When I was in grade school a frequent topic of conversation and consternation was heaven.
As the Born Agains would have us believe, every thought we had or action we performed – from doing math to running on the playground to watching television at night – had a direct relationship to our eventual destination. Heaven. So, we ought to pay good attention to every decision we made, lest we get diverted from said destination, thus sharing the fate of the gays, Jews, catholics, &c.
It mostly seemed like bunk to me from the start – did god really care which version of the Our Father I recited, so long as I was still name-checking him? Or, to put a finer point on it, did he mind if I listened to a tape of the B-52’s Cosmic Thing on the bus to our field trip?
I didn’t think so, but my principal did. He, and the entire staff of the school, shared that same opinion about all popular music, which increasingly lead me to rebel in tiny ways, like asking if we could pray for Gloria Estefan when she had her big accident (“we don’t pray for those people”) and writing The Immaculate Collection as my favorite album in a survey for class (“it’s Conception, and it’s not an album, Peter” … “No, not this one”).
If you think you understand where they were coming from – that the B-52’s and Gloria Estefan and Madonna were actively sexual and inappropriate for grade school – then you’re only seeing a symptom of their insanity, rather than the depths to which it ran.
I was a precocious reader, and by fourth grade I had exhausted the Nancy Drews and every other Young Adult novel in the school library. My mom, who was in danger of being run out of house and home by fueling my voracious reading habit with monthly trips to the book store and weekly trips to the library, decided I could start reading her books as long as she read them first to screen for anything truly inappropriate.
At the time my mother (and most of America, I suppose) was on a heavy Stephen King kick. All the classics – Pet Cemetery, It, The Stand, and every other one that wound up as a movie. Some of them she rightfully screened from me for a year or two, but others she passed along.
One was The Eyes of the Dragon, which was not horror so much as a dark fantasy. Or, at least that’s what I remember from the first 20-or-so pages, because after that it was snatched away from me (on yet another field trip) by a teacher.
“Where did you get this?”
“From my mother?”
“You shouldn’t steal books from your mother.”
“I didn’t steal it, she gave it to me to read on the bus.”
The teacher clearly did not believe me, but my mother – as always – came to my defense. “He’s a smart kid,” I imagine she argued, “and he needs stimulation.”
Of course, they couldn’t be trusted to trust my mother, and so I received long, personalized sermons from everyone from my teacher to the janitor about why reading Stephen King books was a bad idea. Why would I want to jeopardize my spot in heaven for some gory horror novel? It just didn’t make sense.
Well, they were at least right about that. Every time I thought I had them figured out they’d find a new way to paint me into a decidedly unheavenly corner. Reading fantasy books was frowned upon if the fantasy wasn’t directly derived from god. GI Joes were not an appropriate toy, because they had guns (nevermind that they all supported Iraq #1, and I’m sure Iraq #2 as well). And, AIDs was a plague the gays deserved, and anyone else who caught it was just collateral damage.
It was around the time of that last one that I decided I was definitely not going to be a Born Again Christian.
So, yes, they talked a lot about heaven. Or, at least, a lot about getting into heaven. Not so much about heaven itself.
It seemed strange to me, that they were so focused on getting to a place they didn’t know much about. It seemed analogous to begging your mother to go to an amusement park without knowing how many loops the roller coasters had.
(Clearly my Stephen King reading had left me a little remedial in studying up on the concept of Faith.)
(Or, maybe I’m just not wired that way.)
Gradually, I started to make my own concept of heaven that would match all of the tedious effort they put into getting there.
The whole point of heaven, it seemed, was to be awesome. Clearly it was always blue-skied. All of the food would taste great. You would never have to sleep, and you could re-watch television shows you missed by mistake.
(Yes, heaven imported TiVo from the future. Heaven is that awesome.)
God, I decided, was sortof a hard-ass – what, with all the smiting and sending Jesus to pal around on Earth for three decades just to get himself killed. I mean, the “only begotten son” bit just didn’t ring true to me – god was definitely the same Old Testament hard-ass he always was, he just looked softer because he had a kid. I had seen the same thing on television.
God was effectively Gargamel – old, batty, mean, and chasing around little people who barely came up to his shin with a big club. But, in a wacky, non-threatening, recurringly eposodic way.
By contrast, Jesus was definitely John Lennon, walking around singing “Imagine” – or, if you asked very nicely, “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” It definitely put his “bigger than Jesus” comment into a particularly ironic light, I thought.
However, I determined that the greatest feature of heaven was that you would know everything anyone ever thought about you. Not in an intrusive way … just a tally. Like, Leah, the girl I had a crush on for four years, would be able to see every distinct time I thought about her. Or Victor, the bully, would be able to discern the times I feared him versus the times I just felt sorry for him.
It made a certain amount of sense to me; if you were going to spend the rest of your life mingling through the clouds, you ought to be on equal footing with each other.
(Slightly later I amended the list to include people being able to get a tally of how many times people thought of them while having an orgasm, with a second tally indicating how many times that was during an orgasm had with someone other than you.)
(In retrospect, that might not be the kind of thing you find out in heaven.)
I still remember our last exchange with anyone on the staff in the sharpest possible focus. It was after our sixth grade end of year assembly, and we were all running around behind the stage drinking carbonated punch, which I claimed made me feel a little tipsy since I had never drank anything carbonated before in my life.
My mother was talking to the wife of the school’s principal, and as I ran past her I overhead this snippet of conversation…
Mom: “It would be nice if you held some events where they could just socialize together.”
Wife: “Oh, yes, that’s always nice.”
Mom: “Maybe even something like a dance.”
Wife: “A dance?”
Mom: “You know, with music? Around this age the kids in public schools and Catholic schools start to have dances.”
Wife: “Oh no. No. No no. We could never…”
I don’t remember anything else. Maybe I zoomed out of earshot, inebriated on bubbles. Or maybe my mother excused herself and ushered me out to the car. Either way, it was the last time I ever set foot in the building, or spoke to any of them other than my best friend Monica.
I still dream about them sometimes, about the teachers and janitors and principal’s sons. Sometimes I dream that I am 10-years-old but still myself, desperately trying to escape their serpentine corridors without notice. Sometimes I dream that they invite me to a twentieth reunion and I try in vain to explain to them how they made me so hateful and distrustful of religion.
Sometimes I dream that they all wound up being gay, and that they each confessed to me in turn that they were afraid they would never get to heaven.
I really hope they all get to heaven, since their whole lives have been dedicated to the practice – to the exclusion of school dances, Stephen King novels, and Madonna albums.
I wonder if when they get there they’ll see how much time I’ve spent worrying about them.
I wonder if they’ll care.