Adventist school system, Holly Lisle, How To Think Sideways, Memories, writing, Writing struggles
It appears I am a hater and a holder of grudges even, I am ashamed to admit, against the dead.
In my second go-round of the Sweet Spot Map (SSM) exercise, the “I hate…” portion populated itself all too quickly. Some of the items were good things to have an aversion for: injustice, religious intolerance, and mental, physical and emotional abuse, etc. I discovered other things against which I had set my anger and hate, however, less worthy things that left me alarmed and disturbed.
As I allowed my right brain to express itself, the actions of five former high school teachers quickly added themselves to the “I hate…” page. I was mildly surprised at how fast the memories and emotions surfaced. I say “mildly” because I was no stranger to the memories having long ago wrestled with them while formulating my own teaching philosophy. What startled me was their visceral and evocative nature. 35 years notwithstanding, in a flash of memory and adrenaline, I was suddenly back in those classrooms, back in those embarrassing situations experiencing the frustration and impotent rage all over again.
Some background is in order before I proceed. While we were not a regular church going family, whenever my mother, sister and I visited my grandparents, we attended with them. Doing anything with my grandma was always fun and I was in such hero-worshiping-awe of my grandfather that going anywhere with him was a treat. After years of witnessing their quiet conviction and genuine concern for others, their example has ever been the definition of what “living” one’s faith and true commitment means to me.
When I was nine, my mother, who had dropped out of the Seventh-day Adventist faith when young, decided to start attending church again. She was soon re-baptized and my sister and I were enrolled in the local Adventist school. While I had some positive experiences and good times, I did not remain an Adventist but ceased regular attendance about a dozen years after my high school graduation and eventually withdrew completely. My disillusion with the Adventist religious system has many roots, but the tap root is firmly anchored in my high school experience and in the actions of the those five teachers.
There was one teacher in particular whose name I had a hard time recalling. I could only remembered his surname’s initial probably because he was not one of my classroom teachers. I clearly remember the incident associated with him though.
Students in the Adventist school system during the last half of the 70’s had to handle a ton of prohibitions. According to the powers that be, the devil was behind anything that was not directly connected to the religious system. Dancing, hand-holding, movies, non-christian books, competition sports, and bacon were high on the “no fly” list. Considering the era, and from a more experienced man’s viewpoint, I understand how such conservationism could have evolved. Kent State’s echo could still be heard; Watergate was a fairly recent memory and as a result, America had lost some of its confidence and deeply distrusted its leaders; indeed, it was during my freshman year that Saigon finally fell to the North Vietnamese. The legacy of the drug culture and free-love movement had left its mark in the dark rumor of AIDS gathering on the horizon. It’s no exaggeration to say that the country still feels reverberations of that time. As a consequence, leaders of many religious systems yearned for a simpler time when that “…old-time religion was good enough for…” all and the Adventists were no exception.
But no where were these prohibitions more stringent than in reference to rock-music. One day toward the end of the year, a guitar-playing friend of mine and I, a drummer, decided to noodle with some tunes like Smokin’ on the Water and O’Black Water during lunch period while the faculty was up in the lounge eating lunch. My father, a non-Adventist, was an RV salesman by day and a bass playing musician by night. Though I wanted to play bagpipes (we’re Scottish on my mother’s side) my family couldn’t afford them, but I was indulged with a used set of drums as my second musical love. Now, we knew that playing at school would be frowned upon by the establishment but figured we’d be done by the time lunch was over. We’d play for 20 minutes or so, then load up the kits in our friend’s car with none the wiser. Being kids and rather naive, we didn’t take the rumor-mill into consideration and by the time we were setting up, a sizable crowd filled the gym eager for some music and when fully half the kids on a 175 student-campus disappear (closed campus), the faculty notices.
Sure enough, about halfway through our second tune, the school band teacher appeared on stage—we were playing on the gym-floor. Like some bloody prophet making a pronouncement, he raised his hands and boomed out in a deep baritone,
“If I were you, I’d stop right now. This is all I’m going to say: I would stop if I were you. You have been warned!”
Typical teens, we stared at him like deer caught in the headlights and when he stepped back behind the curtain and we heard the door close, we, of course, promptly resumed playing. About five minutes later, Elder ‘C’, the principal, showed up with a face looking like thunder and shut us down by first running off the audience with threats of suspension and then threatening to dismantle my drum set himself if I didn’t do it first. As my friend stepped up to shut off the amplifier, he nervously—and unconsciously!–fingered a riff. The Elder came down like a hammer,
“I said, turn that off! If you don’t want to be suspended, don’t defy me! Turn it off now!”
The kid apologized and tried to explain it was just a nervous tick, but the Elder ignored him and acted like he’d been insulted.
Under his stormy brows we grudgingly but quickly closed down our instruments and packed them out to the parking lot.
I suppose we got off lightly because I don’t remember a phone call home and he probably could have confiscated our instruments for our parents to pick up later.
So many things about this upset my teenage sense of fairness—things that have stuck with me to my adult present.
More than anything, it was the hypocrisy of it all that made me feel as if my mouth had been filled with dust. Every week these same teachers in a mandatory-chapel touted how they were there to help us, to guide us, to become the people we dreamed of being because they loved and valued who we were. In reality, however, most of them were too busy trying to assert their authority and ignored the A-Number One Rule Of Working With Teens: as long as you’re genuine, you’ve got an in, but at the first scent of hypocrisy, you’ll be shut out forever. Both the band teacher and the Elder had claimed such sensitivities, but when it came down to it, they chose blind authority rather than the teachable moment.
From my teenage point-of-view, the school administration had failed even earlier.
A year before the above incident, the administration had officially endorsed a performance band in which I played drums. One of the interns had agreed to advise the band. We were heavily regulated with plenty of prohibitions on what we could or couldn’t play, but we were excited and worked hard practicing everyday and learning tunes.
We were given permission to play at one banquet—the Adventist equivalent of a public school dance or prom wherein attendees dressed up, ate a parent catered meal then usually watched a sanctioned Disney flick (but only one deemed “devil-free” because even Walt had some questionable material like “Black Beard’s Ghost” and “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”!)–and absolutely no dancing involved. This time, instead of a film, we would perform. We played the mellowest of Bread, John Denver, Elton John and Barry Manilow. Our peers loved it and we all had a good time. Some of the Elders were less than enthusiastic, of course, but the fact that no one danced, sprouted horns or got pregnant during the whole time we played was indisputable.
After the banquet, we were riding high on our success and looked forward to playing again, but…nothing came of it. Our adviser wouldn’t organize our next practice and kept putting us off. Without him we couldn’t use the gym or school facilities; indeed, he didn’t seem to want to talk to us about it at all. We went to the principal and asked for help, but were told that our adviser was tired and needed a rest, that we should stop pestering him and that the band had never been a long term proposition anyway. We were devastated. We felt we’d had our hopes lifted only to have them dashed. We had finally played music in a band…not a school band but a real band and now, we were old news and too much of a bother.
Now, months later, here we were in the gym once again being brushed off and, this time quite literally, hustled out the door. I just didn’t understand how they could endorse playing music with one hand and then take it away with the other, especially considering we were not even remotely playing Ozzy, Black Sabbath or KISS tunes (“Knights In Satan’s Service” according to the Elders—what a crock) but here we were, nonetheless, being threatened with suspension anyway; indeed, if one looks at the Christian Rock scene of today, what we were trying to play was pablum by comparison and about as spiritually toxic as a wet-cracker. If the band teacher in question had only been willing to take a small risk and offered to show us some musical alternatives, we probably would have jumped at it because in the final analysis all we wanted to do was play and make music. Instead we were given proscription and admonition. So much for teachable moments.
By the time the next year rolled around, I had ceased playing drums altogether and my friend did not return for his senior year. He talked his parents into letting him attend a public school were his love of music was encouraged rather than curtailed.
The final “head-shaker” came about half a dozen years later when my old yearbook adviser, teacher and mentor (one of the very few instructors at that travesty of a school to warrant the appellation “teacher”) asked me to return to do some artwork for his book. I was blown away when I saw photos of kids holding hands, wearing fashions that would have violated a dozen earlier dress-code policies, and participating in competition sports with other christian schools. I was later told that the school band was now covering tunes in their present line up that had been banned only a few years earlier. Seeing the “what-the-hell-?” look on my face, my former adviser knew exactly what I was thinking and rattled off in his best Bob Dylan, “…the times they are a changin’…”. But not the hypocrisy I guess.
What disturbed me most during the SSM exercise, however, wasn’t so much what happened or how it was so different from what I’d do as a teacher but how quickly the experience came to the surface as something “I hate…”. That and the realization that though I thought I had dealt with it and put it to rest, it had been lurking beneath the stagnant surface along with its fellows drawing who knows how much energy, emotion, and creativity down to muddy and fruitless death.
As if to underscore the point, when I couldn’t recall the name of the band teacher, I phoned my sister. She promptly gave me his name. What brought me up short was when she mentioned that he had died in a car accident the same year I had returned to work on the yearbook.
I hung up in stunned silence. He couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40. I remembered he had had a family, a wife and children. I suddenly felt a deep since of shame and embarrassment at having carried that anger and petty hate around for so long. From 1978 to 2015, for nearly 37 years, a corner of my creative mind had been devoted to my anger for this man, a man, who like myself, made human mistakes, but unlike me, would never have the luxury to unmake them. I saw my anger for the rapacious parasite that it was—a useless program running in the background, consuming life-force and sapping creative energy. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are things we must “…hate…” as suggested above, but this…this was nothing more than a leech-like petty indulgence that had brought about nothing good. What a travesty; what a waste! How much will never be done in my life because I have slavishly chained myself to this millstone? How many other chains have I, like Ebeneezer, forged for myself attached to the memories of the living and the dead?
Holly’s method is initially big on self-examination and identifying problem areas which form roadblocks to a would be-writer’s career. Some of the exercises, like the SSM, are innocuous at first glance but pack a hidden punch when done honestly and with focus. I plan to use it for more than character motivations, details and story lines, but as a dark window to the soul. Through it, I hope I can identify and avoid those hidden and dreadful creatures that threaten my hopes and dreams.
I want to apologize to any readers for being a bit vague about Holly’s course or methods. Considering that her course is how she makes her living, I want to respect that by not going detailing the wherefore’s of her lessons. Readers unfamiliar but interested should go to Holly’s site and research the course. Though the How to Think Sideways class is only offered annually, Holly has other excellent courses of writer-interest on everything from writing a novel series to editing that next draft to developing a ConLang for a particular setting.