Words, definitions in particular, have gotten me in trouble for as long as I can remember.
My earliest language mishap began with organized religion, kicking off an uneasy relationship that continues to this day, although I excelled in some areas of church life.
As a child, I loved winning glow-in-the-dark crosses for memorizing scripture. (I had no idea what the words meant; I was just a trinket pack rat.) When white gloves were vanishing from women’s fashions, I kept wearing mine to church. (Congregants called my mother to compliment my stylistic values; I simply loved anything that smacked of costuming.)
But when I refused to buckle under the brimstone, as a six-year-old, the die was cast. When religion turned into a true-false test, instead of a multiple choice exam, I learned what it meant to stand alone.
This all happened when we moved to Middletown, Ohio. Carla, the girl my age who lived across the street, attended the Crawford Street Church of God. It was two blocks away, and we walked to Sunday school together. My dad was raised Methodist. My mother grew up in a country church that was more church than any particular denomination. I’m sure they couldn’t see much harm in a little girl going to a nearby church with a new friend.
I was a model participant at first. Teachers loved putting me on stage to recite the Books of the Bible from memory. With my curly hair and patent leather perfection, I was no doubt adorable.
Until it went bad.
Sunday school always began with an assembly in the children’s wing. We sat in miniature pews while the minister delivered a brief sermon usually based on a biblical story. We sang a song, my favorite being Zaccheus Was a Wee Little Man, and we dropped our coins into the offering basket.
One morning, the pastor spoke on the evils of smoking and drinking, habits of the Devil. People who participated in these acts were sinners who needed help. They were dangerous and would lead us down the road to damnation. He asked us to file forward and sign an oath to never smoke or drink. This would keep us safe because the Devil couldn’t get in our hearts.
Row by row, the little lambs signed up.
My teacher whispered a plea; I shook my head.
One by one, the room emptied until I was alone with the minister, who asked why I wouldn’t sign.
My eyes filled with tears as I explained that my parents smoked and drank sometimes. (Remember it was the 1950s–the height of sophisticated evening cocktails and cigarettes.) I didn’t think they were bad people.
Nor were they dangerous.
People under the influence of the Devil wouldn’t serve as scout leaders. They wouldn’t volunteer at the school. They wouldn’t plant geraniums. They wouldn’t give me a birthday cake with pink roses. They wouldn’t spend every other weekend driving to Illinois to care for their aging parents.
I didn’t want to smoke or drink myself, but I wouldn’t sign a paper that defined my parents as evil.
To his credit, he said he understood, that I didn’t have to sign, and that I could go on to class. Of course, I’ll never know what he really thought. Was he amazed that a little girl resisted his belief system? Was he able to see the potential damage of pitting a child against her parents? Was he convinced that my family was in league with the Devil and sent to test him?
I remember my Sunday school teacher had nothing to say to me for a long time after that.
I could stop here, but I’m inclined to point out this was the beginning of my forays into oppositional defining.
As a high school teacher, the last faculty meeting I attended ended with a list of student names written on the board. We were asked if this was “the kind of element” we should have in our school. I knew some of those kids well. They were edgy types, the kind who would give you an unexpected opinion that set off a firestorm of discussion in class, not necessarily a negative thing. I suspect most of them were smokers and drinkers, too, but that never struck me as outrageous behavior for teenagers. Were they dealers? Thieves? I didn’t know, and no one told us that during the meeting.
The ones I knew on that list were not bad people. As far as I could tell, they did not represent an element aligned with the Devil. They were just smart teenagers who knew how to get under the skin of adults who required adherence to a prescribed standard.
I couldn’t embrace this simmering definition of a new order. I wouldn’t speak against these kids.
If we were marching against this list now, what would be the next Element of the Day?
I thought it over for several months. The implications were enormous, not that I hadn’t been considering my career options for a while anyway.
I resigned that summer.
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