I was in the 8th grade. In an English class. One of my least memorable classes (and there were many of these) It was taught by a short, rotund, ego-maniac. There appears to be something about teaching English to youngsters that attracts the pompous. Not all English teachers are obnoxious... or rotund... or even male. Please, don't get me wrong. In fact, a couple of years later, I had a fetching young woman (well, at the time I viewed her as an "older woman") trying vainly to have me conform to her idea of what her English students should do. Miss Grossman, I never gave you the appreciation you deserved. I also never even attempted to do the homework you assigned.
This teacher, whose name is forever lost to me, was a frustrated preacher. And a rabid anti-communist. In 1959, the latter wasn't viewed in any kind of negative light. In fact, it was a "plus" on one's resume. One of the first things I noticed was two of the books on his desk were anti-communist, one explained dialectical materialism (in a negative manner, I presume) and the other was entitled "You can Trust a Communist... To Be a Communist". I didn't read either of them.
Our relationship tone was established on the first day of school. He entered the room after we had all arrived and found seats. Seating choices, when made by the students, clearly reflects a kind of self-imposed hierarchy and caste system. The suck-ups all grabbed seats in the front couple of rows. These students were first into the classroom anyway so they had no trouble getting those seats. The average students grabbed the middle rows, behind the suck-ups, and leaving the outer row by the windows open. My crowd (my "peeps", to use the more current vernacular) took the window seats and the back row. I preferred the window row, myself, but took a seat one row over in the back. Why I recall this, I have no idea.
After introducing himself, he announced that he had minored in Theology in college. He beamed while telling us this, he clearly wanted us to be impressed. He then proceeded to ask the following questions:
Who are my Catholic children?
Who are my Protestant children?
Who are my Baptist children?
Who are my Jewish children?
I may have recalled the order incorrectly but those were the essential questions. And, after each question, hands were raised. He would look around and note the respondents. When he was done, he took note of the fact that I had not raised my hand at all. He zeroed in on me.
"And what is your religion?"
"None," I responded. "I am atheist."
He was shocked. Here I was, a mere 13 years old, and a heretic. Well, maybe not a heretic but certainly misguided and in need of his ministering. But, first, he had to make sure I wasn't a "Commie" and questioned my political leanings. I may have decided on eschewing religion but I was essentially apolitical at that point in my life.
I was outed! Or so he thought. The truth was that anyone who knew me already knew my non-religious nature. But perhaps I should explain myself a bit here. I was not a militant atheist. I was not a Madelyn Murray O'Hair atheist. In fact, I hadn't yet heard of her. She made a name for herself the next year when she filed suit challenging school prayer. I do not like such people. They are every bit as bad as those evangelicals who try to convert anyone and everyone they meet. We should all leave each other alone in this aspect of our lives.
The kids within my band of miscreants consisted of 3 Jews, a methodist, 3 Catholics, a "Jew-Cat" (his mother Catholic and his father was Jewish which meant he wasn't really Jewish so we called him that on occasion), and me. Outside of making jokes using the usual sterotypes, we never had any problems because of religion. At that time, school prayer was a regular thing in my district (and state). In spite of the horror stories that were trotted out during the suit to end school prayer, no one ever harassed me (or anyone else) in any way for not praying or praying "differently".
We, the teacher and I, had several philosophical conversations during that term. None of them very memorable, none of them particularly heated. He came to accept that I was sincere in my non-belief, that I wasn't merely being rebellious, and he also gave up on getting me to apply myself in the curriculum.
A Night Unremembered
6 years ago