Erin

Posts Tagged ‘The Devil’s Birthday’

Roald Dahl at the Book Fair with Rev. Jackson

In Erin on November 5, 2009 at 11:38 pm

There are so many amazing things to say about Sharon’s post, but I want to approach them through the somewhat roundabout route of telling you about The Book Fair.  The Book Fair was a magical event for kids such as us, who eagerly awaited new spelling lists and reading assignments.  Now, with the advent of amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, I doubt whether The Book Fair even exists–or if it does, whether anyone would actually send their kids to school with money to spend on it–but at the time, it was wonderful.  Basically, it amounted to a mobile bookstore kids section, which parked itself in the auditorium for a day.  I believe that we might have been allowed to make book purchasing decisions right there in the moment, but for the most part, we had already made our book choices in advance with the help of colorful (yet flimsy) Scholastic catalogs, which listed the newest titles and which were distributed in class the week before.

I remember going through the scholastic catalog each time, circling everything I wanted (usually almost every book in print, except for the boring ones about horses or basketball), and then painstakingly narrowing my list down to accord with the budgetary restrictions imposed by my mom.  When I was younger, the final list almost invariably included some fantasy or coloring book involving stickers or unicorns.  One year, though–I believe in fourth grade–I began to branch out.  My Book Fair purchases that year included 1) a biography of Jesse Jackson and 2) one of the Scary Stories books Sharon mentioned.

To be honest, I have no idea where the Jesse Jackson thing came from.  I have my doubts about whether I actually knew who Jesse Jackson was.  I do remember thinking that the description in the Scholastic catalog made him seem interesting, and that I was beginning to feel weird about the fact that I knew no Black people other than the lovely woman who cleaned our house (Ms. Gertie), despite the fact that I was growing up in a pretty diverse city (which, incidentally, was later ranked by Ebony as one of the best 5 cities for African-Americans to live  in the U.S.).  So I think I must have had vague aspirations of self-education, but these were sadly never realized.  I still remember bringing the book home, and hearing my dad ask why I would possibly have wanted a Jesse Jackson biography–and putting it onto the shelf, never to be opened again.  I’m not sure that he meant to be disapproving, but his tone–the same one he used when asking, “You don’t like those New Kids on the Block, do you?“–was enough for me, a lifelong Type A pleaser, to take the hint (or at least, what I perceived as the hint).

In a way, the Scary Stories book is even more enigmatic to me.  Sharon’s suggestion that I had a “complex” relationship with fear is–for me–putting it generously.  I was a full-on fraidy-cat, wuss, chicken, whatever.  I hated, and still hate, scary movies.  It’s hard for me to remember what things were like then, since there’s something about adulthood self-awareness that makes the childhood versions of our present neuroses seem unrecognizable.  For whatever reason, though–maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were starting to go to camps, and have sleepovers, and ghost stories were a consistent part of the TV versions of these things–I got the Scary Stories book, and read it with Sharon.  That is, I read most of it (minus “The Black Dog,” since I had a black dog of my own).  I still remember some of the more vivid phrasings in Sharon’s voice:

The drum beats grew louder and faster!  Suddenly, Jack pitched forward, dead.

Ah, childhood!  So many beautiful stories.  I do wonder how it was possibly acceptable for us to acquire such a text, given its general morbidity.

Of course, I don’t actually remember The Westing Game being forbidden.  In fact, I was almost certain that we read it in school…or at least, that we read some mystery book that had a cover with a black background and a spooky looking old mansion.  Though this may have happened after I left for the alien world of public school (more on this later!).  Still, I do remember at least one instance of literary censorship at the Unnamed Religious Private School, so it’s far from being out of the realm of possibility.

At some point (I don’t remember when), our class read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Having seen the movie with Gene Wilder several times (and having had a chocolate addiction from a young age), I was pretty excited about this…though was somewhat disappointed that the book was a bit darker than the movie, with fewer bright colors and decidedly less singing.  Nevertheless, it was an exciting time in my elementary school life, not only because it was a story about chocolate–two of my favorite things!–it also involved getting a new book, copies of which Ms. Ditch (we’ll just say it was her) had passed out to each of us on the first day of the unit.

A couple of days into our reading, we came to the part of the story where Willy Wonka explains to Charlie and his grandfather that they should never ever drink the Fizzy Lifting Drink, since it previously resulted in the death of an Oompa Loompa.  The book description is much more intense than that of the movie, culminating when Wonka recounts the dreadful scene, in which he desperately shouts to the rapidly ascending Oompa Loompa: “Burp!  Burp you silly , burp!”

Or, at least, that’s what he shouted in my book.  He shouted that in all of our books, actually, because the copies Ms. Ditch passed out to us had that word blacked out.  Interestingly, however, rather than moving along past the offending passage without remark, our class was then forced to have an in-depth discussion of why Roald Dahl (or Willy Wonka?) would have used such terrible language in the first place, thus drawing even more attention to the fact of its censorship.  I don’t remember what the outcome of that discussion was, or whether it was decided that Willy Wonka was a bad person.  But I do remember that, holding the page up to the light, I could barely make out the word: A-S-S.

I didn’t really know what it meant, but I did know one thing: whatever it was, it was worse than The Devil’s Birthday and Jesse Jackson.  And that seemed like kind of a big deal.

 

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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.