(To the sound of “Soul Junction” by the Red Garland Quintet)
“Oh, everything, not some things, but ALL things work together for the people of God.” My classmates always sing the final phrase with exuberance and conviction – they’re probably thinking of biblical calamity like tribulation, persecution, famine. But for me, a lot of earthly things aren’t working out, like my love life and rules issued by the Dean of Women and freedom marches in Alabama. So I’m refusing to sing it in chapel and at the beginning of classes and in the cafeteria line and at prayer meetings in my dorm. Call it a protest.
The only song on my mind is the one I’m hearing on TV: “We’ve come down here to put up a fight and we ain’t gonna budge, ain’t gonna budge. Don’t be afraid to give us our rights, ‘cause we won’t hold a grudge, won’t hold a grudge.” One minute, people are singing these words, the next they’re attacked by police with clubs and tear gas. They’re on their knees and blood is spurting from gashes in their heads, staining their Sunday clothes. It’s horrible, monstrous. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t hold a grudge.
One of my professors has been lecturing on the spiritual principles behind all this – that God desires all men to be saved, regardless of skin color. That the gospel is for saving individuals, not society. That people who break civil laws are selfish. It’s all in my notes.
But I haven’t been studying my notes much lately. How can anyone concentrate with all this going on? Every evening I’ve been going to the dorm lounge and watching the news on TV. Rules say TVs, radios, record players are to be off during study hours, but here I am watching news, every evening, alone.
Now’s the time to say this: I don’t obey rules religiously, though I come from a family that lives and dies by rules. Bible rules, that is. I was a kindergartener when I learned about “obey or else,” especially the “or else” part. My experience with “or else” expanded during elementary school. Like when I “forgot” to wash the dishes (Rule: dishes before TV) and had to take clean dishes out of the cabinet and rewash them by hand. “Wash them all, then maybe you’ll remember to obey,” my father ruled. Most often, “or else” meant spankings with a belt, six to ten wallops, depending on which rule I shrugged. Afterwards, I’d dutifully wipe my eyes and go apologize. I wasn’t very good at thinking up ways to avoid “or else.”
Shrugging off rules grew riskier in high school. Like when my father picked me up after school and I couldn’t wipe makeup off my face fast enough (Rule: no makeup. Punishment: make-up thrown away). No use trying to argue that my face was ghastly without makeup – “Good Christian girls don’t need makeup to be attractive.” Or like when my father quizzed me at breakfast and I couldn’t recall anything about the scripture I was supposed to read every morning (Rule: Bible before breakfast. Punishment: alarm set for an hour earlier). Lack of sleep makes me drowsy in class and that’s why I don’t get As, I would assert.
I paid outrageous penalties: phone calls limited to fifteen minutes a day, no dating for a month, trashy novels in the trash. I have rights, I would protest. And, if my protesting turned strident (Rule: no backtalk), I was rewarded with loss of even more privileges, free time, allowance.
I got pretty good at concocting excuses (Rule: be home by ten), squirming around the truth (Rule: no dating non-Christians), finding ingenious hiding places for contraband (Rule: no rock & roll records). Alone in my bedroom, I invented plots and schemes, which inevitably gave me a headache, then I’d emerge with a plan, ready to play the game I later dubbed “extenuations, excuses, and lies.” My parents, side-by-side on the sofa, always made the first move: “Why do you think our rules don’t apply to you?” and “Why do you have to make everything into a battle?” But battle was unavoidable and so was the outcome; when my scheme failed, I caved, cried, repented, promised.
It was loss of a major battle of wills that landed me at this Bible College. I wanted to go where I could major in English lit, join a sorority, be a cheerleader. My parents wanted me to go where the subject matter is the Word of God and rules have consequences.
I’m waiting outside the Dean’s office, tapping my heels on the tile floor. I know she will make the first move and I haven’t thought up a plan. We ain’t gonna budge, ain’t gonna budge, my tap-tap-tapping reminds me.
“Elizabeth Ann Mullins, how nice to see you. Please come in.” Miss Abbot appears in the doorway, smiling like she’s my best friend.
Her office is dark, curtains drawn, the only source of light a desk lamp. Miss Abbot motions to a chair. I perch on the edge and fold my hands in my lap. Put up a fight, put up a fight.
“I am so glad you have come to see me.” Miss Abbot utters each syllable distinctly, evenly. She sits behind the desk and smiles again, not at me, but at something over my shoulder.
A clock ticks behind me. While I wait for her to speak again, I glance around. Not much on the desk – lamp, tissues, phone, eyeglasses, an open Bible. More Bibles stacked on a bookshelf. On the wall above Miss Abbot’s head, a picture of snow-capped mountains with the caption: Think as Christ Thought. Faded blue curtains. At my feet, no-color carpet, worn thin.
Eighteen ticks later, Miss Abbot picks up her glasses. She takes a tissue and wipes them. “You are enjoying your freshman year,” she presumes.
“Oh, yes, I love it here.” We’ve come down here to put up a fight.
“Good. We have such warm regard for you, Elizabeth. And you are learning to adopt the mind of Christ.”
“Yes, I am. Every class is wonderful. I’m learning so much.” Don’t be afraid to give us our rights.
“That is excellent.” Miss Abbot sets glasses aside and lays her hands, flat-palmed, on the Bible. “Well then, Elizabeth, you are learning a fundamental, life-changing principle … the closer we are to Christ, the more our actions will be like Christ. And whenever our actions are selfish or wayward, we must be willing to confess and ask forgiveness.”
I look at Miss Abbot’s hands, skin so thin I can see veins and bones. The ticking is relentless, like a countdown. And I realize Miss Abbot is going to sit there until I confess something. As my parents would sit, while the clock on the mantel insisted I admit wrongdoing, vow to move ahead, make up for time misspent.
Only, I’m not sure what to confess. Bible College rules are complicated, to my thinking – not the simple dos and don’ts of childhood – but perplexing exhortations based on “timeless Truths of Holy Scripture.” Ambiguous warnings about avoiding the appearance of evil, about consorting with persons of dubious character, about immodest dress, worldly entertainment. A hefty student handbook, to which I have affixed my signature; “Your signature indicates that you will abide by the rules and guidelines herein; specifically …”
Making out with Darrell at the Episcopal Church cemetery. Maybe I should confess that. But not to Miss Abbot. I know the routine from the game of e.e.l.: evade, admit to something lesser. My heart is beating faster than the ticking.
“Well, I haven’t had quiet time every morning.” My nervous feet scuff the worn spot. Give us our rights.
“That is disappointing, Elizabeth. Our quiet times are of utmost importance. We get up when the bell rings at six-fifteen to spend time in God’s word, so we can make Christ-like decisions throughout the day.” Miss Abbot thumbs through the Bible and I wonder if she’s looking for verses to chide me with, as my father did, deftly pinching gold-edged pages.
“We want you – all of you girls – to develop the disciplines of godly women, disciplines that will sustain you in a cold and hostile world,” Miss Abbot says. “You do want God to use you mightily in the future.”
“Oh, I do. I feel God is calling me to be a teacher … at a Christian school.” Don’t be afraid.
“Well, that is wonderful. However, no matter what God calls you to do, you will be going into a world spinning out of control. That is precisely what is happening with Dr. King and his marches. No doubt he has noble reasons, but things have become so violent. He is a minister, yet he leads young people into such danger. And some of those around him are not … Christians.” Miss Abbot leans forward, her eyes fixed on me. She frowns, the veins in her neck bulge.
I try not to look away from Miss Abbot. That would be admitting I know about the civil rights marches and then I might be forced to admit I’ve been watching TV during study hours. But my eyes don’t obey and I tense for the accusal. Another rule shrugged. Ain’t gonna budge.
“Elizabeth. We have learned something quite distressing. We have learned that you want to join those demonstrators during Easter break.”
It’s worse than the TV rule. I have been betrayed. By some rule-devoted dormmate, no doubt, who thinks tattling is a Christian virtue. Or by an eavesdropper in the cafeteria line, morally compelled to report premeditated associations with unbelievers. Panic is turning my limbs to mush. I bite my lower lip.
Miss Abbot’s words are rhythmless, monotone. “Things are so violent down there. It is a godless situation. You do not want to put yourself in harm’s way, do you.”
I shake my head and mouth no.
“Of course you don’t.” Miss Abbot sighs and sits back, her smile returns. “You want to have a hunger for the Lord, not protests or politics. We can be concerned and pray for them right here. But we don’t need to join them. Elizabeth, let’s pray, right now, that the Lord will direct every decision you make, today and in the future.”
“Yes, Miss Abbot.” Don’t be afraid.
“Our dear Heavenly Father, we just want to …”
I stiffen every muscle, squeeze my eyes, and hold my breath. But Miss Abbot’s prayer is identical to the one my parents always prayed: “Use Elizabeth for your glory,” “Let her life radiate you, O Lord.” And before long, tears are dropping off my chin, soaking my blouse. I can’t brush them away. I don’t dare move.
When Miss Abbot finally ends her plea to God with “In Jesus’ name, amen,” I involuntarily let out a whoosh. Remorse. It will ever be the same, to the end of my days, another battle lost.
Miss Abbot points to the tissues. She stands and lifts the curtain, letting light flood the room. With her back to me, she says, “As the hymn tells us, ‘While we do His good will, He abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey.’ Just trust and obey, Elizabeth.” She lets go of the curtain.
“Yes, ma’am.” I will not go back to the cemetery with Darrell. I will have quiet time every morning. I will be the best Christian school teacher ever. I will …
Miss Abbot motions for me to stand. She takes my balled-up tissue and walks me to the door. “If I don’t see you before break, I hope you have a blessed Easter with your family.” She pats me on the shoulder. “It is a lovely afternoon. Enjoy it.”
I sniff and whisper, “Thank you, Miss Abbot.”
I walk back to the dorm shading my eyes with both hands. My temples throb relentlessly. Maybe it’s the sun or Miss Abbot’s prayer or choking back tears. I will ask my parents to forgive me for everything. I will never skip gym again. I will lower the hemlines of my skirts.
But first I need to find out what’s happening in Alabama. Rules may keep me from joining the demonstrators, but I can still pray for them.
Alone in the lounge, I watch TV. He starts speaking low and slow, then swings into rhythm, his voice rising and falling. Some of his words are stirring – about the value of every person, about society living with its conscience. But he says other things that scare me. Like how difficult the days ahead will be. Lonely. Costly. Disobedience will bring serious consequences. Beatings, bombings, killings – nothing will stop this campaign. Then he quotes words of an old battle hymn and the crowd roars, almost drowning him out.
At the end of the newscast, I turn the TV off and sit in the dark, stunned, teary-eyed. And I pray. For my feet. For my tired but jubilant feet, ankle-deep in Alabama mud. Soon.