I’ve written about Mary Zini and our classroom incidents before, here and in Boy @ The Window. It’s been thirty years since was my tenth-grade World History teacher. Yet most of what remember from this class has little to do with Plato, NATO, or anything in between. It’s mostly Zini’s condescending personality, my new Christian arrogance, and that people’s personalities and actions are often walking and talking contradictions.
It was the beginning of October ’84 when we had our first incident. It occurred after what was the first of an endless cycle of fill-in-the-bubble Scan-Tron exams.
Honestly, I had no idea at that moment why I said what I said. I supposed that a summer of Jay Sekulow and the American Center for Law and Justice, all via Pat Robertson and The 700 Club had done the trick in making me a one-time prayer-in-public-schools advocate. I knew that Zini was raised a Catholic, so on some level, didn’t that make me a stupid Christian for calling her a stupid “atheist?”
That incident was also the beginning of seven months of starting to figure out how to be me and be a follower of Christ at the same time. I approached it the same way I approached how to be me in my first few months of seventh grade and Humanities at A.B. Davis Middle School in the fall of ’81. With the naiveté of a child, the hubris of a teenager, and the callousness of a human with alien superpowers.
It was evident in my outward actions. I packed my red-pleather-covered King James Bible every day. For school. For Subway trips down into Midtown Manhattan when me and my older brother Darren worked for our father Jimme. For when we washed clothes every Saturday or Sunday at the laundromat on the Mount Vernon-Pelham border (it’s a yoga studio now). The Bible was my constant companion, my shield protecting me from this mad world of almost bottomless sin.
In the process, I read everything from Genesis to Revelations at least twice. (some books, like the Gospels, as many as four times). I learned a lot from reading all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. That the Israelite God Yahweh was stern and pretty unforgiving. That Jesus was a radical, not just spiritually, but politically as well. And that Paul was not exactly the most enlightened of the apostles when it came to women, children and slaves.
Mostly what I learned was that readings and understanding The Bible wasn’t like living out my beliefs at all. I was still a teenager, a fifteen-year-old living in the midst of welfare poverty, at 616 with an abusive womanizer, a wounded mother and a gaggle of siblings between the ages of eight months and five-and-a-half years. Not to mention my alcoholic cuss-factory of a father that I had to hunt down for money nearly every weekend. What all that meant was feeling lust for a young woman one minute, hate toward my idiot stepfather Maurice the next, and imitating Jimme’s slurred language and mannerisms the minute after that.
This new walk was very confusing, so much so that I often hid my emotions in much the same way I’d already been doing to protect myself from yet another abuse episode with Maurice. My emotions couldn’t stay bottled up, though. I frequently humped my way to sleep once our living room at 616 had become my bedroom during and after the months in which Balkis Makeda had lived with us.
By the spring of ’85, when Zini granted me her full support in getting me into AP US History for eleventh grade (this despite my 84 average in her class at the time), I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t stand being in the same room with Zini much of the time. Yet she did for me what few in my life had done — she opened up a door for me to walk through, albeit a relatively small one.
What did it all mean? That devoutness is meaningless without action, without giving and receiving, without trust, without taking risks. That even supposed atheists can act and give in ways that should shame many arrogant Christians. That Christianity isn’t a transactional relationship or process, but a journey with many pitfalls and lots of contradictions along the way. That who I/we say God is, well, at best an infinitesimal guess, because God and this universe is so much more that I as a human male living in the context of Western culture can only begin to understand.
Most of all, I had just begun to learn that spiritual liberation wasn’t supposed to be a yoke, but an opening to see the world and myself stripped bare of narrative and pretense. A strict adherence to the principles of Pat Robertson would bring me no closer to enlightenment and no further out of poverty than wishing on a star or avoiding cracks on Mount Vernon’s blue-slate sidewalks. Work, trust, opportunities, and not just Romans 8:28, was the beginning of the key for me.