There’s a photo I recently unearthed from a drawer that was taken approximately a week before the second most humiliating moment of my childhood. My parents – who to my astonishment were complete Seventies’ Snacks btw – and I, are pictured at SeaTac on our way to visit our deeply religious, God-fearing family.
These visits taught me that God showed up only when I did something wrong…
… And I often did wrong while spending childhood holidays visiting Small Town, South Carolina.
Growing up 3,000 miles away in a left leaning, typical Seattle ‘McChristian’ household who sometimes attended to the Unitarian church, I might as well have landed on the moon when I arrived for a visit; so foreign all this talk of sinning, judgment, Heaven and Hell: God was everywhere… watching.
And in Small Town, God’s attention focused on the First Baptist Church, the sun by which all activity in this town of 2,000 rotated.
It was here, in 1978, where The Moment occurred.
As she did every year, my grandmother enrolled me in a week of Vacation Bible School. Naturally, she couched this as a generous gift of hers.
Every day of the week started like this: “Well of course you hate Bible School, Jenny,” my mother said. “We all did. But you’ll do what we all did: Be nice and keep your mouth shut.”
So off I went, dreading the next three hours with Mrs Aileen, the child-despising Sunday school teacher. Aileen Wiggins, who doubled as the choir’s organist, was married to Luther, who spent every Sunday’s sermon clipping his fingernails in the back row.
Snip snip snip. Snip.
That final Sunday, Mrs Aileen, in her 1960’s style cat eyeglasses, announced a special surprise: The children were to stand before the congregation and sing the songs we’d been learning in Bible School.
Caught unawares, I cut my eyes at Sissy Greene. Sissy and her smug smirk was perfect: A flaxen haired fourth grader with perfect teeth and a sweet southern drawl, whom my grandmother regularly referred to as “The Lord’s Child.”
Sissy could recite bible songs on cue. From memory. I could do neither.
Once on stage, Miss Aileen announced we had a visitor in our midst: “Miss Winifred’s grandbaby from The North.”
Believe me when I say just how much of a passive-aggressive insult it was in 1978 for Small Town to call someone a Northerner.
Then, in her patronizing drawl: “Jenny, how about you step forward and show the congregation what you’ve learned this week? Start by you singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’.”
And there, in front of the 200 person congregation at First Baptist Church, I failed miserably.
For I hadn’t realized there’s be a pop quiz. Which Mrs. Aileen knew I’d fail. In front of the entire congregation.
I have no memory of anyone coming to my rescue. I’ll jump to the assumption that my mother was present, but frozen to her seat – conflicted between mama instincts and her southern societal teachings to be nice and keep your mouth shut.
Miss Aileen then called on Sissy Greene, “to show us how it should be sung.” And Sissy belted her little heart out, including (*shivers*) the last of the lines of the song:
Don’t let Satan blow it out!
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, all the time, let it shine
That really wasn’t *nice* of Miss Aileen, was it?
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