I am eight and my father has been diagnosed with a heart condition; he can no longer run his general store in Parkers Prairie, Minnesota, so my parents devise a new adventure. We move to Lincoln, Nebraska, a city with wide streets and supermarkets with vast bins of oranges and pears and carrots and potatoes under fluorescent lights. There, my mother can find work as a nurse. That fall, my father drives us to the fledgling school that, unbeknownst to us, he helped to set up that summer. As we idle at a stop light, my parents nervously assure us that even if we feel out of place at first, we’ll find new friends. My brother and I sit by opposite windows in the back seat, competing for the first glimpse of the school. My lucky sister, who is too young to go to first grade, sits on the back-seat hump that my brother and I avoid. Her legs don’t reach the floor. When my parents drive home, she will sit wherever she wants. She will be with them and we will not.
We park and descend concrete steps into the dark basement of a church. The ceiling is barely above our heads with its open beams and aluminum heating ducts. Dirty sunlight shines in the small, rectangular windows. All I can glimpse through them is a chink of blue sky with raggedy clouds hurrying by. About a dozen kids my age stand askew all over the basement. I don’t know any of them and I don’t like the musty smell down here.
I grasp my mother’s hand while she talks to someone. This is Mrs. Friezen, my mother says. Mrs. Friezen is a vertical woman with pointy features who wears a nice, flowing skirt and a rust-colored hand-knit button-up sweater. I would like to touch its braided pattern, but I know not to. When she smiles and says hi, I am surprised at how low and whispery her voice is. Scrunching down to my height, she shows me a book with colored pictures, letting me turn the pages at my own speed.
When Mrs. Friezen walks to the front of the classand welcomes everyone, the room calms, as if she had turned a dimmer switch. One of the fathers prays in awkward, hesitating words, asking the Lord’s blessing on the first day of school. Then the parents move toward the door. I see tears swim in the eyes of the shorter blond girl beside me. I’m not crying! I think. Not me! But oh boy, oh boy, is my mother leaving me here alone?
We’ll have fun,Mrs. Friezen announces. She sits on a chair in front of the class and begins reading a story about a girl called Heidi.
On a clear sunny morning in June two figures might be seen climbing the narrow mountain path; one, a tall strong-looking girl, the other a child whom she was leading by the hand—
Until it’s almost time to go home from school, I forget that my mother is gone.
When the ragtag collection of parents and kids were evicted from the church basement for leaving crumbs and disrupting the furniture arrangement, my father led the crew that hastily tossed up a two-room cement block building on Normal Boulevard. That place was anything but normal, if normal meant having a predictable schedule of reading, math, spelling, geography, and social studies. The fall we started, there were thirteen students and one teacher. When I graduated, each of the two rooms combined four grades and the two teachers who juggled acts like a couple of ringmasters.
They often failed. Most of our teachers stayed for a year or less. One quit after two weeks. The school board, which always included my father, was perpetually searching to find someone certified to teach, so the school could become accredited by the state. There was no janitor, so the parents cleaned the school. In truth, it was perpetually dirty. Our playlot was a muddy backyard adorned by a battered jungle gym that someone had donated.
From its beginning the very existence of the Lincoln Christian School subverted the larger culture. The city and state had gone to considerable trouble and expense to set up, accredit, and supervise public schools. It was not only the law that every child should attend school; it was a social and cultural norm. Standardized tests helped to ensure the premise that we would learn what everyone else was learning. We would fit in, achieve a kind of mass culture. We would take exams and if we were fortunate, we would graduate to attend college. It was exactly this homogenous American secularism my father defied.
Neither of my parents had a college degree and hardly any of the other parents had even set foot in college. Although there were a few other Christian day schools around the country in the 1950s, the parents in Lincoln were on their own. What they didn’t have in information or institutional backing, they made up for in sheer guts and the conviction that they could make something out of nothing.
They invented the school as they went along. They interviewed and hired teachers, guessed at expenses, and then calculated roughly what they should charge for tuition. They networked to find students who might enroll, including a number of students whose parents were willing to pay because their kids had flunked out of public schools. My father visited the State Board of Education, pecked out questions on an old Smith Corona, sent them by snail mail, filled out paperwork with a Bic pen, and prayed for accreditation. I watched as he made mistakes, nearly lost his dream, recovered, and clawed his way forward for another year.
For my father it must have been like building a bridge across the Grand Canyon. To look down made him feel dizzy. So he didn’t look down. He nailed one plank in place at a time. He trusted his weight to that while he nailed down the next. Maybe he felt like Aeneas, founding Rome. When your city, Troy, is burning, you do what you have to do. You find a place to pitch your tent and raise your children. The burning Troy for our parents was the absence of religious instruction in public schools—the lack of prayer and Bible reading and most famously, the teaching of Darwinism instead of creationism.
Into the chaos of this school I was pitched in second grade. It is breathtaking to me now to look back and realize what a gamble that must have been for my parents who were doggedly determined that their kids would enjoy a better education than they had themselves, who started teaching us to want to go to college from the time we were born. Until he died at the age of forty-seven, my father lamented that he had not finished his last year at North Dakota State. With a degree he might have gotten a desk job and helped my mother to support us; without it, he could not. What he wanted more than anything was for us to flourish at school, but he jury-rigged a system of education for us that in retrospect seems reckless and haphazard.
On cold fall days Mrs. Friezen makes her daughter Mary Ann, who is also in second grade, wear exactly the same kind of garter belt and long brown stockings that my mother makes me wear. As we sit in our desks, the garters press red indentations into our thighs. In the girls’
bathroom Mary Ann and I compare our angry red marks. We hate the way the stockings slow us down when we run. We are the only girls whose mothers make us wear them. We think our mothers are unfair. Mary Ann suggests that the next day we should refuse to wear our stockings. I am awestruck by her defiance. I agree, and we make a pact. The next day, the sky is spitting snow, and we both show up at school wearing the stockings. Now we have something else in common. Our mothers are both tyrants.
We are practicing subversion. Or trying to. We want the opposite of what our mothers want and we try to achieve it any way we can. By watching our parents subvert the educational system, we have learned that it can work to be subversive. My parents seem surprised by this.
To get to our new school, my brother and I take a city bus into the vivid, throbbing heart of town, walk a couple of blocks, and hop on a second bus. My parents warn us not to talk to strangers, to stick to business, to look out for one another. After a couple of weeks, I could do the route with my eyes closed. One morning my brother and I duck into a corner store to buy sunflower seeds, candy cigarettes, and bubble gum. We begin to stop in every day. Mrs. Friezen doesn’t allow us to eat candy in school, so I pretend-smoke on the bus and we devour the sweets before we hop off. But I hide sunflower seeds in my desk. All day I sneak them into my mouth, cracking them open one by one with my teeth and eating the savory nut. I am learning new facts—that the teacher doesn’t know everything, that I can go anywhere I want if I can get a dime for the bus, that people my parents never laid eyes on can be friendly.
I decide to get the most boring parts of school over with early in the fall. One of the parents contributes enough used spelling books so everyone in our grade—all four of us—gets one. That week Mrs. Friezen assigns the first chapter. The following week, she assigns the second. We have to sit at our desks and copy mind-numbing sentences. Handwriting counts. I can guess where this is going. I work the next weekend to finish all twenty-three lessons. On Monday I hand them to Mrs. Friezen. Sitting down in the desk beside me, she looks puzzled at first. Then, with blood rising to her face she tells me in her coldest voice that I will have to write out one lesson per week, just like everyone else. She doesn’t give my work back to me. I know Mrs. Friezen blushes only when she’s angry, or scared, or something else is up, so I conclude this is not about educating me. It’s a plot to keep me trussed to my desk.
Although Mrs. Friezen never relents about the spelling lessons, shortly afterward she asks me to teach Annabel Lee Stein to read. I know it’s because we have four grades in the room and five subjects per grade, so she doesn’t have time to teach children with functional needs, as we call them now. Still, I am thrilled. I walk right over to our library (which is a half shelf of about twenty donated books) and check out a health book sporting pastel pictures of children with thermometers in their mouths. I slide in beside Annabel at her desk. We’ve just come in from recess, where we were playing run sheep run. Annabel’s hair forms a dark brown halo about her round face. Her cheeks are ruddy, and I can feel warmth radiating from her shirt and jeans. She bends to stare at pictures of children washing hands. Stabbing my finger at each word, I read about how colds spread. Washing hands prevents colds. This is a book my father’s brother, who is the health secretary in Iowa, has donated. Annabel listens as if I were the announcing angel.
In my Parkers Prairie school, only teachers got to teach. This is more like it, I think. My eyes brim. I flick my head. A drop lands on my desk. I stop reading, turn to Annabel, lay my hand on her arm, and swear to her that even if I have to climb mountains or cross a desert, I will, I will teach her to read.
Okay, she agrees sweetly.
The time I spent with Annabel probably taught me more than it taught her, but my zeal to educate her and the way she patiently permitted me to believe I could, may help to explain why I have spent my life teaching in a university.
In the tiny fellowship of our school, every day is turbulent. We smart from the vendettas and jealousies of our fort skirmishes, of fox and geese, of red rover, and countless best friend arguments. In the fourth grade, we girls create a miniature chapel in a basement broom closet. We drape a scarf over an orange crate to suggest an altar and lay on the floor an aunt’s blue braided rag rug. One of us brings a Bible from home, and together we fashion a big cross from two willow branches. In class, if one of us is angry or swallowing back tears, we raise our hands and ask permission to go down to the little chapel. The three-by-five-foot space becomes a respite from the shifting, shocking soap opera that is our lives. Sitting around the altar, we quarrel loudly and duel with Bible verses like Baptist preachers until we reach shaky agreement or we’re worn out. Since the school’s cleaning equipment is stored in the closet, the chapel reeks of the rust-red compound our parents scatter on cleaning nights before they sweep.
On some days the teacher is wearing an irritable, beaky-face that hooks us and sends us down to the chapel, which I realize helps her to get rid of us. It doesn’t feel like a punishment to me and, in fact, on very bad days we ask for permission to go down repeatedly. At some point we learn we can avoid work by pretending we’re quarreling, so we subvert our own piety, which moved us to set up the chapel. We gossip and haggle and giggle down there and discuss the facts of life, which are just emerging. Joann sneaks her older sister’s booklet from junior high. She sits before the altar, reading to us: the degrees of petting and heavy petting and parking. We listen ashen-faced. I myself don’t know what petting means, though we have a dog named OkeyChaun, who barks no matter how much the family pets him.
After about six weeks of this, the teacher gets wise and begins to allow us ten minutes in chapel, after which she sends Annabel to summon us. She knocks. We look at her and ask innocently, what? and Annabel shrugs. We are becoming gifted at subversion.
Our books during the early years of Lincoln Christian School were donated (and often threadbare), so we rarely had complete sets. The advantage seemed to me in those days was that a whole grade (say, three people) didn’t have to slog together week by week through the chapters of texts. We could do interesting projects instead. For example, one fall, the fifth graders were studying different tribes of Native Americans. One of the kids brought a book about Alaska Natives, so we spent two weeks learning what Eskimos eat, how they talk, what they wear, where they live. I became obsessed with the idea of building an igloo village. Mrs. Friezen said she would permit some of us to do that in our free time. My father entered into the spirit, buying chicken wire and plaster of paris and a large piece of plywood to ground the whole thing.
While Mrs. Friezen worked on addition and subtraction with second graders, some of us fourth and fifth graders stirred up a batch of plaster of paris, reading the directions on the package my father had given us. We discovered that when you add too much water, it splatters all over the table. When you don’t add enough, it gets lumps like cottage cheese. As it hardens, it heats up. We found out that molding igloos involved daubing the stuff all over our hands and faces and legs. We spent one whole math period cracking plaster of paris off one another, fascinated by the way it showered across the brown linoleum. Mrs. Friezen, who could be grouchy and strict, who once spanked a second grader, grinned at us. She sent us down to the closet for a broom and called the fifth graders to geography while we swept up slivers of plaster, unable to take our admiring eyes off our miniature igloos.
After school on Wednesdays, a bunch of us take the city bus from the Lincoln Christian School to Roberta Sheets’s house, where her grandmother runs a Bible study. Roberta lives with her grandmother and her mother in a rundown part of town. She doesn’t have a father because her mother had her out of wedlock. A sad story, our parents tell us, but Roberta’s mother has repented and has been redeemed. Nevertheless, she wears low-cut dresses and paints her long fingernails with crimson lacquer; she looks as if she might be Roberta’s teenage sister. She laughs a lot. When you hear her loud giggle coming down a hall, you walk faster toward her. She’s fun.
So is Roberta, even if she is in the grade below me. She helps build our forts and fiercely secures them. She pitches her graceful body against the boys, emerging with long scratches and sweaty hair. When it rains, the lucky duck gets to tromp in the puddles wearing the tall black boots her grandmother got her for Christmas. At the afternoon Bible study, Roberta’s grandmother, who, with her prominent, hairy chin, resembles a troll, plays games with us and serves milk and cookies. Their house seems perpetually filled with the perfume of baking. Years pass before I realize that Roberta’s grandmother is taking care of me on Wednesday afternoons because my mother is working as a nurse and my father now requires afternoon naps.
Any differences that might flare up between the wildly diverse, ill-sorted parents of the school are put to rest quickly when they meet to work out our accreditation problems. We pull together against the school authorities as any family would. Sometimes after breakfast my father sits at our dining room table and fills out papers, because he is head of the school board this year. Before Christmas, the Nebraska State Board of Education plans to send out a man to decide whether we pass the accreditation test. I don’t know what the test is, but my parents tell us kids that what happens will depend on us. The man will want to know what we’ve learned. He’ll want to talk to us. The fate of the school rests on our shoulders. Volunteer to show the man your school papers, they tell my brother and me. Be friendly. In morning circle at school and evening devotions at home, we pray that God will make the State Department of Education give us a passing grade. It is clear this man could destroy the fragile school if he wants to and it’s also clear that our parents and teachers are depending on us to march like our hymn, “Onward Christian, Soldiers,” behind the lines of the enemy to save the school.
And then one day our teacher, who is now Miss Mierhenry, welcomes the corpulent, mild-mannered man from the Board of Education. Clad in a gray suit, he keeps a pleasant look fixed on his face. He lowers himself to an adult-sized chair that the sixth-grade boys have carried to the back of the room. The third graders file up to the front of the room for their reading group, as he looks on agreeably.
I turn around and peer at him surreptitiously over my shoulder. His eyes are closing. The poor man looks bored. But hasn’t he seen our miniature African twig huts? And taped to the wall, the tracings of our own hands, which we have thrillingly converted into pictures of zebras and fish? I consider reciting passages of Scripture to him, perhaps the First Psalm or 2 Corinthians 13, which I’ve memorized for a school contest. But then I remember that he is of the world, so instead I ask for permission to show him my spelling book. He is willing to be charmed. When he smiles, his double chin looks like the chin of my father’s oldest brother, and he asks me amiable questions. I know, I just know we have him on ice. Several weeks later, our school board gets a letter saying that the Board of Education has tentatively accredited the Lincoln Christian School.
One night my father calls a family meeting to discuss an even greater danger. Parents are planning to withdraw their children from school because it’s too far from their houses to drive every morning and pick up every afternoon. Without their tuition, the school will fold, perhaps in a month. Outside the heavens are falling apart. White pads of wet snow cover the bushes like hats. I have been looking forward to a snowball fight against the boys. Now I imagine walking up the sidewalk toward the school’s red door, finding a chain and padlock around it. Words jam together in my head. In the evening my parents tell us not to give up. My mother quips that my father should start a bus service.
This is supposed to be a joke, but on Saturday when she’s at work, my father takes us to an auction. A crowd of people mills around an icy parking lot. I see a leather-faced man in a cowboy hat stub out his cigarette, climb some steps to a podium, and start babbling. Keeping his shoulders perfectly still, he makes his mouth spin out of control, Who’ll give me thirty, I have thirty here, now thirty-five, who’ll give me thirty-five? He rattles on, then jerks to a stop. He appears to be having a seizure, which my nurse mother described to us once and acted out in case we ever needed to help a person experiencing an attack.
Or maybe he’s speaking in tongues. I’ve never seen anyone speak in tongues.
My father tugs at his earlobe.
Our panel truck, for which he paid forty dollars, is charcoal gray, and one fender is dented, but we all climb in, and when my father turns the ignition key, it shivers to life. He whoops with pleasure. The lolla-ka-trigger-of-the-come-and-go-rod must still be good, he tells us, and that’s all that matters. He asks us to pick out a name for her. Throwing all kinds of names into the air, we fight and settle on Betsy. When we tell my mother that night, my mother turns her black eyes on my father and squints and for once can’t think of anything to say. The next week my father paints Betsy jaunty red, bolts wooden seats along her insides, and starts a free pick-up and drop-off service to the school.
It isn’t long before my father is cutting out big letters on his band saw in our garage. The whine starts low, rrrrrrrr. As he pushes the wood through, it rises to a high eeee, then eases back down to rrrrrrr. He’s opened the garage doors, so the high song rings through the neighborhood. Sawdust falls under the table saw onto the floor and accumulates in blond cones. It stings my nose. It’s the perfume of trees, the scent of my father. Now and then, a few red and brown maple leaves hop into our garage on a gust of wind. We’re fortified in sweatshirts against the chill, listening to the play-by-play of a Cornhuskers football game. In the pandemonium, we can’t hear ourselves talk. My father, who is wearing goggles, holds up a gigantic letter C and wiggles it in the air. That afternoon he cuts out all the letters, LINCOLN CHRISTIAN SCHOOL.
Later we help him paint the letters red and when they dry, we drive them in Betsy to school. He climbs a ladder, holding them. Standing on the ground, I yell advice to him about whether they’re straight or crooked as he bolts them to the building. Because of Betsy, the school’s enrollment is up. Long after the school moved to a rambling new building in 1978, the building and its red letters still spelled out our parents’ daring venture on Normal Boulevard.
In seventh grade, I move to the new public school because I’ve run out of grades at Lincoln Christian School. I have been warned and warned by my Christian school teachers and by my parents not to participate in the secular way of life at this junior high school. So on the first day I’m wary, but I don’t know for sure what I’m wary of. I avoid talking, even at lunch, when I sit alone and eat the tuna sandwich I made for myself that morning. This is the first day of my life that I have not spoken a word; I seriously wonder whether my vocal cords have dried up from disuse. I don’t want to be seen talking to myself, but quietly, under the din of the school lunchroom, I practice saying tuna tuna without moving my lips to make sure I can still talk. I feel relief that at least I can read my complicated schedule, moving from math to English to social studies with a loud hodgepodge of other students.
But after the final bell that day, the others drain out of the halls and I find myself alone, walking by identical blond doors to classrooms, trying to find a door to the outside of the building so I can exit. I can see through the oblong windows that a few teachers remain in their classrooms, but they’re busy at their desks and I’m too timid and proud to step in and ask for help. For half an hour I wander the massive building with growing panic, not merely at being baffled but in shame about being fourteen years old and lost in my own school! Eventually I grasp the problem, which I have been too terrified to understand: this building has two floors and I have been trying to find a way out on the second floor.
Afterward, with a dull, persistent ache, I missed the easygoing friendships between students and teachers at the Christian school. I felt flabbergasted that adults I didn’t even know were firmly in charge of me every day at the public school. At Christian school I’d had the same teacher for years; we knew each other’s families. I didn’t miss the teacher reading a chapter of the King James to us in the morning or the hundreds of Bible verses we memorized. And it wasn’t the Christian take on math or spelling I missed—whatever that might mean.
But our parents routinely described Lincoln Christian as a family and that, in fact, is what I missed—how the school encouraged intimacy, as if we were brothers and sisters. We invited one another over for sleepovers; I knew all my friends’ parents; we cleaned the school together and met together on parent-teacher evenings. I suppose the tiny population of the school was partly responsible for that intimacy but more importantly, we were bound by one supreme text and a sense of being called together in faith to subvert the wider culture. Every minute of school felt like a hair-raising experiment. We lived with the kind of high stakes that Saint Paul refers to in his letters to the small, new churches in Rome and in Corinth.
The students in my new high school refer to in-jokes and TV shows I don’t recognize. They’ve known one another for years and I feel as if I’ve just walked into the middle of the party they never invited me to join. But I also discover that I’m far ahead of my classes in math and reading. As I learn how to make snickerdoodles in home ec and memorize the requirements for being a senator in civics and try to imagine absolute zero in algebra, I begin to understand that I like to learn things; it’s the opposite of boring. Eventually I find and join a group of students who unapologetically enjoy what we are being taught. I would like to say we are not subversive, but we become sick of the food-throwing and screaming in the cafeteria, so we secure permission and a key to open the book room at lunch. As we unwrap our sandwiches among the stacks and shelves, we eat, talk, and laugh together at a long table.
I slowly leave the Lincoln Christian School behind and it fades from my memory, until decades later, when I am asked to read my poems at the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of the Prairie Schooner. I haven’t set foot in Lincoln since the day my mother and sister and I drove away, just after I turned eighteen and graduated from high school. Before I fly to Lincoln to do the reading, just for fun I check the web for our old school’s phone number. Startled to find it, I dial. The baby sister of my best Lincoln Christian School friend answers. She is now the mother of a high school student, volunteering in the office. I remember the day her older sister told me she was born. She invites me to visit.
In Lincoln, I rent a car and drive to the newest part of town, where my GPS locates the address of Lincoln Christian School. Parking the car, I sit for almost an hour and gawk at the contemporary brick building that sprawls on thirty acres of lawn beside a swimming pool with an impressive spray fountain. Inside, I introduce myself to the principal, the librarian, and the young drama teacher. The school has dozens of teachers now, they explain, and hundreds of pupils. An hour later, sitting cross-legged on the gym floor with a class of theater students, I tell the story of how my parents and several of their friends started the school from scratch. I just open my mouth and it spills out. My father has been dead for over thirty years, and I’ve never told anyone this story. I never understood it as a story, much less as a triumph, perhaps because he died when I was so young. I just assumed the school had long since fizzled out. I feel shocked to discover that his subversive Lincoln Christian School endured as his legacy. Shocked and overjoyed.
My father was the willful fourth child of a socially prominent family in Parkers Prairie, a kid who subverted this heritage, swilling beer, smoking several packs a day, running around with women, dropping out of university, sowing his wild oats. When he told us stories about his early twenties, that’s how, with sorrow, he described himself—as the sower of wild oats.
Wild oat is a noxious weed that runs rampant in the roadside culverts and cornfields of the Red River Valley in Minnesota. It’s only recently, after checking Wikipedia, that I discovered this poisonous weed can be tamed and used in farming and in cooking. So after sowing wild oats late in his twenties, my handsome sandy-haired coxcomb of a father forsook his wild friends and settled down with a young black-haired nurse, my mother. He quit smoking and booze; together, they tossed their playing cards into the furnace and started attending the Baptist church, where he quickly was elected a deacon. It was a scant ten years after this that my father developed a heart condition. Diagnosing physicians at the Mayo Clinic, where his younger brother practiced, traced its cause to rheumatic fever, which my father had, indeed, suffered as a child. But my father never believed that diagnosis, perhaps because it implied that human destinies are subject to famine, disease, war—forces beyond individual choice. He gave us to understand, as a cautionary tale, that he had caused his heart condition through his own wasted living. He was resolved that his fierce determination and clever maneuvering to keep Lincoln Christian School alive for us kids would prevent us from deciding to sow wild oats.
As I suppose it did.
Still, most children who finally become independent challenge their upbringing in some way; I did that by departing from my parents’ fundamentalist Protestantism. By the age of nineteen, I found the symbols and language and history of the Episcopal Church expressed my deepest understanding of God. I have not sent our children to schools that identify with the current Christian school movement, either, though I am happy that I was shaped by a fledgling, private Christian school. I remain grateful for the familiarity of that school, the humor and kindness of the teachers, the high stakes of those first years, and the way the school’s haphazard curriculum encouraged us to take responsibility for our own learning.
I didn’t tell all of this to the students on the day I visited the school, because I didn’t know it yet. After a warm discussion with the students, who were, after all, related to me now, because we had this alma mater in common, the librarian led me down a long turquoise tiled hall and reverently opened the founders’ display cabinet. They were just beginning to honor the people who had started this odd, remarkable school. She asked me to send her a picture and a biography of my father. When I got home, I mailed them to her; she posted them and sent me a snapshot. And my father took his place among the founders of the Lincoln Christian School.