This is the final part of the excerpts I’m publishing from Aram McLean’s forthcoming book, Aram’s Progress: A Boy in the Hands of an Angry World. Aram went to an Accelerated Christian Education school, like me, and these excerpts give a striking idea what that’s like.
This part ends with a story that some of you might find incredible. Even I am unsure what to make of it. On balance, though, I’m inclined to believe it. Part of the difficulty I face with this blog is getting people with no experience of this kind of religious fanaticism to comprehend the scale of it – it must often seem exaggerated. I believe Aram’s story because I could believe it of fundamentalist leaders I encountered, including my own school teachers. My pastor’s daughter confided in me that his idea of a reasonable punishment included dragging his own son – by the ear – along the landing and down the stairs. So, frankly, nothing would surprise me.
All three parts of Aram’s story are here.
Part 1, in which Aram explains how a learning center [sic] operates
Personal little flags were heavily utilized in the ACE system. To go up to the scoring station to self-check your PACE work so far, or to use the toilet, you unfurled a Canadian flag above your desk. If your bladder was full, you could only pray that the volunteering monitors and regular supervisors weren’t too tied up with other students, or each other. God only knew if He’d get them to answer your plea in time, to allow you to go and plop your holy offering into the sacred bowl of the ceramic alter.
To ask a question about a particular subject – say for example, “but doesn’t the story of Bathsheba mean that King David was a blatant murderer?” – you had to put up a so-called Christian flag; basically a little white number with a small red cross atop a blue corner. You were supposed to work on your other subjects while you waited – like maybe your Social Studies PACE which was informing you that this time they’d found the Ark on Ararat for sure, or your Biology PACE which was letting you know that mental illnesses were caused by demon possession and only prayer could cure them – until finally a passing supervisor or monitor kicked you out of your seat to lend a hand.
Usually I spent this flag waiting time doodling pictures all over the PACE I was struggling with, or cutting out hand-drawn pieces of cars and taping them together in 3-D, or maybe reading the Book of Esther again since I loved its happy ending. Basically I perfected the fine art of procrastination during the ten to thirty minutes before help arrived. Most often it arrived in the form of a monitor. Monitors were other students’ volunteering parents for the day, and the level of help received really depended on the highest grade level they’d achieved, or how long it had been since they’d read a book.
Quite often I found myself figuring out the answer I was looking for in the middle of having to explain it to the monitor who’d sat down to help. The problem would come together by saying it out loud, and with thanks to the parent who had yet to understand the question, I’d explain that it all made sense now; must have been the prayer. They’d usually nod with a smile, accepting your appreciation for their time, and then wander away looking slightly more confused than a moment before.
Part 2, in which Aram emphasises the authority of Scripture
Every single week, a set amount of scripture verses had to be memorized to earn basic privileges. If you were in the equivalent of grade seven, for example, you had to memorize seven verses, minimum, which basically got you a five-minute recess and a twenty-minute lunch break. If you doubled your grade number, you got a thirty-minute lunch and the God-given right to get up from your desk without using your flag, to go directly, some might say efficiently, to the scoring station to check your own work. If a massive three times your grade level of scripture was memorized for the new week, now you were living the dream; for the Lord shall set you free indeed.
No longer was the toilet a distant unachievable thing, but rather on a whim you could go and have a leisurely dump, no one monitoring how long you’d been gone. And not only that, three times your grade level memorized also meant that when everyone else heard the bell ringing to end lunch, the chimes they did not toll for you. Rather you still had an extra five minutes of freedom. Five minutes to smile smugly at the less Biblically retentive as they shuffled back to their little desks, to sit alone in the grass or whatever, perhaps with your other fellow eager ones, secure in the power of your superior memory and your guaranteed heavenly glory.
The kicker to this weekly ritual of Bible memorizing, of course, was that you weren’t allowed to use the same Bible verses twice. And for every John 11:35, there were a hell of lot more Esther 8:9 types.
I had plenty of twenty-minute lunches in my day.
As some of us grew older, we tried to find ways around the verses and the flag. During one weekly scripture memorization, when I was thirteen years old, not far from what would soon turn out to be the end of our sentence, I sat with my brother Devon and a new student named Steve, attempting to recollect the required verses for privileges, desperate to know a longer lunch for once, perhaps enjoy a comfortable poop.
Now, initially, when the school had first been created, we would quote our remembered portions of the Bible orally to a listening monitor who would check for mistakes as we droned on. These parents soon tired of hearing endless repetition from every student each week, however, so it had been decided that we should do it in writing instead, to save time. It was in this new system that Steve, Devon and I figured out how to beat the flag.
“Hey Steve,” I whispered. “What’s the second part of the first verse?”
“But he who is a pervert will become known,” Steve whispered back, his easy smile widening his surprisingly oval face. “How’s the first part go?”
I looked at what I’d written. “He that walketh uprightly walketh surely…” Our whispers breathed ragged across the quiet room. “Devon, do you remember the next bit?”
Devon winked with a quiet laugh. “He that winks will make you sad,” he informed us, “but a prating fool will fall.”
With three brains working feverishly in unison, a fair amount of Proverbs was patched together. Enough for special privileges all right, we figured. Smug smile five minutes extra lunch time was in sight.
Finishing up our work, careful that no one noticed our ragged whispers, we went to hand in our pages with confidence. We had triumphed in our hearts and had broken the Flag, if only for five days.
The end of the day found the three of us sitting in the principal’s office, however, and we knew we’d been somehow busted. Thank the Lord Mr Jordan was away at his paying job, and it was his wife who beckoned us in. She actually seemed to like young people, for the most part.
“Devon, Steve, and John, lovely to see you boys,” Mrs Jordan greeted us with a genuine smile. Her quaff of up-flowing brown hair sat atop her round always slightly tired face.
“Uh…yeah…good to see you as well Mrs Jordan,” Devon replied for all of us. We fidgeted like sea-monkeys, sweat gleaming under the fluorescent lighting.
“Just a small matter, boys,” Mr Jordan’s wife continued. We all stared stoically at different points on the desk. Our scripture papers were held all too clearly in her hands. “It seems odd, don’t you think,” she rustled our work. “That the required scriptures you three wrote today have exactly the same parts wrong, and exactly the same parts right. Do you think that’s odd?”
“Ah, well,” Devon again took the lead, “I…we…can’t really say about that because…”
“We aren’t allowed to look at each other’s papers, of course…” Steve took over.
“Some sort of spiritual connection perhaps…” I offered. “Or…maybe we just got lucky?”
Mrs Jordan gave me a sharp look at that. Too late I remembered what we’d been told many times before. “Lucky?” Mrs Jordan queried anyways. “Do you mean to say that Lucifer played a part in this? For what is luck if not the devil?”
“Fortunate then…” Devon ventured gamely.
“Fortune tellers!” Mrs Jordan swiftly cut him off at the pass. “Crystal balls! Demonic things.”
Steve looked at her blankly. He was still new to the school.
“You will rewrite your weekly scriptures in separate rooms,” Mrs Jordan stated. “And you will spend the first three lunch breaks next week in your chairs facing the back wall. Understand?”
We looked at each other. We looked back at our judge and jury.
“If Mr Jordan was here, it would be much worse,” his wife said as severely as she could manage, which was sweet as far as we were used to. “But you can consider yourselves blessed for now, and I shan’t mention it to him shall I. And it won’t happen again shall it!”
“No, Mrs Jordan,” we all said in relieved unison. “Thank you Mrs Jordan” The three of us shuffled out, heads down, our attempt to beat the Flag foiled. We had to write our verses again, in separate backrooms this time. Another week of twenty minute lunches commenced.
Part 3, in which Mr. Jordan behaves quite unreasonably
The uniform was a big deal at the ACE School. It was an example of our Christian pride, to be upheld and worn to and from school as witnesses, never to be removed except for gym class when the proper uniform shorts and emblem-sporting polo shirt replaced it. The girls, for their part, got to wear a pair of always-flattering culottes during P.E. class. Their form was never to be shown for fear of catching AIDS and dying. Be in the world, we were told, rather sternly, but not of it. The unbeliever is but a corpse already!
Now this was all well and good in the early years, but once teenage days were upon us, things began to get a little more awkward. The main issue, especially after the school moved to a new town, was that a nearby public school, a Junior High, was packed with plenty of bored corpses languishing about between the happy ages of thirteen and fifteen. When it wasn’t a face-washing with snow after school in the winter, or a 7-Eleven slushie thrown at us in the summer, it was endless chants of Satan! Satan! and I love the devil! with a shove-shove here and a punch-punch there.
Just who was witnessing to whom, I couldn’t figure.
One afternoon, a Friday, my fourteen-year-old self decided I’d had quite enough of being pushed around in the streets on my way home from school. I brought a regular change of clothes – my beige pleated trousers and my pink Ocean Pacific t-shirt – and at the end of the school day, I changed into them. I then exited the building, excited to walk home for once without being teased.
Mr Jordan spotted me at the last second, the shockingly-bright pink perhaps a dead giveaway, and called me back with his frightful yell.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, rather more excited than I felt it warranted.
“I…uh…changed,” I replied, unsure of exactly what level of Mr Jordan seriousness we were talking about here. He’d been away at his other job a lot lately and I’d somehow forgotten that there was only one level with him. “School’s over,” I told him, “and I’m walking home.”
Mr Jordan shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not like that. You’re a witness to the world.” His next words surprised me almost not at all. “Change back into your uniform,” he directed. “Now! You will respect this school, and me.” I wasn’t so sure that respect was the right word. “I could give you a paddling,” he concluded, as if he’d read my mind.
I didn’t argue and walked back into the school without a word. I snuck immediately out the back door, my heart pounding. I was not getting beat on today, no matter what.
Now at this particular time, my ACE School was located in a church which was situated in front of a little area of woods which was nestled in-between a parallel set of roads. I hiked through the green space, reached the back road, and again made my way for home. My fear began to lessen as no one charged after me. The tension to my every step relaxed a little. I’m like every other kid, I thought happily, my eyes reflecting brightly off my fluorescent, earthy ensemble.
When I reached the bottom of my escape route, however, where a perpendicular road connected the two parallel ones, I nearly wet my pleated pants. All the face washing, cold and gritty into my eyes, and all the slushies, exploding wetly across my shoulders and back and head, all were like nothing compared to what now appeared in front of me.
Rounding the sharp corner of the next street over, tires screaming and squealing, Mr Jordan’s determined stare behind the twisted wheel of his car locked itself firmly onto my non-uniformed self. Our eyes met in a clash of wills. His grey expression was like that of a fiery predator, a cross-dressing Cruella de Vil, oozing with confidence in the fact that he still outweighed me. The car didn’t slow as it sped directly at me. It bore down without hesitation and I reacted as most small animals do in the same situation. I turned and ran for my life. I was no wolverine.
Into a nearby park of trails and trees and a wide flowing stream, I bolted as fast as I could possibly move, my heart shrieking at me to move quicker, even as branches stung and scratched across my face. I ploughed straight through the rocky stream without stopping, never once looking back as water sprayed up at me in every possible direction, slipping and sliding. I knew only that salvation lay on the other side.
When I finally dared to breathe, sucking in air, I was well into the forest on the far bank. And I was alone. No one pursued me. I trudged slowly through the woods from there, then along the railroad tracks which passed the back of our property. When I finally got home, still soaking, I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, like maybe that would make it not real. Every time the phone rang, though, I jumped like a sprung Jack-in-the-Box.
On Monday, the longest weekend ever finally over, I went back to school with a heavy heart, unsure of my fate. To my complete surprise, however, the topic never came up again. It was like my denial had actually come true. To this day, I have no idea why Mr Jordan only nodded at me vaguely when he saw me working away in my office, and left it at that. Perhaps he knew my family’s participation in the school was ending? Or perhaps, over the weekend, he’d been reading up on the latest child protection laws in Canada?
It was an exciting school to say the least, ACE, no denying that, and it taught me a lot of important things. Like how to discover and learn on my own, to question authority, to know that life isn’t fair, that not everyone automatically gets a blue ribbon and that even sometimes when you do win, you don’t. And perhaps most essentially of all, I learned that when it’s time to run for your life, do not hesitate.
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Thanks for sharing all that Aram. I’m glad it taught you to question authority; I think it taught me the opposite. Everyone else: Aram’s planning to release his book this summer. Email him for more info.