From 1974 to 1984, my stepbrother and I were taken by my stepmother to our local Methodist church each Sunday for Sunday School and Church. During those first few years of attendance, I was bored but well behaved.
Around the time I turned ten, that changed. I was still bored, but increasingly annoyed about my lack of choice over how I got to spend my Sunday mornings.
My stepmother taught a Sunday School class for the Kindergarten-age kids from 9 to 10:00 am, then took my stepbrother and I to church service from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Rather, it was scheduled to end at 11:30, but often ran over, sometimes concluding at noon, on account of our long-winded Pastor.
Every Sunday, for ten years, while the three of us were spending our mornings at the Methodist church, my dad would sit cross-legged in front of our living room TV, watching auto racing, while putting together WWII model tank and airplane kits, often clad only in his t-shirt and underwear.
I remember asking him once, when I was nine or ten, why my stepbrother and I couldn’t stay home with him on Sunday mornings instead of going to Sunday school and church, which both of us hated.
“Because that’s what your stepmother wants”, he answered, “and I don’t feel like fighting with her about it”.
My growing displeasure at being forced to attend Sunday school and church eventually manifested through disruptive wisecracks. Never during church services, though. I didn’t want to be so disruptive as to cause a big scene in the middle of the congregation. I knew that would just get me into big trouble and make me feel like a top-notch asshole. Impetuous as I was, I still cared what people thought of me.
My bad behavior was limited to my weekly Sunday school attendance. I wasn’t trying to get kicked out of class and I wasn’t doing it out of spite for the teacher. He was a really nice guy who tolerated my immature comments and interruptions with a saintly patience my pre-teen brain could never comprehend. This crappy behavior of mine endured for a couple years.
I never threatened anybody, never called anyone names. I’d just make mischievous comments what we were reading out loud. Or try to make jokes in response to the teacher’s lesson. I was just trying to make my classmates laugh. Because I was restless and bored, it was a defiant way of entertaining myself during an hour of tedium.
My juvenile efforts at venting frustration came to an end when a different teacher took over the class for a short period of time. This may have been when I was in 4th Grade. After verbally scolding me two or three times for my sarcastic interruptions, the teacher finally stood up, grabbed my left forearm and angrily yanked me out of the classroom.
Even now, over forty years later, I can recall the sensation of that woman’s iron grip, her long fingernails digging into my flesh, as she pulled me across the parking lot between our Sunday School building and the church.
Depositing me in my stepmother’s Kindergarten class, Mrs. Fingernails told her that I wasn’t welcome back in her Sunday school class until I was ready to behave.
I expected a scolding from my stepmother, but she never gave me one. It seemed to me that she was too put off by the angry teacher’s belligerent intrusion into her classroom of five-year-olds. She did ask me what I’d done to get kicked out; I was making jokes when I wasn’t supposed to, I admitted. And that was the end of it.
Next Sunday, I was back in class. No more of my smart-assed remarks this time. Same teacher, but no mention was made of the previous Sunday’s incident.
My previous teacher, The Saintly Gentleman, returned a few months later to replace Mrs. Fingernails. I resumed being the class clown, but I do remember toning it down a bit, attempting to show a little more respect.
A couple years later, Mrs. Fingernails and her husband were customers of mine when I had my second paper route, from 1980 to 1983. When I collected their subscription fee every month, the Fingernails were never anything but kind to me. At Christmas, they were among the few customers who were generous with their holiday tip. My one Sunday school encounter with the Mrs. notwithstanding, I have nothing but fond memories of the Fingernails now.
A few more years passed by, with my stepbrother and I grudgingly cooperating with my stepmother’s weekly insistence that we attend Sunday school and church. She’d leave our house around 8:25 a.m. after yelling up the stairs “Get dressed for Sunday school and church! You’ve got twenty minutes!”.
Getting dressed into our “church clothes”, my stepbrother and I would grouse to each other how much we hated Sunday school and church… how it wasn’t fair we had to go to church every Sunday while our dad got to sit home and do whatever he wanted…and how we weren’t going to do this anymore when we turned thirteen.
For some reason, that was the magic number indicating when our defiant independence would, abritrarily, overnight, kick into gear and we’d be free from this never-ending religious oppression. Sounds silly to me now, but back then, that’s how it felt to us.
In 1982, I turned thirteen. Unsurprisingly, the magic number turned into fourteen. Then it took me another year-and-a-half to work up the nerve to put my foot down and Just Say No to my stepmother’s Sunday morning orders.
At some point during the spring or summer of 1984, in response to that Sunday morning command, my stepbrother and I began yelling back, from behind our closed bedroom door, “WE’RE NOT GOING!”.
Unwilling to delay her walk to the church, my stepmother would instruct my dad to “go make them get dressed”. My dad would trudge up the stairs, step into our room and begin his emotional appeal to us. Actually, it was more of a plea. It was kind of embarrassing to witness.
“Come on, you guys, get up and get dressed so you can go to Sunday school and church. If you don’t, she’s going to take it out on me. Just do what she wants. Don’t do it for her. Do it for me.”
We asked him why we always had to go when he never did.
“She doesn’t care if I go. Come on. Just do it for me.”
This mini-drama was repeated nearly every Sunday for the next few months. I didn’t want to fight with my dad, so his appeal always gained our compliance, but our frustration was quietly building.
I’m not sure if my dad said something about it to my stepmother, or if it was something she thought of, but, shortly after I turned fifteen, around the middle of October, my stepmother brought us a compromise.
“You don’t have to go to both, but you’re going to go to one or the other, Sunday school or church. Which one’s it going to be?”.
My stepbrother and I chose church, solely because it would allow us an extra hour to stay in bed that morning. Besides, Sunday school’s for little kids, we thought, and we’re both teenagers now. Church it was.
My stepmother agreed. No more Sunday school for either of us.
That agreement lasted exactly one weekend. We slept in for that extra hour, got dressed, and met my stepmother at church service.
The next Sunday morning rolled around and that same old demand was barked at us up the stairs: Get dressed for Sunday school!
I yelled back down the stairs, “You said we only had to go to church!”.
“You’re going to both! Get ready for Sunday school!”.
My stepbrother and I stared at each other, each of us equally confused and instantly pissed off.
A moment later, we heard her leave the house. My stepbrother and I remained in our beds, glaring at the ceiling. Minutes later, my dad arrived and delivered his tired old plea that we should…do it for him.
We reminded him that she’d gone back on her word, with no reason given whatsoever, after we’d stuck to our part of the deal.
“I know, but that’s the way she wants it. She’s going to take it out on me if you don’t go to both, so, come on, just get dressed and get out the door”.
After getting into our church clothes and dress shoes, my stepbrother and I shuffled out of the house just a few minutes before 9 a.m.
The church was located less than a block from our residence. Less than halfway through our walk together, I said to my stepbrother, “Why don’t we just go to the park instead and go for a hike?”.
With a grin, my stepbrother agreed, “Okay”. With no clear destination in mind, we bypassed the church and spent the next SIX HOURS hiking through the woodlands of our local river valley.
Returning home that afternoon, my stepbrother and I were met with stern disappointment from my dad and a furious silence from my stepmother, who, surprisingly, let my dad do all the scolding.
We were selfish and irresponsible, disappearing like that instead of going to church, he admonished us.
We said we weren’t going to go, I told him.
“Why’d you wear your good shoes if you were going to go on a hike in the woods? They’re all dirty and beat up now.”
I shrugged. I didn’t care to explain it. I just wanted to hear what the punishment was going to be.
“Go inside and change your clothes. You’re going to come back out and clean up the garden in the back yard to make up for what you did”.
It was a big garden and required a couple hours of raking and pulling to clear it of all its dead plants and weeds, but when it was done, that marked the end of our punishment.
No grounding. No loss of privileges.
And no more Sunday school. No more church, either.
It felt like a victory, but…I didn’t exactly feel happy about it.
Now that a significant amount of time has passed, especially since I’ve become a parent, I’ve reflected back on that incident a few times and asked myself what, if any, lesson I took away from it.
What I realized, even during my teenage years, was not to strike bargains, deals, compromises, etc., hastily. Think things through before giving your word to someone.
Going back on your word, especially without giving a reason (or admitting you made a mistake), can breed suspicion and give the appearance of irrational vindictiveness, exactly the sort of behavior that erodes trust.