By MARY CLAY BERRY
A recent news story about weekly Bible classes for public elementary school students in Staunton, Va., and the challenge some parents have brought against the practice, reminded me of my religious education in public school. From 1946 through 1948, I attended an elementary school in rural Kentucky where school began an hour late one morning a week so students could attend Bible school at local churches.
Bible school was voluntary, although, according to the town newspaper, 99 percent of the students attended. My mother, the daughter of a Congregational minister, didn't allow me to go the first year. As we'd recently moved to Kentucky, I was a newcomer at school and didn't want to be singled out in any way. At the beginning of the sixth grade, I begged my mother to allow me to attend. I thought I would seem less odd if I did as my classmates did, and my mother relented.
Bible school was innocuous, but toward Easter we were asked who would like to join the Christian Church. Everyone raised his or her hand except me. I looked around, then raised my hand, too. The rest of Bible school consisted of preparing us for baptism. My reasons for wishing to be baptized were similar to my reasons for wishing to attend Bible school: I wanted to be accepted.
My mother wasn't happy. She pointed out that I'd already been baptized a Congregationalist. But she didn't say I couldn't join the Christian Church. She made me a simple white dress to wear for my immersion in a marble font behind the church podium.
But my grandfather, who had baptized me the first time, was furious. Visiting our house at Easter, he raged about it. The next morning my mother took me to her bedroom, where my new dress hung behind the door, and said, "You cannot join the Christian Church." I nodded, having heard my grandfather's angry tirade. In truth, I was relieved. I'd worried about drowning in the baptismal font even though the minister instructed us on how to hold our breath. God, I decided, didn't want me to join the Christian Church.
God was a major preoccupation in the sixth grade. My teacher, a Presbyterian, urged her students to attend church or Sunday school every weekend, and asked each of us whether we had when she called the roll on Monday morning. If we hadn't, she delivered a short, frightening lecture about the wrath of God. Since my family rarely attended church -- there were no Congregational churches in Kentucky so far as we knew -- I was distressed to find myself singled out once more, so I began to lie. I couldn't say I'd attended church in our small town; someone in the class was sure to know I wasn't telling the truth. So I invented trips to nearby towns.
My lies tore me apart. I was a truthful child and, while I had many imaginary experiences, I never lied about real ones..
I never told my parents what was going on every Monday, but each weekend I begged them to take me to church. They were amiable but puzzled. Occasionally we went; most Sundays we didn't. When begging failed, I tried throwing up on Mondays, but my mother didn't let me get away with that. I was reduced to praying that God would strike me dead before my teacher got to my name.
I don't want to imply that these experiences marred me for life, although they did mark the beginning of a healthy skepticism about organized religion. What concerns me is the coercion involved in these seemingly well-intentioned events, all of which occurred in the context of public school, something I couldn't avoid. The object was to prod me into the mainstream, Bible Belt Christianity, regardless of my family's beliefs.
I'm appalled to learn that Bible school still exists in parts of rural America. I fear for children growing up in this country's present climate of oppressive religiosity. They are as vulnerable as I once was.
X Berry is a writer in Alexandria, Va.