“My God Is Better Than Your God!” (Or, Applying the Lessons Learned from a 20th-Century First-Grade Bickering Match to the World of 2018)

For the most part, Anita and I got along.  She lived just up the road from me, and we went to the same school.  In first grade, we were paired as deskmates in Mrs. Northrup’s class.  Mrs. Northrup was known to be an old-school, no-nonsense teacher, so on the first day of class, Anita and I resolved to work together and try to get through the grind with honors.

It went well for about a month.  Then, on a sparkling October morning, Mrs. Northrup came to class bearing gifts, and doling out treats.  Cookies!  Home-baked!  She told us she was pleased so far with the progress of the class, and this was a small way of showing her appreciation–though she did issue a warning, along with the sweets: “I expect each of you to keep up the good work,” she said, her thick-rimmed glasses low on her nose as she looked out over the room.  “Let’s not get sloppy and forget why we’re here—to learn.”  Anita looked at me and smiled, then rolled her eyes. Just give me my cookie, her eye roll said, loud and clear.

 

I wasn’t going to poke holes in that logic.  It sounded good to me.  And I indeed wolfed down three cookies, in rapid succession.  I ate so fast, I’d made something of a mess, so I licked the tip of my index finger and used it to pick up the rogue crumbs that had scattered over my half of the desk; then I licked the crumbs clear off my finger.  All done.

 

That’s when I realized Anita was staring at me.

“What?” I said.

“That’s not right,” she said.  She looked genuinely upset.  Meanwhile, all around us, our classmates chewed and laughed and talked, while Mrs. Northrup kept glancing at the clock high on the wall at the back of the room.  I kept expecting her to break in and say, “Cookies down, books open!”  But so far, she just stood there, waiting.  She didn’t eat any of the cookies herself.

 

Truth be told, I almost wished she would announce the cookie party was over.  That way, maybe, we could get back to work and Anita would stop glaring at me.

“What is it?” I asked her again.  “What isn’t right?”

“Your fingers,” she said, her voice dripping with disgust.  “You licked them!”

“So?”

“So,” she said, as if addressing a one-year-old, “you aren’t supposed to lick your fingers.  That’s what napkins are for.”  Here, she held up her napkin.  Indeed, I had one, too.  Mrs. Northrup had made sure each student had one.  “It’s just wrong using your fingers like that.  It’s a sin.”

 

A sin?  I knew Anita belonged to a different religion–Jehovah’s Witness.  She was the only Jehovah’s Witness in the class—and she never participated in holiday celebrations or birthdays.  I remembered feeling bad for her the previous year, during kindergarten, off by herself while the rest of us played and ate and had fun.  But I’d never talked to her about it.  Until now.

 

“Yes,” she said.  “It’s a sin to be sloppy and disgusting.  And that’s what you just were!  Is that what they teach you in your church?”

My church growing up was Catholic.  But I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, and surely never thought twice about licking my fingers!

 

“I always knew it,” she said.  “My God is better than your God.”

“What?” I said.  And then I told her she was wrong.  My God was better than hers; she had it backward.

We went at it for a couple of minutes, neither of us yielding or giving an inch.  We raised our voices.  Anita stuck her tongue out.  So did I.

Suddenly, there was the sound of someone clearing her throat. Mrs. Northrup.  She was standing beside our desk, a scowl on her face.

“If the two of you feel the need to yell and act like toddlers, I think you can do that just as well in the hall.”  And with that, she kicked us out of the classroom.

“Regular class resumes in five minutes,” she told us.  “You work out your differences in the hall, and then I’ll collect you when it’s time.  And when I do, you better behave.  Do you both understand?”

We did.  Mrs. Northrup was not to be trifled with.

Mrs. Northrup’s classroom was at the end of the hall, and there was a bay window there, below which sat an old radiator, a clunky monstrosity—presently not running—that appeared as though it had been installed decades prior.  But it was positioned directly under the bay window at the end of the hall—an inviting perch.  Anita and I hopped up, sat on the sill above it, the sunshine streaming through the window warming our backs.

 

We just sat there, swinging our feet.  Ahead of us, the hallway was empty, just a dull-gray floor lined with closed classroom doors.  Even the janitor, old Mr. Roberts, was nowhere to be seen.

 

I felt bad.  I think Anita did, too.  I felt stupid.  What a stupid fight!  And then I just said something—I can’t remember what, and we talked.  About small things, little things . . . and yet everything.  The animosity that had existed between us mere minutes ago was gone, evaporated like morning dew in the rising warmth.  And when Mrs. Northrup emerged from our classroom five minutes later, punctual as always, Anita and I quietly followed her in and went to our desk.

 

Throughout the rest of the day, and the weeks and months beyond, Anita and I had no more run-ins, no more shouting matches.  We never openly apologized to each other.  We didn’t have to.

But the next time we had cookies, I was sure to use my napkin.

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In some ways, that experience I shared with Anita so many Octobers ago, before the advent of smartphones or digital tablets or Netflix, seems inconsequential—just a couple of little kids fighting about something neither of them understood.  But then, as I reexamine it, turn it over in my mind, suddenly there is a larger theme afoot.

 

When she brought up “her God,” and I rebutted with “my God,” the two of us were instantly polarized.  There was no middle ground to be found in those tense moments when we bickered, cookies on our breath.  She was in her corner.  I was in mine.  And we were determined to prove who was right and who was wrong.  This polarization, this us-against-them mind-set, also summarizes much of what we’re seeing in the world today.  Certainly, in the United States, fellow Americans are at each other’s throats.  Sure, there has always been division and discord, animosity and open, outright hostility.  This is not new.  But the extent of the division, the vitriol, the tribalism that has emerged and thrived in recent years is as widespread as it is alarming.

 

Who’s right, and who’s wrong?  I have strong views on the matter, and surely, so do you.  But a big part of the problem is the growing, yawning gap between us.  All you have to do to see the ugliness, the hate, the anger is log onto Twitter or Facebook, or watch a Senate hearing, or listen to a rally.  Longtime journalist and Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein has described what is presently going on in America as a “cold civil war,” and I believe he is right.

 

But how do we remedy this?  Is there a way to repair the damage, to bridge the gap, and to bring back a means for intelligent, respectful civil discourse? Perhaps a place to start is to realize we have much in common, whether we want to admit it or not, and to endeavor to see our “opponents” not so much as enemies as fellow human beings.  This is where first-graders seem to have more understanding than adults.  Yes, Anita and I, all those years ago, engaged in a childish, fact-free argument.  Again, tune in to the cable news or social media, and you will find we adults are often no better or wiser, and often far worse.  But what Anita and I were able to do was transcend the moment.  When we were ushered into the hall, we didn’t continue to debate.  We didn’t try to one-up each other.  We just sat there and talked; we remembered our friendship, the things that we shared as opposed to the things that divided us, and we moved on.  Perhaps it was easier because we were children.  Perhaps when you’re five or six years old, the essentials in life, the things that matter, are not always so hidden or locked away behind bars of prejudices or hatreds or grudges or polemical ideologies.

 

Perhaps the kids—both the kids of today, as well as the kids we ourselves used to be—have a lot they can teach us.

*************************

Anita and I continued on in school together straight through graduation.  She was my deskmate again, seven grades later, in our junior-high Earth Science class the day The Challenger space shuttle exploded.  And a few years ago, we met at a high school reunion.  It was the first time we’d caught up with each other since our senior year.  But the words flowed easily, as we talked and laughed and reminisced.

Not once did we discuss whose God was better than whose.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Into the Dark (Or, Braving the Basement at Night)

Growing up, I had something of a love/hate relationship with the basement.  Though perhaps “hate” isn’t the most appropriate word.  It was more like fear–a fear of what might be lurking in the shadows.  I believed in monsters, that was certain, and ghosts, and goblins who dwelled in cobwebby corners, their feral eyes gleaming.  Not to mention the living doll.  I had encountered her face-to-face!

 

And yet, for all of that, I loved the basement, too.  It was a quiet, cool place to escape to, to think and reflect and imagine.  Several of my earliest short stories were birthed down there.  I’d head down the flight of stairs, shoot some pool on the bumper-pool set, maybe mess around with my brother’s weights, or just poke through the canned goods my parents kept on the wooden shelf lodged tight against the front wall.

 

Oh, and I’d turn on the light switch, too.  That was the first thing I did.  The switch was right at the base of the stairs, so I didn’t need to journey into the basement itself to flick on the light.  Nor would I have.  The only time I felt bold enough to brave the basement in the dark was when my friends were over–the same friends who inspired the characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  On those occasions, we’d play “Rubber Animals,” a kind of hide-and-seek affair where one team would hole away and the other team would pursue, armed with numerous rubber snakes and giant rubber insects that, when whipped at you from close range, would sting and sometimes leave a bruise.  “Ow!” we’d hear, in the dark, after a rubber rattlesnake found its mark.  We’d usually play at night, in the pitch-blackness.  When an animal missed its target, it would crash into the wall or against the pool table.  Thud!  Whomp!  Sounds in the dark.

 

One night, however, when I was eleven years old, I decided to go for it.  To be brave.  To face the dark heart of the basement, alone.  No friends around to protect me and insulate me from the unknown.  No strength in numbers.  Just me, and my fear.  Just me and the dark.

 

It was late–a weeknight in midsummer, after midnight.  I’d been in bed, waiting for the entire family to turn in.  My parents went to bed early.  My two older brothers stayed up later, and my sister latest of all.  I remember the light from the living room filtering in through the slight crack in my bedroom door, the low, muted undertone of the television, and wishing my sister would hurry up and shut it off and retreat down the hall to her room.

 

Then, finally.  It went quiet, and the lights went out.  I heard my sister’s footsteps, softly, tiptoeing, fading.  The sound of her door across the hall, shutting.  The house lay in darkness, the night beyond the walls thick and heavy with July humidity and buzzing with the serenade of crickets.  The whine of a late-night motor drove past, down the street, temporarily drowning out the crickets.  Moments later, they were back, playing their unseen fiddles in the grass.

 

I waited–a minute, maybe two.  Just to be sure.  Then I hopped out of bed, slowly opened my bedroom door, hoping the squeaky hinges wouldn’t be overheard.  Down the hall, through the living room, the kitchen . . . to the top of the basement stairs.  Up here, there was a night-light on the wall, giving the room a faint orangish glow.  But when I looked down the stairs, into the basement, there was only a Stygian veil, black as the moonless night.

 

“Why am I doing this?” I said aloud.  But I knew.  I felt foolish for fearing the dark, for imagining things that couldn’t be real, for being afraid of a space and a portion of the house that I loved–in the daylight.  “When you’re afraid of something,” my teacher had told the class that spring, “the best thing you can do is confront it.  Lots of times, you’ll find that what you were so scared of is really nothing to be scared of at all.”  Lots of times.  What about the other times, though?  The times when what you fear turns out to be even worse than you imagined?  What then?

 

“Shut up,” I whispered.  “Just do it.”

I took a step down, then another, plunging into the dark.

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There are times in life when we’re at a crossroads, when the decision we know we need to take feels harder than administering our own, unmedicated root canal.  In times like these, it is tempting to bail, to waver, to rationalize a path of least resistance.  “No one will even notice if I don’t do it.”  “Why should I be the one?  Leave it to somebody else.  I have enough stress in my life already.”  “But what’s the point?  No one will listen to me anyway.”  Or, if hemming and hawing about a piece of writing:  “Why submit it?  It’ll just get rejected.”  Why go for that job interview?  Why report that crime?  Why confront that person with the cold, unvarnished truth?  Isn’t it easier to just withdraw and hunker down and look the other way?

 

But, if something’s important–it won’t let go.  It will claw and dig in, and will not let us alone.  It will demand release, insist on action, urge us forward, no matter the resistance. Just like what happens with Mitchell Brant, in The Singularity Wheel.  He knows he must see Heather again, find out how she feels, if what they had shared before, five years earlier, is enduring and real; or fleeting, like an errant wish.  Or Joe Marma when confronted with the mental image of his brother telling him to deal with the ugly, inconvenient truth about his pursuit of a football scholarship.  Or Ryan Swinton finding the courage to “play a trick” on Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl,” to save them all.  Or Marc Kuslanski daring to approach his mom and brave the wrenching conversation they’ve been avoiding since his brother’s accident.

 

None of this is easy.  None of it is a “want to.”  But they realize they cannot run, cannot duck forever.  They each need to face their personal Cerberus.

 

Eventually, we all do.

****************************

As I climbed back up the stairs, emerging from the darkness below, I forced myself not to go too fast, not to ruin it at the end–but to walk slowly, step by step, unwavering.  I had explored all corners of the basement, no matter how sinister or menacing.  I even dared to journey to the very back, by my father’s old workbench, a place where, I was sure, little boys went to die.  I didn’t know how long I’d been down there–it felt like hours, in the dark.  (Moments later, I would learn, upon checking the wall clock, that it had been merely ten minutes.)

 

But as I reached the safety and security of the kitchen, finally back at ground level, none of that mattered.  Ten minutes or ten years–who cared?  I had made it.  I had gone into the after-midnight basement and returned, unharmed and whole.

I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and walked through the kitchen, down the hall, to my bedroom.

Shortly after falling into bed, I drifted into a sound sleep undisturbed by the specter of dreams.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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