Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Bad Atheist: My First Day in Presbyterian Preschool

When I was a kid my parents wanted to send me to a school that was safe, inexpensive, and aesthetically pleasing (not necessarily in that order).  So, off I went to Presbyterian Pre-School, aka The First Presbyterian Church of Alameda.  And thanks to Alameda's incredibly quaint ways, it even has its own antique portrait postcard for you to enjoy:

The trouble was, my parents failed to really explain religion to me prior to my entry into before-school-school.  It's not like they were out to leave me stranded--nor do I think they had any intention of seeing "how I would do" under stressful circumstances.  (I think by then they already knew I was a slightly neurotic child.  So, really, it wasn't intentional.)

In fact the problem was that they didn't grow me up with any intentional anything; they aren't stalwart atheists, they aren't over zealous christians; they're artists who are self-employed.  Their deities, if they have any, are patrons that are kind and not demanding and/or Gore Vidal.

So, when it came to things like God, Christ, The Holy Spirit, Virgin Mary, Prophets, Saints, Disciples, etc. I knew (some of) the names, but I didn't feel the awe that is part of their definition.  Back then, they all sounded like characters to a story that my parents hadn't read to me, yet.  I mean, when you think about it, my childish brain had a way to explain Christianity that was easy and straight-forward:  we had gotten through The Hobbit, so it was only a matter of time before we got to the Bible series (Volumes Old and New).

Anyway, having recently walked past my old school while out on a walk in my hometown, I was reminded of a particular memory of my first day there.

First off, I remember there was a back entrance that had a corridor lining a courtyard--the corridor then lead to a wide gymnasium.  I would later run around in there a lot--usually attempting to be the fastest and try to get all the attention doing so--and at one point I would pee my pants while in there and be sent home early.  Connected to the now infamous gymn was a messroom.

The messroom still, to this day, seems magical to me.  There were blue, red, green and yellow plastic small chairs, and a big fold-out table.  Snack time took place here and it was there that I learned from now on snack time was going to be different.  Before at home I would either start crying for food, and then get food, or start yelling for food and then get some.


I'm starting to realize why disappointment is such a hard emotion for me to handle.

Anyway, on my first morning we all sat down for snack and the "teacher" (they didn't really teach us anything, other than show us where to sit and eat and pee--not that that isn't a incredibly important lesson in life) told us to pray before we got our snack of the day.




In my under-five-years-old brain, I didn't really know the word.  I knew it meant something other-than food.  And I knew it had something to do with elbows because all the other kids drew theirs up on the table top where they did not, as I had been taught, belong.

I started to fidget and get annoyed.  To make things worse, I could see what the snack of the day was:  cheese and crackers.  But, not just any cheese--no.  Delectable Kraft Cheese that was so bad for you (and thus, so delicious) because it came in its own individual plastic wrapping.

And plastic wrapping = my definition of childhood yearning in the 1990s.

I had learned this important lesson at a young age.  Anything that had to be individually wrapped in its own special plastic was literally untouchable and thus badass:  CDs with parental guidance stickers, first edition collectable comic books you could only look at longingly, Lunchables and action figures that were so intense their WEAPONS were individually wrapped:

Anyway, there I was:  confused, hungry (and to this day, when I get hungry I get really grumpy) and ostracized from the information every other kid seemed to know.  Except for the kid who had his finger reaching past his other hand and into his nose.  I didn't talk to that kid.

The teacher explained, I think to help nudge me along (as this whole mental, philosophical debate of want verses social rules of conduct lasted approximately 3.07 seconds) that we must "thank God for the food you're about to eat."

I didn't get it.  My hands were pressed together, but my mind was racing and I had come across my first spiritual debate of my life:

To me, it was God or the Cheese--and I had made my decision waaaay already.

To the Kidstians, it was God first AND THEN the Cheese--and they were quite content to enjoy both in their due time.

All I could think was, "Why?  You have it.  I want it.  What's the hold up?"  But, in seeing how devout* all the other kids were, it occurred to me that there was something else to this--something deeper and bigger than me (which wasn't new, considering I was shorter than three feet at the time).

I still didn't get it.  But, I knew when to be quiet, although grumpily quiet.  I even closed my eyes for good measure.  When I did eventually get my cheese I thought nothing of it--the pained moments of prolonged hunger went away quickly as the oh-so-tempting, slight-adhesive let go of the cover flap of the cheese.  It was mine.  It was glorious.  I had my cheese and I ate it, too.  And yet, I was curious exactly what was so amazing that cheese could be a secondary priority--and individually packaged cheese, no less.

Approximately 20 years later, I now get it.  After two decades of learning and growing and simultaneously hearing from my friends that they're "bad christians" or "bad jews" or "bad muslims" I have realized somethings.  1) I understand the import of being thankful and 2) I'm a bad atheist.

As an Atheist, I try my best to not get codependent on some higher/external power than me.  I even feel guilt--apparently it's not just for Catholics and Jews--if I spend too much time hoping that some external force will guide me in whatever happens next in life.  Talk about ironic.

However, I don't think it's wrong to yearn for guidance.

In fact, I think it's human.

Just as human as it was to want the cheese first, rather than play solo-patty-cake.

These days, since I have the power to buy my own cheese (and eat it too!) I've come to respect anyone who puts their sense of connection and patience into practice with something so essential as food.   It's a form of confidence in yourself and your beliefs, really, that not only teaches you to appreciate what you've got, but is a reminder that things don't always happen RIGHT when you want them to.  But, they do happen.  Cheese in plastic wrap does happen.

Yes, I still scarf food when I feel like it.  But, I do try to at least resist from the external packaging now and then and savor the internal that much more.  Besides, it's my own form of separating all the bits and pieces in my life, which as we now know from my action figure research study, makes them that much more special.


*Can children be devout?  Or does the will power/guilt develop later along with self-loathing and action figure collecting?


  1. speaking of which(?)... wanna go to Christmas party at a Presbyterian church this Friday? :)630? relive your childhood memories? ^____~ Maybe go to Alameda afterwards?

    (i grew up in the church, but wasn't Christian until the Hoytian days, mostly just went through the "devout" motions. i know of some kids who became Christian when they were young though. like with many things, i think it depends on the person.)

  2. Moon-- I have work this Friday. :( But, I would love to go to another christmas rendition of choral music. Is this the same church we went to last year for the Christmas hymns and readings? SO good for the soul and SO good for the body to hear.

    Also, it's interesting how you went through the motions as a child and then grew to make the decision to actually devote yourself to christianity; I think a lot of kids go through the motions, as it were, in cultural beliefs. It's kind of like how the human brain learns languages; fluency becomes a sort of second nature, but self-awareness of your connection and the part it plays in your life comes much later one when the brain is fully developed. It's fascinating, either way. ;)