one day and keeps a small farm-like plot just in case someone steals all his worldly goods.  But whatever the reason, he had animals, and we needed those animals in order to learn about the First Thanksgiving.

Mrs. M showed us around the “farm,” explaining how each animal would have served the Pilgrims in the creation of their feast.  (Cows?  In early America?  I’m not so sure about that one.  But they probably didn’t eat sweet potato casserole with marshmallows either, so I guess I shouldn’t expect this even to have been historically accurate.)  We learned that any and all food came from plants and animals, not from the grocery store.

But the capper of the event was when the grouchy old man stepped in to tell us how hard it was to catch a turkey.  If we were learning about the hardships of the early days, it was important to understand that nature was difficult to tame, and that most wild animals didn’t just walk right into the path of your rifle.  As he made his point, he walked towards a small fence at he back of the property, threw open a gate, and set free three enormous turkeys to run about the yard.  He claimed that they were “wild turkeys,” although I think that adjective becomes moot once an animal is kept in a pen in your yard.  But either way, the man was taken with the majesty of the turkey (just like Ben Franklin!) and wanted us to understand how hard a bird it was to bag.  “Just try to catch those turkeys,”  he challenged.

And with that, 20 elementary school kids dressed as Pilgrims and Indians took off after 3 big birds, scrambling across the acreage, bumping into unsuspecting cows and pigs in our plight to grab the centerpiece of all Thanksgiving meals.  We got close a couple of times, including one in which I swear the thing turned around and nipped my arm.  But I doubt any of us succeeded.  After much scrambling around, Mrs. M called us back and told us it was time to head back to the house.  Luckily for us, some astute shopper had already provided us with a bird via the grocery store, so our feast would not remain incomplete, despite our failure to bag the turkey.

I don’t know where our teacher was during all of this.  I suspect it was a nice day off for her.  I’m really crossing my fingers this time, hoping that Erin remember SOME of this, because I’m certain there’s more to this story.  Anytime a crazy rich lady teaches a bunch of costumed kids about the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving, there are bound to be some comedic scenes.  But all of them were pushed out of my mind by the crazy old man who got a kick out of watching us chase his turkeys.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Giants, Furry Collars, and The Westing Game

In Sharon on October 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm

I apologize, loyal readers (do we have any of those?) for the long space between posts.  Things have been a little nutty, but hopefully it won’t happen again.

The gap in posting, though, leaves me with the realization that we’re getting ever closer to the holidays, and all these school play-related memories are very timely.  So I’m going to attempt to keep them going, in honor of the upcoming Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas triad.

First of all, let me point out that my memories of the Thanksgiving play match Erin’s almost exactly, in the sense that I don’t remember much beyond the one song and the fact that I was always, always cast as an Indian.  I must not have had a line in this particular play, or, if I did, I don’t remember it the way I remember my lines as Gabriel.  I do remember that song though, and I remember absolutely LOVING it.  (The only variance in our recollections is that I could have sworn that the line was “feathers in our head men” rather than “feathers in our headband”, but that might just speak to my love of parallel structure.)  For me, there was something about the slow, staccato rhythm and the mysterious line about being “down among the dead men.”    I’m still fascinated by that line, and I’ve been digging around in my brain lately trying to understand what it might have meant to me when I was a kid.

But more on that later. For now, in the sense of timeliness, I want to return to THE DEVIL’S BIRTHDAY!!

I love being scared.  Yes, that’s right, I’m a humongous cliche.  I love bad horror movies, good horror movies, and stories that keep me from sleeping at night.  Back when I was a grad student I spent inordinate amounts of time researching Victorian  and early modern ghost stories (which I still hold are some of the best around).  The same was true when I was a kid: I devoured anything that made me want to run and hide in the closet.

As I remember it, Erin had a complex relationship with fear in childhood.  She participated with me in many a sleepover reading of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (volumes 1 through 3!).  But I also remember that these activities would make her nervous – a condition she always gives away by talking veryveryvery fast.  (If you ever ride a roller coaster with her, I advise tape recording her, as you would then have the most realistic vision of stream-of-consciousness ever imagined.)

Once, sometime around 3rd grade, she invited me to a lock-in at her church.  In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, a lock-in is a sort of massive slumber party generally associated with youth groups.  A few adults gather together girls from a variety of ages and let them all spend the night in the church rec hall and participate in church-sanctioned activities.  (I wonder if other religions do these too.  If they do, I bet they don’t play “Christians and Romans,” another fascinating topic I’ll be broaching later on.)  Somehow, Erin’s church youth leaders must not have been as strict as the ladies at our school, because there was much ghost-story telling that evening.  It started fairly early in the night when all of us were crammed into someone’s minivan and an older girl convinced us we were reliving the hook-on-the-car-door urban legend.    But it continued throughout the night, and I distinctly remember after a certain point Erin leaned over to me and whispered, “Maybe we should go lie down now.”  This was code for “I have hit my maximum limit of scare tactics.”

So I don’t know whether she’ll have the same memory I do about ghost stories at our elementary school – specifically about what we spook-addicts were given as replacement for our banished tales.  Because they were definitely banished.  During 4th grade I had the library’s copy of The Westing Game taken away before I had a chance to finish it – once the teachers realized it contained eery material – and even a run-in with a corpse!  That same year, close to Halloween, a rainy morning had us all disappointed that we’d have to stay inside for recess.  Our teacher promised she’d make it worth our while by telling some holiday-appropriate spooky stories.  Someone must’ve reported this activity to the principal, however, because by the time the promised recess rolled around she was no longer so enthusiastic.  She let us know that ghost stories weren’t a good idea after all.  Then in the 5th grade I got chastised for doing my book report on a collection of ghost stories – a report that I introduced by saying, “Some people will tell you that these tales aren’t true… but that’s just SOME people.”

So there was plenty of material considered untouchable.  I have some suspicions that the librarian felt bad for me, though.  She was the one who had given me The Westing Game in the first place, only to see it taken from me later.  She was trying to encourage reading as best she could, and she needed something to put in my hands that sparked my interest.  For a while she succeeded with books that piqued my fascination with mystery, getting me hooked on a biography of JFK that included a complete diagram of Dealey Plaza and a detailed account of the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination.  I was convinced for weeks that if I stared at that diagram long enough I could solve the case.

Even weirder, though, was the final solution that Mrs. B finally reached in her attempts to find suitable literature for me: The Door In The Dragon’s Throat, a weird children’s archaeology thriller by Christian author Frank Peretti.

Peretti has now made a suitable name for himself (amongst evangelicals, at least) in adult literature.  But back in the 80’s he wrote mostly for kids.  His main series featured a Christian archaeologist and his two kids as they were sent around the world (sometimes by the president!) to unearth lost mysteries usually connected to ancient Christianity.

Peretti was the perfect substitute for my missing ghosts.  In many ways, he was probably better – or at least more memorable.  I don’t remember the books being particularly prosthelytizing, although I’m sure they must have been in parts.  What I remember is the monsters.  Peretti dealt with Old Testament lore and often featured creatures like giants and – I swear – a cyclops.  The existence of such creatures was backed up somehow by scripture.  Wise Dr. Cooper was always explaining to his kids how various verses in the Bible described people and things that no longer existed in our world, including races of giant men and women like the Goliath who fought David.

I am here to tell you that Biblical times were TERRIFYING.  There are 3 images I retain from childhood literature that still occasionally haunt me in the middle of the night.  One is the infamous girl-with-spiders-in-her-face from Scary Stories.*  The second is the girl bouncing around the ceiling in her sleep in Nightmare on Elm Street.  And the third is Peretti’s Biblical giants.**

The question I keep coming back to, though, is why?  I mean, technically I know the answer: the Peretti books were acceptable because they were by a Christian author, featuring Christian (sort of) themes.  The figures in the books couldn’t be considered supernatural because they were historical – Biblical figures traced directly back to scripture (sort of).  This raises an interesting issue that’s a constant for kids raised in religious environments: Christianity (and indeed religion in general) is filled to the brim with bizarre supernatural stuff.  Wonders and miracles, stigmata, mystery pregnancies, narrow escapes from death, talking bushes… I could go on.  All you have to do to get the idea is listen to an Eddie Izzard routine.  If you think about it, a kid raised amongst all that stuff shouldn’t need ghost stories at all.  But those ideas are generally presented in such a matter-of-fact tone (in class!) that they never seem frightening at all.  Or at least, they never did to me.***

Remembering Peretti makes me wonder why we didn’t tap into the natural spookiness of the Bible more often.  It may have been for the same reason that our teachers shied away from Halloween: they simply weren’t equipped to deal with the consequences of a room full of scared kids.  Fear makes people do odd things, and if the Bible hadn’t been like a cozy bedroom in our parents’ house, we might have been less likely to turn to it for all our answers.  I probably got away with reading Peretti because his name was familiar and safe – because he was a Christian author.  But the contents of the books touched on something we didn’t see much of in school – but that I DID see a lot of in my favorite stories.  Peretti showed me a world that was unstable and contained unimaginable danger.  He put me in the same world hinted at by Halloween and the phrase from our “Indian” song: a world where we were down among the dead men, where the unknown haunted us in stacatto rhythms.  His Christians faced down giants and carried the ghosts of the past with them.  I’d be curious to read those stories again now, to see whether they hold up – and to discover whether they contained more prosthelytizing than I remember.  I want to know if those giants are still scary, or if the they seem more like monsters made to pound a message into my skull.

Then again, that’s all lots of horror movies and stories are, really: just coded messages meant to play on the things we fear the most – like communism, or shopping malls.  Or Texas.

Except the bloody fur collar story (mentioned in footnote *).  That one was just creepy.

*Okay I just remembered a fourth.  During that infamous 5th grade book report I read a story about a girl who goes to spend the night at a friend’s house.  She wakes up to some weird sounds and finds herself alone in the room.  The lights have all gone out, and she goes prowling around the house in the dark, hands out in front of her.  As she feels her way around, she touches something that she realizes is the furry collar of her friend’s nightgown — with nothing above it but a stump!  Something has chopped off her friend’s head.  I don’t remember how this story got resolved, but the image of that furry collar still rears its head (or stump!  ha ha!) once in a while.

** Peretti makes an appearance in a great book called Rapture Ready, a compendium on the phenomenon of Christian pop culture.  He doesn’t come off TOO shabbily, and the author’s comments about him and his adult fiction make me wonder what I’d think of those books now.

***I have a friend who used to lie awake at night because she was afraid that if she fell asleep the Holy Spirit would impregnate her.  So I guess not everybody was as nonchalant about religious mythology.

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.

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.

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!

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.”