My seventh-grade teacher in Evanston, Wyoming, Mrs. Ronci, recognized that I was hungry, and in ways that were unbeknownst to me she wrangled a simple lunch-time job in the school cafeteria where I handed out cartons of milk each day in exchange for a free lunch. It was the first time in my childhood when I recognized that some people, teachers in particular, knew more about me than I desired. I never thanked Mrs. Ronci for her generosity because hunger was something I wanted to keep secret.
For the last few years, I've been feeling an overwhelming desire to contact some teachers from my past. That's typical for cult or abuse survivors like me, I think. Children who grow up in fringe religions, or cults if I use the term I favor, often find themselves where I am today -- craving a need to reconnect with all of those generous and insightful teachers from past decades who had some influence on our lives. Influence that we might not have recognized as being significant at the time, but we now look back upon fondly, wishing we could show our belated gratitude.
Mr. Romero, my fifth-grade teacher, was the first to encourage me to explore my passion to write. Mr. Romero was a thick Italian ex-Marine with a bushy moustache who had just arrived home from the war in Vietnam, and he was my first crush. I adored Mr. Romero. I loved him as much as any 10 year old can love a teacher with childish adoration. Like many children who develop adolescent feelings for teachers, I cried when school ended and Mr. Romero disappeared from my life. I cried when I realized he would never again read my stories.
My writing took a bizarre turn the following year when I fully embraced my religion. A primary doctrine of the Jehovah's Witnesses is that members must share their spirituality with everyone who will listen. Mrs. Georgia Frost, my sixth-grade teacher in Piru, California, endured umpteen written essays from me in which I extolled the many virtues of the Witnesses. Throughout their history, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been expecting the immediate arrival of Armageddon, and I inserted that topic into my writing at every possible opportunity. Sharing my faith with Mrs. Frost, through my writing, brought praise and approval from my parents and fellow Witnesses. I shared my religion with everyone who would listen and then reported the time on my Monthly Field Service Report that the Witnesses require of all members. Yes, that is what I did. I craved the accolades it brought to me, and besides, the End was near. I must share it with everyone. That was a duty imposed upon me by religion.
That same year, my Aunt Jackie received a letter in the mail that she claimed was from Satan. The elders in our Kingdom Hall rushed over and stood around her kitchen, praying to Jehovah, while they lit the letter on fire in her kitchen sink. They had difficulty getting it to burn, which only fueled their assertions that it was from Satan.
In my home, my parents gave out frequent lectures and warnings that I might arrive home from school one day to find that my family had been hauled off to jail for worshipping Jehovah. If that were to happen, I must, as instructed, run to the hills to search for other Witnesses who were evading capture and patiently wait for the death and destruction of an angry God to bring our wicked world to an end. I was 11, and I believed every word my parents and my religion told me. I shared them, ad nauseam, in written school assignments with Mrs. Frost, except for the letter that Aunt Jackie got from Satan. I never told Mrs. Frost about that. Even I knew it sounded crazy to claim to receive mail from Satan.
I wrote a lot about death for Mrs. Frost. Witnesses were likely to be killed for serving Jehovah, I told her. I quoted scriptures. I quoted passages from Witness literature. I assured Mrs. Frost that Armageddon was near. I did not need to focus on education, I told her. The End was near. My religion promised me so.
I was absolutely gifted with the ability to weave religious themes into her assignments. When Mrs. Frost wanted me to write about the American Bicentennial celebration, I wrote about the 200 year anniversary of our country and then segued into a brief discussion about the celebration being a sin, not to mention the fact that Jehovah was going to destroy our country soon. The End would arrive any day now, I wrote.
What I wrote was often a lie. Genius, but full of lies. When Mrs. Frost assigned the task to keep a daily food log over the course of one week, documenting what I had eaten for breakfast each day and evaluating it in terms of my sixth grader's understanding of the USDA food chart, I lied. I lied like I'd never lied before. I constructed elaborate charts of what my breakfast had been, according to what I thought she wanted to believe. I painted a beautiful picture of two wonderfully fluffy scrambled eggs, maybe three slices of bacon, toast, and a glass of real milk.
Mrs. Frost never knew that I was often hungry when I entered her class, but I was sure to let her know about Witnesses who had starved to death in German concentration camps. Yes, starvation was a great thing to include in my food essay. My religion thrived on thoughts of persecution, death, despair, and starvation. Oh, how I wanted to please my religion. Pleasing my church assured me that I would survive Armageddon and live in a beautiful new paradise on earth where I would have plenty to eat. Food would be plentiful in the new world. The Jehovah's Witnesses had assured me so.
For Part II to this story, go here.