How I Got Where I Am, Part 26 February, 2008
As a child, I was fortunate enough to live at Death Valley and Grand Canyon. I got to climb Mount Whitney (14,495 or so feet) and canoed on historic Lake Manley (350+feet BELOW sea level); I traveled by raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and backpack through the Colorado Mountains; I hiked to the bottom of Canyon de Chelly by moonlight and visit the Redwoods near San Francisco.
When I was 12, though, my dad took a transfer to the National Park Service design center at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. My sisters were at a private school in Utah (the Grand Canyon High School was severely underfunded), so, when we bought a house in Maryland, I got to be an only child for almost 4 months. I really could have used their advice.
I walked into an environment which was totally foreign. From a school with 16 kids in my class, I was suddenly at a school with about 200 per class. From a community in which a large proportion of the residents had at least some college, if not an advanced degree, I was suddenly in an area in which formal education was not considered important (put succinctly by one kid in school: “Why do I need to go to college? I already know how to pull tit (dairy farming)”) And from a town with one and half churches (one community center with ecumenical services and a Mormon Temple) to the northern end of the Bible Belt.
Now, I can see how I looked to he kids in the school. I looked different (long hair). I spoke differently. I had travelled (to places other than Ocean City). I did not have a German last name. And I was not related to anyone else at the school. I did not attend any of the evangelical Protestant churches (which added to my oddity).
The sites and experiences of farm country Western Maryland in the late 1970s were beyond anything I could have imagined. I saw girls abused by parents in the name of religion. I saw a 12 or 13 year old girl forced to have her uncle’s baby because she had seduced him. I saw a 14 year old boy thrown out of his house for bringing a book home. I got beaten up regularly and quickly learned to keep my mouth shut (if I offended one person, I quickly discovered how many relatives he or she had).
I did find a couple of friends. We played Dungeons and Dragons (which was excoriated in the local churches). I played trumpet in the band. I played Little League baseball. I tried to fit in, but knew I never would. The big difference between me and almost everyone else in the school was religion.
By this time I thought of myself as a Unitarian. My perception of god was something remote and uncaring; certainly not the personal god of the local evangelicals. I quickly learned not to discuss religion. I didn’t understand being born again (what, it wasn’t painful enough for my mom the first time?) or saved (from what? and at what interest rate?). I also learned to use humour (often self-deprecating) to deflect attention.
My freshman year, my lab partner was a young lady who was the daughter of a local evangelical preacher. He had dropped out of the Southern Baptist Coalition because they were too liberal. She needled me constantly about my curious (to her) beliefs. She had the intolerance of an adolescent. One day, I decided to play with her.
“Which Bible do you use?” I asked.
“Oh, we use The Bible.”
I persisted. “Which version?”
“We use the Real Bible!” She was getting shrill.
“Wow,” I said. “I had no idea you could read Koine Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic.” (give me a break. I was 14 and my knowledge of the Bible was slim. I know now that the languages were off)
She freaked. She stood up, in Biology class, and started screaming at me. “You are going to hell you heathen freak how dare you question my saviour how dare you are going to hell . . .” The best way I can describe what she sounded like is a cut from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant — the part when the sergeant is explaining to the Group W boys how they are supposed to fill out the form about their crime.
Our poor teacher finally got her to shut up and sent her to the office with a note. I felt sorry for the teacher — it was his last year before retirement (it amazes me just how many of my teachers retired after having me in class (must be a coincidence)). She was kicked out of school for a week. Had a baby nine months later. By her senior year, though she was still a Christian, she had become much more open minded and accepting.
My biology teacher was a good example of many of my middle and high school teachers. On the first day of class, as he passed out the textbook, he said, “There’s a chapter in there about evolution. I know its wrong, so I won’t teach it. The earth isn’t old enough for it to be true. If you want to endanger your soul and read it, I won’s stop you. The state says I’m supposed to talk about it. I just did. I won’t mention in again, and neither will you.” There was also an English teacher who spent a week telling the class that Joe McCarthy had saved America from the godless liberal commies. Other teachers were much better, some were great. About half, though, were, well, odd.
I did very little dating. My first girlfriend (from another school) was born again. She dumped me because I wasn’t.
I made it through my four year high school in five years (sophomore year included an impressive case of mono which kept me out of school for about five months and I slept too much to keep up with the classwork) with about a 2.4 GPA. I also, while in high school, had decided that the universe itself was god. I still called myself a Unitarian, but, thanks to the multiple contacts with deeply religious (and, I thought, deranged) individuals, I had become seriously areligious. I figured that every religion most likely had a piece of the truth, but they were so wrapped up in control and judging people that it wasn’t worth it.
I envied the boys who went through middle school and high school easily. The ones who played football, got good grades with no effort, were involved in everything, and, most annoyingly, fit in with the milieu. I envied their effortlessness while growing up. Looking at their profiles at classmates, most of the ones who had it easy didn’t do too well in college. Most of the misfits found themselves in college (myself included).
Living in Western Maryland exposed me to some of the worst aspects of religion: intolerance, racism (kids wore KKK shirts to school, and the school had no problem with it), bigotry, sexism. I know now that that wasn’t the whole story, but to a shallow teenager, it was enough to innoculate me against organized religion.