Monday, June 05, 2006

Out Beyond the Village Border/Pointing in the Air/Stand Her Towers Seen Far Distant/When the Day is Fair

I got my undergraduate degree 40 years ago, and for 40 years I never saw the name of my alma mater in print, other than on my own resume.

And not always on that. Sometimes when asked to write down for one database or another where I got my BA I have put down Landrith College.

Landrith is my wife's maiden name.

In this blog I have always referred to my undergraduate school as Whooping Jesus Bible College, which gets at the nature of the place or at least my attitude toward it.

In truth, the name of my alma mater is Taylor University. It has at last -- and I would speculate probably never again -- been prominent in the national news. It is the place where those two girls went to school -- you know; those girls -- who were in the terrible automobile accident and whose identities were switched as their shattered bodies lay on the highway.

One set of friends and relatives buried their beloved child, sister, classmate etc. etc. Another set of etc. sat by the bedside of etc. as she lay in a coma, from which to the general joy she is even now emerging.

But everyone had it backwards. She who was alive is long dead. She who was dead had a kind of resurrection, once somebody bothered to check the dental records.

What a story. It's been all over the place. Lowell Boileau, netking of Detroit and my old Taylor roommate, says: Think made-for-TV movie.

But I think: Taylor Taylor Taylor. It lives in memory while things more recent have faded. From one source or another I hear that it has acquired some new buildings. What a bright and grinning place it is now, I am told. As fundamentalist Christianity has lacquered its public face in the U.S. in recent years, so has Taylor.

But my god it was a dungheap 40 years ago. It was ugly and desolate and isolated. Think Indiana death trip. Most of the buildings were old, and the newer ones were shabby. Buildings don't matter, of course. Academically, it was.... First word that comes to mind is mediocre, though I'm tempted to say,"Occasionally it rose to mediocrity."

I try that on my wife, who is also a graduate.

"I hated it I hated it I hated it," she says. "But I had a few good teachers."

She recalls them. Dr. Jim Young who taught drama and who was publicly castigated for doing a production of Saroyan's "The Cave Dwellers" in which one of the characters used the word "damn." I think it was the Dean of Students who stood up and walked out of the performance when that word was uttered.

Dr. Young left to teach at the University of Wisconsin. Then, my wife remembered the biology teacher who said you could think evolution was correct and also be a Christian. Shortly thereafter, he left to teach at William and Mary.

None of my English professors were that memorable. I tend to recall all the faculty members who were failed missionaries, jumped-up high school teachers, guys with MA's who (I was convinced) couldn't manage a Ph.D. program , the religious enthusiasts who did have Ph.D.s and who came running back to the strait jacket. (You could read their bios. They never taught anywhere else. They were it in to the finish.)

The strait jacket. We couldn't drink, smoke or dance. We were allowed "occasional hand holding." We were required to go to chapel three times a week. But those were the shadows on the wall. The narrowness that mattered was intellectual, and I still feel its constraints.

You see, a school can be small with meager facilities and marginal faculty but it still can be a wonderful place for a bright young person if it encourages curiosity and the questioning of absolutes. Taylor said think all you want as long as you arrive at the predetermined conclusion.

The sad thing is that I chose to go to Taylor because on some level I understood that if I started to think about the details of my narrow Christian faith -- of its contradictions and its esoterica -- that faith would be in danger. I worked at my intellectual paralysis.

But I couldn't keep it up. Once distant from my family, against my will I began to think for myself, and my faith evaporated, leaving a thin bitter layer of doubt behind. I kept my mouth shut, of course, for I was a good boy such a good boy, as horrible as that is to admit now. I was a silent critic. Without having wished to rebel, now to my delight I became a rebel at minimum emotional and intellectual cost because the environment in which I existed was so narrow that the most modest transgressions -- not smoking or drinking but merely sitting in the car or standing in the bar with those who smoked and drank -- produced the most exhilarating sense of moral banditry.

Now, my wife was different. She has always had more courage than I, so she voiced her doubts and was criticized and isolated. (She also fell into one of those "mean girls" situations common enough, I suppose, but even worse when sanctimony is added.) She got in trouble and was always on the verge of expulsion for the hated "bad attitude." I kept my mouth shut, and no one knew I was there.

At this point the attentive reader has arrived at a question. (I tell my reporting students that one must understand the questions that arise in the reader's mind. Ignore them and the reader does not know whether you are a rogue or a fool. Indeed, the reader may square the circle by deciding you are both.)

The attentive reader asks why I didn't transfer out and why she who would become my wife did not do the same . (We didn't hook up until her last semester. Our sexual awakening was not a factor in our remaining. Though as sexual awakenings go, it is my understanding it was first rate.)

We didn't because we were afraid to. We are ashamed that we were afraid, that mediocrity suited us so well. Taylor was the devil we knew; out there somewhere lay the devil we didn't know, even though we didn't believe in the devil. We are ashamed of Taylor for being what it was, and that makes our shame all the greater for hanging around because we were scared of the big world, of parental disapproval.

But that's not all, as they say in the late-night TV commercials. This is where you get into the paradoxical nature of our feelings about Taylor. My wife and I wonder if, in fact, we had gone to some first-class state school or to some highly ranked private college that -- as timid as we were as a result of our having been raised up under glass as it were -- whether we might not have retreated further into sectarian narrowness, frightened by all the secular temptations, including the temptation to think.

Was it a good thing for us to go to such a bad school? We got together there, after all, our attraction sealed by our mutual loathing of the place, and all our friends who said we were an odd couple whose relationship had no future have gone through more marriages and more relationships than democracy in Iraq has had false starts.

So: I don't know. It's a puzzle. (We have a friend whose parents met in a Nazi concentration camp. There's a puzzle for her to chew on.) We hated how Taylor was then. I suspect we wouldn't much like how it is now, since it sounds as if it is now just a little dangerous, if you think right-wing religion is dangerous. One of my old Taylor friends says the school is now considered part of the "Christian Ivy League." Whoa. Conundrum. Oxymoron. I googled that description and came up empty. I googled Taylor's academic ranking and discovered that among "Midwestern Comprehensive Colleges," U.S. News rates it just below St. Mary's College and Calvin College but better than St. Norbert and Ohio Northern University.

(But, you ask, how does it compare to Landrith College.)

What does it all mean, Alfie? I have explored these memories to prepare an answer to a question the recent stories about Taylor have presented me.

It is a simple question: If I had a child and lost that child in a way so doubly cruel -- having learned that the "saved" child is not yours and that your child has been buried in someone else's name -- would I prefer to think that this dear lost child no longer sees through a glass darkly but now face to face, the face that of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

In other words, would I prefer the delusion to the pain?

No. No! Wrong question.

The real question is what might I say to parents in that situation. I hope I would give them a big hug and shed tears, and if they said, "She's in heaven with Jesus now, isn't she?" I hope I would keep my mouth shut. But then, of course, later when as dear friends we talked knee-to-knee of those truths that true friends share....

God, this is morbid and pointless. Suddenly I've conjured up a roomful of imaginary Christian friends telling me their babies are dead!? But then again Taylor was a place where I exercised my emotions, not my brain, and I think what I've learned from this ramble through memory is....

Life: a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel, an essay without an ending to those who blog.

1 comment:

Phillip said...

The place has changed. Still believes in the Lord, but isn't BJU strict. It is a good place.