Tonight my class did our readings. I decided to read a different selection than what I read last week, but first I revised it based upon feedback I received in last week's workshop.
In first grade Mrs. Henderson gave us an assignment to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I have no artistic ability, so the picture I drew is a sketch, mere stick figures, with no aesthetic merit. In it I am standing at a pulpit, preaching. There is a row of pews. And on that first pew I drew my mother, sitting and listening with a smile on her face.
I gave Mom that picture, and she still cherishes it.
The picture has taken on the role of myth for Mom and me. By that I mean a story which helps to structure and understand my life and my world. It’s the sort of thing that can be called as evidence to remind me, “This is what you’ve always known you were going to do, who you are supposed to be.”
Growing up I had many great experiences in church. The fun of summer camp on Grand Lake. The Sunday School teachers who loved me and taught me the skills they thought necessary for the good life. The moments during worship when I felt part of something large with meaning. But I now look back at those years with much regret.
I was endeavoring so hard to be the good kid, to be the person who my church and the adults around me wanted me to be that in the process I didn't fully live.
Many people in that world are paranoid, afraid of those who are different. They are afraid of sex and body issues. They are so afraid of what their kids are going to do that the messages you hear as an adolescent are constantly negative—“Don’t listen to this music,” “Don’t think those thoughts,” “Avoid people who do these things.”
There were lessons in which we were taught the evils of rock music, how the Beatles were trying to lead children into disobedience and rebellion. Of course, we didn’t listen to the Beatles; it was the 1980’s. But no one angered these sensibilities more than Madonna and her intentional mocking of religious imagery.
But I liked Madonna. We had been warned about how dangerous her song “Like a Prayer” was, filled with sexual imagery and burning crosses. But I really liked that song; knew all the words. When it played on the radio, I was tempted to sing along out loud, but I didn’t. I was too afraid to be a sinner. Yet internally I’d be:
When you call my name it's like a little prayer
I'm down on my knees, I wanna take you there
The whole time wondering if maybe I was courting damnation.
I try to give a charitable read to ministers and teachers I had. They were well-intentioned, kind-hearted people who probably knew that most kids would only listen to them a little, but then go ahead and do whatever they were going to do anyway.
What they didn’t realize, I don’t think, is that for a kid trying as hard as he could to live up to everyone’s expectations, who really took this religion stuff seriously, those messages were suffocating. I took them to heart and constantly felt that I wasn’t good enough. That there was something wrong with me.
Whenever asked to tell the story of my “First Kiss,” I would tell about that time in Kindergarten when Mrs. Hampton left the room momentarily and without warning, Kristie Holstein jumped up from her desk and rushed across the room, grabbed me, and planted a sloppy kiss on my lips.
Kristie and I did end up being “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” off-and-on through third grade.
Except that that oft-told, sweet, and innocent story isn't the truth. My first kiss was in Florence Rousseau’s preschool Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church when I kissed a boy.
He had sandy blonde hair and a pale complexion and for some reason in that moment, when we were playing with blocks, I felt overcome with love and affection for him and just like we did in our family, I demonstrated that feeling by playfully kissing him, and then, some Sunday school teacher whose name I don’t remember despite the lasting influence she had on my development said, “Bad men do that, don’t ever do it again.”
It was a long, long time before I did.
And I don’t remember ever seeing that boy again.