Next stop: a new boarding school, this one in western Massachusetts where, between high school and college, I would spend the next five years of my life. Are there many places on the planet more beautiful than the Connecticut River Valley and the Berkshire Mountains? (I'm afraid, though, that I would have to admit to having taken them largely for granted at the time.)
I had finally reached my father's objective for me: a New England boarding school of unquestioned academic reputation. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was the fifth of my summer camps and boarding schools in as many states, and I was exhausted from the repeated challenge of starting all over with completely new people in a foreign environment. My high school years developed into one extended period of acting out the losses of childhood and adolescence. I won't bore you with the details.
I will share some of the story from a spiritual point of view, however. You may recall that during my childhood years I had a tangential relationship to small-town midwestern Methodism, and had moved on in junior high to the mysterious ritual of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church. Suddenly, at fifteen, I found that I had landed in an entirely new religious environment.
My school had been founded in the late 1800s by a famous evangelist, whose purpose had been to provide a solid education for the young farm women of the area so that they could be trained as missionaries to foreign lands. A couple of years later, he founded a boys' school across the river, hoping to offer to young men of little or no means the rigorous education that the sons of the wealthy and prominent obtained at the famous New England prep schools.
The founder's legacy -- education of the head, hand, and heart -- left a pattern of interesting dichotomies all over our campuses. From an academic standpoint, our education was second to none. Our school was renowned across the country for the excellence of its college preparation for young women. (And no, I didn't know that when I arrived. I was fifteen, exhausted, and couldn't have cared less.)
The school also emphasized the value of manual labor. Every student had a job on campus, every day, changing positions each trimester. Sometimes I signed up for pre-breakfast preparation, wanting to get my work out of the way first thing in the morning. I can remember showering in the pitch dark and running down to the kitchen at 6:30 a.m., my long hair hanging down my back and soaking through my kitchen uniform. My favorite job was after-dinner tins -- the endless washing of pots and pans. It was a miserably difficult task, but it took so long that the tins girls could escape some of the two-and-a half hour evening study hall. Whenever I hear the song Spirit in the Sky, I think of spring evenings in the kitchen, dancing to the music as we dried off the huge cooking vats with all possible deliberation and lack of speed.
The job program was probably the reason I chose that particular school. I was given no choice about going away, but I was offered a few options in terms of destination. Most of the catalogues I flipped through featured girls in expensive clothing engaged in what looked like expensive occupations. The one I gravitated toward pictured young women in weird outfits and caps, scrubbing and sweeping and preparing food. I didn't have any more intrinsic interest in those activities than I do today, but I figured that a school where the students did real work couldn't be all bad.
And, finally...the religious aspect. Once again, something that was never discussed in my home, but became critical to my formation.
We attended daily chapel and Sunday church services and, amazingly, I usually showed up. My group of friends tended to be of a mind to skip the religious demands on our lives -- but I loved the morning chapel music and the eloquence of the speakers who visited our campus. I couldn't sing two notes in succession to save my life, but I could listen. I was astonished and mesmerized by my introduction to the Protestant tradition of religious music. While my friends were slinking out the back door of the chapel and hiding out in unoccupied buildings, I was hunkered down in my pew, soaking up the sounds of centuries of Christian organ and choral music.
I loved the speakers, too. I wasn't much of a student in those days, sticking to the subjects I liked and ignoring those I didn't, but when William Sloane Coffin showed up, I paid attention. I don't remember any specifics, but I know that to be awash in the words of the best speakers New England colleges had to offer during the 1960s was a transformative experience.
And so were words, in general. The words, astonishingly, of the Bible, and of the great religious writers of our time. We didn't just go to chapel and church. We also took religion classes as part of our regular academic schedule. Yes, just like in Catholic school -- religion every day. A year of Old Testament, a year of New Testament, and then electives.
These were not your usual high school religion classes. These were an incomparable gift. Our Old Testament class was basically a college-level survey course in the literary-historical critical analysis of the Biblical text. By the time September was half over, "JEDP"* resounded in my head and symbolized the approach that would forever after inform my aproach to the Bible. It was no longer a book of childhood mythologies and improbable miracles. It had become a puzzle, its intricately woven layers of texts challenging the intellect at every level. What a treasure trove of knowledge to hand over to high chool students! I have a friend here who was in my class at boarding school and not so long ago we smiled over those years. "JEDP!" she exclaimed. "We were so lucky! They taught us the Bible as if we were adult thinkers."
My senior year elective was called "Church and Society." We read Bonhoeffer, Freud, Frankl, and who knows who else. I still wasn't a religious person in any sense of the word but, again, my ordinary daily life was informed by the prophetic voices of our century -- in class --and of our decade -- in chapel. I was seventeen, and in an environment where I could assume that everyone grew up in the midst of the ongoing religious and philosophical discussions of the ages. Our school was mostly Protestant in theology , and mostly white in population, but its doors were wide open to every thought and question imaginable.
And, once again, it was a religion teacher who tried to open the windows to the broader world in a more pragmatic sense. My religion teacher senior year was a man from North Carolina. One morning as we walked to class through a couple of feet of snow, he asked where I was applying to college, and then began to rail against what he termed our "parochialism." Why are y'all so stuck on New England?" he asked. "Y'all should be thinking about Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt. Get out of here and find out something about the rest of the country!"
So what had I learned, by the time I was eighteen, about religion and the people who care about it? That the people who study and teach religion are often the ones who will push you onward and outward, into a vast universe of unanswered questions. That faith is a worldwide phenomenon expressed in a myriad of ways. That almost everyone of faith claims to have some hold on some kind of truth. That if there is a God, then that God seems to have numerous ways of trying to reach people. That religion can be a subject of deep and challenging intellectual inquiry. That it can be a source of illuminating joy or astounding evil. That it can be a matter of complete indifference. That it has inspired music so exquisitely powerful that if there were nothing but the music, that alone could make a believer out of someone not otherwise inclined in that direction.
I didn't yet have any idea that faith could seep into your life when you weren't paying any attention. That knowledge was to come much, much later, when I would begin to see it as the path toward a worldview of openness and curiosity and authenticity.
(*JEDP is shorthand for the four sources compiled to form what we know as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as posited by significant scholars of the 19th century and debated vigorously by Biblical inerrantists.)