I was born fully armed to dissent. In more ways than one, my disagreeable nature has been my defining trait. By the age of five my mother was referring to me as a curmudgeon, and the girl who lived next door was running to tell her that I had told her to stop contradicting me. By the age of nine I was an agnostic, and by the age of eleven I was a full blown atheist. My atheist stage lasted until I was twenty-one, at which point I became a Presbyterian. When I called my dad up to tell him the news, I expected that he would be joyous. He was, after all, a minister with an atheist for an firstborn child. His reaction was typical enough, for upon hearing that I was attending a Presbyterian church, he said that it wasn't as bad as being Catholic. The apple, as it were, is close to the tree.
I continued on with my life through my twenties, debating between law school and seminary and wasting years over the hand-wringing in the process. After three years of teaching, I found that the faith I had found after so much questioning was easily put aside for the cold reality that most fundamentalists are unthinking and ultimately unsympathetic people. I have not set foot in a church in some four years.
I don't particularly dislike the church as an edifice, unless it happens to be one of those post-Vatican II monstrosities. I don't like postmodernism in general, but I particularly dislike the fact that it has ruined church architecture. As a boy, church architecture called you to a respectful acknowledgment of something greater than yourself. The spires, the arched ceilings, the steeples soaring into the blue Alabama sky...and those red bricks with the blue stained windows as the First Baptist Church of Bayou La Batre. An indelible mark was made, but I soon encountered the other side when we decamped for Woodridge Baptist Church, a church that met in an actual gymnasium. That's right. The markings of a basketball court stretched beneath our folding chairs, and the only upside was that a basketball court combined with high ceilings creates astonishing acoustics.
There was a pianist named Jeff Jeffcoat, he of Jeff's Colorific Coiffures, and the man would play classical composers during the collection of the offering. For a boy sitting in a gymnasium cum church on a folding chair, the sounds of Jeff's piano playing would transmogrify the entire church into a concert hall, much like the tinkling of the bell marks the transformation of the host in the Eucharist. It was, for lack of any better word, magnificent. I had my last stretch of young faith at Woodridge, marked by two attempts at baptism, the first a failure and the latter a success at the hands of my father.
I had nearly drowned in my grandfather's pool as a young boy, and the only man I trusted enough to submerge me underneath the waters of the baptismal was my father. Apologies to the Reverend Bob Vereen, but my father was the man who dove in to my grandfather's pool and pulled me out.
Church was agonizing in many respects, because they wanted you to ask questions, but they wanted you to ask the right type of questions. I was never particularly skilled at asking anything other than the wrong types of questions. I did not edify with my queries, as one adult put it. Being an atheist at age eleven in Alabama is no easy task, especially when your father is one of those fathers, and my father certainly was.
He would go down to the grocery stores with a public address system and preach in the parking lots, all hellfire and brimstone in his sermons, with a dash of imminent judgment to boot. At a certain age I wondered why he needed the amplification. The man's voice was that of Demosthenes and could carry for half of a mile with ease. When I got my first real job with an actual paycheck, I was sixteen and working at the Crispy Chic, a fried chicken joint adjacent to the Sims Supermarket in Grand Bay, Alabama. The boy working the drive-thru, a classmate of mine by the name of Jason Wiggins, called me over and asked me if that was my father raising hell in the parking lot. I ruefully responded in the affirmative.
Years later, my father would think about the impact his actions might have had for a teenage boy and he apologized to me. By then, I was over the entire episode. I had resolved to leave a significant portion of my life behind me, and those experiences were included in the portion I'd chosen to leave behind.
Faith in the South is a ubiquitous thing. You wear it on your sleeve, or you run the risk of seeming irreligious. I appeared irreligious on so many occasions without ever even trying that my father wondered aloud where I'd wind up in life. Neither of the options he put forth were particularly flattering.
But there are brighter things in life, and for me, books were the catapult that launched me into a life beyond the life I knew. I escaped in books by visiting the Bookmobile whenever it would come to the Sims Supermarket parking lot and park on the drugstore side. The Bookmobile was quite simply the finest and only form of big government I have seen the merit in. I will pay higher taxes to ensure its continued survival in any municipality where I reside. I played exactly one season of youth baseball in the sixth grade, and that season established two things:
1. I was a better baseball card collector; and
2. the Mets would not be drafting me, ever.
In the eighth grade I traded my baseball card collection for the book collection of another boy named Chris McNeil in recognition of the obvious: I might never make the All-Star team of any sporting endeavor I undertook, but by God, I was one hell of a bibliophile. School was not a particularly fun endeavor for me precisely because school has little if anything to do with intellect and everything to do with conformity. Just as in church, you are required to ask the right questions and to avoid the wrong questions.
Most teachers are blithering idiots riding their tenure and the respectability of their chosen vocation over any objection to the utter incompetence they exhibit on a day to day level. I write this as a student, and as a former teacher. To speak against a teacher, or against teachers as a vocation is to speak against some high holy sacred cow. To be quite honest, some educators do bear a striking resemblance to bovine life forms, and they are about as intelligent.
Grand Bay, Alabama is a farming community, and you quickly learn that cows are among the stupidest animals God ever fashioned. They will willingly walk up to their executioner and place their head against the cattle gun, oblivious to their impending demise. Teachers, on the other hand, are well aware of the fact that their self-righteous arrogance towards students, parents, and taxpayers has earned them any number of enemies who would like to dispatch them in a manner similar to a goddamned cow.
To be a teacher is to be above reproach, even when you are clearly wrong. Having this model in the classroom prepares young minds to accept without reservation the idiocies of their elected leaders and unelected bureaucrats with little more than impotent grumbling. Moreover, it prepares you to accept the norms of total unaccountability that most elected leaders and unelected bureaucrats proceed with, because teachers are untouchable, unless of course they volitionally render themselves touchable with an underaged student. Even then, the union will send them a fine attorney to get them off for having gotten off.
I had quality teachers here and there, of course. There was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Sessions. There was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Bellew, who gave me a Science magazine. There was my second fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, my sixth grade teachers Mrs. Jones and Mr. Lang, and my eighth grade science teacher Ms. Stockdale. There was Mrs. France, and there was Mrs. Lee. These were the teachers who actually took the time to recognize some merit possessed by their individual students, and they tried to help those students develop that merit. Most teachers simply exist to make their students feel worthless. In point of fact, they live for the moment when your outward expression matches that inner gnawing doubt and angst so common to the adolescent experience.
That's the way these things go in education, because it isn't about making you into a person who can think for himself and stand independently on his own two feet. It's about making you into a parrot who speaks the truth he hears regurgitated around him by the television, or the authorities. The only thing missing from public education that separates it from being classified as a cult for children is a religious figure to coalesce around.