When we were in high school, my friend James and I had a long, elaborate in-joke that we keep up to this day. Neither of us wanted to go to our Year 12 camp, and my sister made the suggestion, completely deadpan, that we should fake suicide attempts, and write on our foreheads ‘I didn’t want to go to camp.’ As seventeen year olds, this was perhaps the funniest thing either of us had ever heard. We began making up the most elaborate and stupid reasons to kill ourselves, adding particular phrases like ‘and that gives me erotic pleasure’ to the end of already stupid statements, such as ‘I am uncomfortable with the name Fanny in The Enchanted Far-Away Tree books, and that gives me erotic pleasure.’ Neither of us knew at the time that the other was also queer, actually depressed to the point of suicidal, and feeling trapped in the retrospective madness of a fundamentalist Christian education. James wrote the phrase ‘school make crazy’ repeatedly, in small and large letters, all over his photograph in my copy of the school yearbook. Although it was a line from another in-joke it also said something more serious, and more lasting, about what we perceived school to have done to us.
The thing I am left asking, almost fifteen years after we graduated, is how the strange reverberations from our education stayed with me. Was the damage inflicted by Christianity, by faith, by a particularly narrow interpretation of the Bible? Or was it in fact just the normal damage everyone receives? Every teenager feels isolated, unique, square-peg-round-hole. I was no different in feeling that, the very generalised feeling of specialness that is almost inevitable for teenagers. What was different about me was the oncoming storm of my first bipolar depressive episode at sixteen, and the inarguable fact that I was queer: to admit to being anything other than heterosexual to my group of friends, who were all devout fundamentalists of different denominations, would have been an effective social suicide and very well could have led to a far more literal suicide. I turn over the memories from my high school years like fiddling with a coin while waiting in line to order a coffee: idle and self-conscious.
I’ve been reflecting on school with my friends Tom and Lily, as well as James. Tom was, in my memories, one of the cool kids in a school where you could be both deeply religious and admirable. He was good-looking, smart and always kind: one of the jokers who sat up the back and made everyone else laugh. He was also known for being one of the more religious guys in our grade, and I remember him going on a mission trip during high school to build a church overseas, in India, from memory. His position on faith has changed dramatically. He now considers religion to be harmful, regardless of how much emphasis is placed on the peaceful and loving aspects of the world’s major religions. He is most troubled by each of the major faiths claiming to be the one true religion; this is at the root of a great number of conflicts, in Tom’s opinion.
Lily was also particularly religious when we were at school, and is still a practising Christian, for whom faith is an important part of her life. James, like me, didn’t grow up in a particularly religious home, but also tried to be a good Christian. Both of us always felt we fell short of the expectations. Unlike me, James still views spirituality as an important part of his life, although he is not a Christian, and doesn’t adhere to any particular faith.
People are often shocked when I outline some of the more exotic aspects of my education. The school was in south-east Queensland, and classified as independent rather than private. I’m unsure what the difference was, but we were told it was an important one. Our education hinged on a literal interpretation of the Bible. In science classes, we were taught creationism rather than evolution. In stating creationism, I should clarify that this referred not to intelligent design, but a literal six-day creation. The school was unapologetically conservative in unsurprising ways: homosexuality was a sin and gays were sinners, abortion was unacceptable under any circumstances, and women were, of course ‘different’ from men, and were expected to behave accordingly. Female students and teachers were not allowed to preach in assembly, also likely taken from a Bible verse which I can’t recall.
Our sexual education was delivered by a therapist. His children attended our school, and we were taught abstinence was the only option. I clearly remember him telling us in graphic detail about his vasectomy, as well as how God had blessed his sex life, and feeling uncomfortable. Tom, James and I vividly recall the somewhat bizarre decision to show us slides of genitals affected by STIs. This was not accompanied by an explanation of how to avoid contracting STIs, but rather provided as an illustration of why abstinence was the only way. We were taught condoms didn’t work, so there was no use even bothering. We were given purity pledge sheets, and lists of 101 fun things to do other than sex. It was, as abstinence-only education usually is, ineffectual. At least six girls, out of the sixty in our year, fell pregnant. They were just the ones I knew about; it is highly likely there were more. We were taught about the importance of virginity through a series of laughable metaphors, such as imagining our virginity as a piece of sticky tape that is stuck to lots of things and taken off, until there is no stickiness left. We came out of the education with little to no knowledge of safe sex practices, no idea how to mitigate risks, and no idea how to use a condom.
At one point in my senior year, I fabricated a crush on a close male friend, in order to conceal my sapphic leaning. The gentle teasing and altogether normal mocking of the unrequited crush was a welcome relief – a safe haven – protecting me from the reality of my orientation. I still don’t know what would have happened if I had been outed. I’ll never know if my friends at the time would have supported me, in the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’, tradition of many Christians. I would like to think that they would have, but in my mind, I still imagine the sideways glances, the look of pity and distaste. One of my schoolfriends who is, to this day, one of the most compassionate and kind people I have ever met, countered my questions about why homosexuality was wrong with a blunt, ‘There is no ambiguity in the Bible about it, Elizabeth. God hates homosexuality.’ I felt sick. The earliest vivid memory I have of the homophobia my high school promoted was my Year 8 music teacher telling us that God had gifted Freddy Mercury with a beautiful voice, and it was a shame he was in Hell, because he was a homosexual. It’s hard to say, though, if that would have been better in a non-Christian school; homophobia in school is hardly uncommon, and despite the explicit condemnations, I personally didn’t witness any outward cruelty on the basis of any student’s assumed sexuality. My experience was more from the faculty, while James has no memory of any homophobic bile being taught by our teachers; he was the victim of the familiar schoolyard homophobic bullying and taunts. Unsurprisingly, this bullying went undisciplined. He never felt safe to report it to counsellors or teachers, given that the subject of his sexuality might come up, leading to a spiral of denial and blame. James knew that were he to so much as mention his homosexuality to the staff, it would have resulted in therapy attempting to solve the problem of homosexuality, or possibly even disciplinary action. We both have vague, half-remembered stories of kids being expelled for homosexuality, and the overwhelming impression was that it was sinful, wrong, and something that needed to be fixed.
Young earth creationists believe that the world was created six to twelve thousand years ago by direct acts of God, as described in Genesis. Our education included an entire semester of science, in either Year 9 or 10, which detailed the scientific evidence that supported this. I remember the first time I was introduced to young earth creationism: it was Year 8, and I was twelve. Our science teacher showed us a video about geology, but prefaced it with a sheepish statement. ‘Now, this video is good, but it does mention the world being millions of years old. Just ignore that part.’
My classmates all giggled at the mention of the world being millions of years old. I was sitting next to my best friend, whose father is a geologist. We exchanged a confused glance, and both raised our hands. On asking, utterly bemused, what the hell our teacher was talking about, he looked at us with pity and a smile, and explained that we could wait until Year 10, where it would be taught to us in detail. I was horrified. Yet, by the time we reached the year of solid creationist teachings, I was attempting, albeit not very well, to be a Christian who followed a literal interpretation of the Bible. I listened, and to a degree, I believed what we were taught.
Tom had equally vivid memories of the strangeness of being educated in creationism. His clearest memory of science in high school was of our teacher, Mr D, spending entire lessons going through stories from the Old Testament as if they were literal, historical events, and applying ‘scientific proofs’ to them. His favourite was the flood and Noah’s ark. While students in other schools were probably learning natural selection and Darwinism, we were taught that if you took the average size of all animals that probably existed around 2350 BC to be approximately the size of a sheep, then they, and the food they’d need, would all fit in a craft built to the specifications of the Bible. He was exceptional at converting biblical cubits to metres and centimetres; I have clear memories of his advocacy for creationism and his skills with the cubit conversion. It wasn’t until university that Tom started to realise how much bias there had been in our high school science class. Our education suggested that the biggest debate in the contemporary scientific landscape was that of creationism versus evolution.
James and I are probably angrier about being taught creationism as science than any other aspect of our education. It was uniquely terrible, in a way that poor sex education is not. And it left both of us embarrassingly ignorant about evolution. To this day, I can still spout off the evidence we were provided to illustrate why the world was much younger than ‘science’ told us. My favourite relates to moon dust. There isn’t enough dust on the moon, according to the science we were taught, to justify an ‘old Earth’ model.
Lily has a very different take on our experiences. She was, prior to starting high school, non-religious. Through school, she found faith. One of the biggest problems, retrospectively, that James and I had with school was the teaching of creationism in science classes. For Lily, it isn’t a problem; she follows a literal interpretation of the Bible, and her faith is a very important part of her life. Yet, in her view, teaching creationism as science still doesn’t make a lot of sense. As a miraculous act of God, there’s no need to prove it, or to explain it scientifically. Creation exists outside of earthly explanations, and, as she put it, it diminishes God’s power and greatness to try to make it conform to our human understandings. Lily’s position makes a lot more sense to me than trying to list the scientific evidence of a young earth.
I consider myself a weak atheist, or a strong agnostic. I tend to avoid the term atheist, due to the miserable reputation it has gained from the big offenders like Richard Dawkins. But, as much as I would like to, I cannot bring myself to believe in a god or a system of faith. I’ve been interested in Zen Buddhist practices since I did an assignment on Zen in high school, but I’ve never adopted it as a practice; it’s all well and good to be sympathetic towards Buddhism, as many atheist westerners are, but the reality of the practice includes community. I am spiritually lazy and, at the core of it, unsure if I can believe in anything again. To be honest, I wish I could. I’m approaching a major operation, and my pen paused over the paperwork where ‘religion’ was listed, because I so desperately want to take in the comfort of belief. But it would be a lie. I don’t think school is to blame for that, as I wasn’t a Christian before I started there, and was never particularly convincing when I attended church. I no longer blame my high school for the difficulties of my early twenties. It remains an interesting set of stories, which, in some odd way, I am grateful for.
Image courtesy of Phillip Evans on Flickr.