After reading this diary by Hunter about a state legislator in Texas trying to make it legal for only Hanukah and Christmas scenes in Texas schools, and listening to the arguments this past week about bringing God back into schools through prayer (because, if the shooters had to pray in schools, they somehow would be taught morality), I felt sick. Why? I know what it’s like (to a much lesser degree than Muslims and other non-Christians) to feel the sting of prejudice for religious practices not in line with the majority of those around me.
I grew up in a small community in Wyoming. Other places in the state nicknamed it “Little Utah” because of the large Mormon population. My parents moved there when I was three, looking for a place other than “overpopulated” California to lay down roots. We had no idea that Mormonism was such a heavy influence in the area—while my mother had difficulty finding a church that was not LDS and finally settled on a Baptist congregation, it did not really register how many Mormons were living in the area until I entered kindergarten.
The first day of school was fun for me, other than the fact that the kids kept asking me what Ward I was in. I kept asking what a Ward was. I had no idea. I surely asked my parents when I got home, but it was not until much later I really understood LDS church divisions. The next day I eagerly returned to school, ready to play with my new friends, and found each little child unwilling to speak to me. A couple told me that their parents told them to stay away from me because I wasn’t Mormon.
That set the stage for my entire K-12 schooling.
I did eventually make friends, but I sat low on the totem pole of popularity because I was not Mormon. Those friends ceaselessly tried to convert me because they were so concerned about my soul—I could not get into the highest level of heaven without being a Mormon and marrying a return missionary, after all.
I constantly had parents try to convert me. I sat through so many videos about the Mormonism during sleepovers it boggles the mind. The one I remember best described how souls are waiting to be born in heaven, and each woman has an allotted number of souls to birth. The reason Mormons have so many kids is to make up for those who are too selfish to have the number of kids they are supposed to have. It showed how tragic it would be for a particular soul not to be born, despite waiting years to be born. In my opinion, that represented a terrible type of God, but I never dared voice that. Why? I found out pretty quickly that the faith of my friends was far greater in their life than our friendship. When I mentioned the cruel words and absolutely devastating attacks by other students and their parents on my character simply because I was not Mormon (which included, but is not limited to, telling me to stay away from their kids due to my bad influence in being a different religion, that I drank and smoked and had sex with every boy because I was not Mormon, etc.) I was always told Mormons don’t act that way and my pain immediately dismissed from their minds. I therefore remained quiet because to speak up only led to anger and disbelief—and I hated them thinking I lied.
Concern with my eternal soul spilled over into class, where I had teachers (who were nearly all Mormon) and the students together try to convince me how superior Mormon belief was. That was how I learned about Baptism of the Dead and that, even if I did not join their religion, they would force it on me in death. Only a few refused this shallow attempt at conversion, and were, obviously, the better teachers. The high school counselor was one of the worst offenders. From my freshman to my senior years (1987-1991), he always told me the only available extra class to take was Mormon Seminary, and I felt offended time and again by this suggestion. I refused and demanded a secular class—I had no want to “understand” more about the Mormon religion because I knew that was not what I would learn if I attended. No attempts by the counselor to thrust me in it worked (I was a very stubborn kid). You see, my school had 7 classes—6 for school, 1 for Mormon Seminary. It was expected that students would attend Mormon Seminary—it was a required class for the Mormons (in my graduating class, only 4 out of 125 students were Mormon, which tells you how Mormon-centric the curriculum was). Luckily I knew enough about how public schools worked that I knew I could not be required to attend a strictly religious class, and continuously battled the counselor over it. In the end, he would grudgingly find another class, usually one taught by a teacher who did not like me for religious reasons and my grades suffered accordingly—which did eventually end up harming my chances to get into a better school than the University of Wyoming. There were times I felt utterly defeated but struggled on, writing and drawing to ease my pain.
Mormon Seminary was a very important part of the school day—to the point that the high school orchestra played at Seminary graduation. I refused to participate my senior year—I was too offended by the graduation speech given by an earnest man who had taught the Seminary class the previous year. He spoke about how a young woman was dating someone who was not a return missionary, and when they announced their engagement, her parents turned to their bishop for help. The bishop locked himself in with the girl, in her bedroom, for hours, until finally she came out, crying, and told her parents she would break up with her fiancé. Within six months she was married to a return missionary and within the year, they had their first child. I was offended deeply by this story. I did not really have the words, the concepts, to describe how I felt at the time, but I knew what they had done was so wrong, so abusive. The next year, when the orchestra prepared for the graduation ceremony, I told my music teacher I could not play for the Seminary, and why. He called me a bigot to my face. I was shocked—I had no idea why I was the bigot but the Jehovah’s Witness in class was not. He treated me poorly after that, and even took out a few revenge grades on my brother (those ended with my parents arguing with the principal for hours over how the music teacher graded).
And yes, being a girl in a Mormon community was awful. I had several teachers tell me, because of my gender, I was unable to understand the material (math especially). Mormons saw women as child-bearers, nothing more, and they taught to that end. I had one hell of a time trying to figure out how to go to college, apply, and how to get aid, because the counselor believed women only went to school to get married and why bother going anywhere but Rick’s College, or BYU? Utah schools were acceptable. The counselor even hid requirements for college from me, to the point I struggled my senior year to make up classes I needed to get into any college. I luckily found out about these requirements during one of those recruitment days where colleges had booths set up in the high school gym, and panicked accordingly.
Going to college was a relief. I was not constantly bombarded by attempts at conversion. I was not constantly told I was less for being a different religion, or for being a girl. Being in a public school so devoted to a single religion really screwed me up, to the point that I refused to major in archaeology, my true dream, because I had to take those hard, “you can’t do it because you are a girl” science and math courses. I will regret until the day I die that I opted for the easier English when the art program didn’t want me.
Religion has no place in schools. As I told a friend on Facebook, religion breeds hate and intolerance when in a school setting, and religious discrimination should never be tolerated in our public schools. I deserved freedom from another religion and never got it.
8:16 PM PT: It should read "4 out of 125 were non-Mormon". Thanks to cai for catching that!
10:02 PM PT: well, I'm off to the "world didn't end" club night, so I'll catch up when I get back