Things got spiritually rocky after I defied a parochial girls’ school dress code to force attention to church hypocrisies after receiving less-than-satisfactory answers to questions about God and Biblical penalties.
The Red Satin Box
by BETTY L. MARTIN
Glancing neither right nor left and trying in vain to ignore the gasps and whispers around me, I walked straight to my polished yellow desk, my eyes fixed on my teacher at the front of the classroom.
It was the high heels “borrowed” from my mother and foreigners to my feet — along with gut-jerking terror — that made my ankles wobble, my legs feel like melting blocks of ice.
I heard the occasional giggle from my eighth-grade classmates and felt the stings from thirty pairs of eyes, including those of the teacher, Mrs. Eckhardt (Icky, as my friend Gloria and I had labeled her).
On this day, I had hoped Icky and the students — the popular, exclusive circle to those relegated as “cooties” — would see me as something more than Becky Woods, the girl who asked too many questions about God. My deliberately chosen and compiled assessories, along with decidedly non-Gulfview Girls’ Academy alterations to the school uniform, were taking care of that.
Black fish-net stockings held up with rubber bands threatened to cut off circulation in my legs. Blood-red lipstick, inexpertly drawn across my lips, also smeared my cheeks several shades brighter than my own heated flush. Stockings and lipstick had been covertly purchased with allowance money earned from two weeks of washing dinner dishes. Charcoal from art class turned my eyes to sooty smudges like two holes burned in a blanket.
The high heels completed the look, along with safety pins that raised the length of my school uniform skirt. Stockings, lipstick, charcoal, safety pins — all had been carefully hidden for weeks at the back of a dresser drawer, ready for today’s debut.
Thirty minutes before class, I’d made my metamorphosis as fast as I could manage in a stall of the girls’ restroom. I had wished for access to a dress with ostrich feathers or black lace and satin for this occasion. But I’d had to make my adjustments with the limited means and and time, using the school uniform that would raise no questions from mama on the way to school.
Unfortunately, rapidly raising the bottom of the skirt three forbidden inches above the knees instead of the requisite two inches below them resulted in a series of plaid semi-circle loops. It looked more like the creation of a blind seamstress than what I’d imagined to be the outfit of a tart, my prime objective.
“Girls, we will now kneel for morning prayer,” Icky said as she did at eight o’clock every Monday through Friday. Nothing about Icky’s demeanor indicated this was any different than any other morning. She looked as she always did, her tight bun without a single hair askew, the wooden ruler she carried in her white-cuffed hand to rap the knuckles of those misguided enough to be caught whispering or passing notes. Those were the offenses considered to be the worst committed at Gulfview.
Until this morning.
There was a rustle as students obediently kneeled beside their desks. They placed their hands together in preparation for Icky’s routinely lengthy wages-of-sin sermon delivered as prayer.
During today’s prayer, shorter than usual, I remained seated, hands in my lap, eyes open and riveted on Icky.
“Dear lord, today we pray that we may be model students who employ and exemplify the Christian teachings we have learned in this classroom and in Sunday School and church,” the teacher began.
“If there is one among us who does not welcome the Christian spirit and blood sacrifice of the lord Jesus Christ — a student who has shut the door on His eternal love and who is, right this minute, opening that door to Satan — may she see the light and return to the fold in time to save her immortal soul from the fires of hell. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”
I counted each of the four times her teacher opened her eyes to narrow slits, peeking at me while communing with the Almighty. Was that a sin, too?, I wondered. It seemed that most everything was, and that most everyone on earth was bound for hell no matter how good they were inside or how many good deeds they did.
For an hour each day, Gulfview students in first through the twelfth grades were instructed in the teachings of the Bible. Biblical lessons also made appearances throughout English, math, science, history, art and playground activities.
Dancing was a sin. Makeup — even dotted on to minimize the appearance of pimples — was a sin. Not going to church was a big sin and not paying ten percent of her allowance for tithes was a sin, too.
Eating pork was a sin and going to the movies — even the new movie, “Ten Commandments” with the yummy Charlton Heston as Moses — could send viewers to hell. Thinking of Charlton’s bare shoulders as he worked the mud pits in the movie was definitely not the thoughts of the angels I was supposed to immulate.
The only way to ensure salvation, it seemed, was to be a martyr and praise God while suffering the agonies of all manner of tortures inflicted by the unGodly on the true believers. I worried about this a lot, since I was particularly susceptible to pain and cried like a baby when the dentist tightened my metal braces.
I had so many questions about heaven and hell, creation, good and evil, and I knew if I could get the popular girls to ask the right questions, I would get my answers. Nobody, not even Icky, ignored Mary Ellen Summers and Janice O’Neal and others included in the hallowed circle who were mostly daughters of church deacons or officers.
I wasn’t among their ranks. I’d sent off my twenty-five cents to the advice columnist Ann Landers for her pamphlet, “How to be Popular,” but the advice — first be a friend to make a friend — seemed sadly lacking in hints on actual application at Gulfview.
I finally got an idea of how to unite the Gulfview eighth-graders in philosophical discussion about their religion after seeing daddy drawing up blueprints to build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
Harvey Woods was concerned about news articles detailing the communist’s launch of Sputnik. He was convinced America’s days were numbered. Her mother was equally convinced, though she thought the end of days would come when God returned to earth in heavenly clouds of glory.
“I’m going to write a newspaper,” I confided to Gloria after church. “I want to write down all my questions about God and sin and — first of all — how the entire world could possibly be created in seven days.”
Gloria, who shared Becky’s status as a social misfit — so many rungs below the cool-girl circle as to not be on the same map — also shared my failure to be picked until the last moment for sports or recess activities. But she didn’t join me in my sense of urgency about getting answers to questions regarding creation and the wages of sin.
I was too tall and gawky in a world where petite Sandra Dee made the cover of teen magazines (reading them, another sin). Gloria’s parents were divorced. No one talked about it in front of Gloria or me, but everyone knew that divorce was about as huge as you could get in the sin department. Divorce and Ouija boards, cursing and drinking. And being a Communist, whatever that was.
Definitely these were among the “paving stones to hell,” to borrow one of Icky’s favorite phrases.
I liked Ruth Marie Greer, Gloria’s mom. She was a florist and their house always smelled like the fresh outdoors. I wished the other ladies wouldn’t freeze her out like they did at church.
That injustice, I thought, would be on the lengthy list of injustices by the so-called righteous that would go in my new newspaper.
When I finally got on my editorial hat, I didn’t stop writing until I had created two newspapers from folded-over sheets from a Big Chief notebook. The first addressed the topics of makeup, dancing and the timeline for hell. Did you have to spend five seconds, minutes, weeks or eternity in hell for just putting makeup on a single zit?
I illustrated the story with drawings, art class being the one subject in which I excelled. In one pencil drawing, a girl with bad skin was singing in heaven, while in another frame, a clear-faced girl, thanks to makeup, was enduring relentless fires of damnation.
The caption below the drawings put the case to the reader: “Is this fair?”
I thought that if put to the honesty test, I might consider a second or two of hell in exchange for getting rid of obnoxious pimples. But who knew how long anyone was relegated to the fiery furnace part?
Gloria thought the newspaper was brilliant but didn’t think I should show it to anyone lest I court trouble. I was also reluctant to pass it on to the members of the divine circle. Anyway, I was much happier about the second edition of what was now called “Ask! (And Ye Shall Receive).”
It included my drawing of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and accompanied my story that posed the question I considered the world’s deepest, most complex theological problem. If God created animals on the fifth twenty-four-hour day and mankind on the sixth day before kicking back for his single holiday, wouldn’t that give T-Rex exactly twenty-four hours to hatch from an egg and grow to adulthood before Adam showed up on the scene?
A short story about the Biblical passages that told the tale of King David dancing for joy in the streets questioned dancing as a sin. I prominently noted for my so-far-nonexistent readership that nowhere did the Bible indicate that God burned up David for that dance, either.
In the same issue, I included an incident that had happened in church that week, when two black women had visited our all-white congregation. All the pews were filled but one, where the two ladies sat alone. It wasn’t like there were other places to sit. The church had been so crowded that people stood in the back near the baby cry room and the used clothing mission pantry, but no one availed themself of the ample room near the new visitors.
When I asked mama about why the ladies had gone away clutching handkerchiefs to their eyes, mama explained that the pastor had taken care of the matter.
“The pastor reminded them that they have their own church across town,” mama said. “So you don’t have to be bothered with that. Our church is not — and will not be — integrated.”
I knew it would be foolish to pass around a newspaper if the answers were at the tip of Icky’s tongue, so I braved the questions to the teacher at recess. Her response — or lack of it — was not impresesive. In fact, I felt so dismayed that I was compelled to include Icky’s remarks about dinosaurs and King David’s dancing as quotes in “Ask!”.
“David was thinking of God when he danced, his dancing was a tribute to the joy that God brings us, so that made it all right,” Icky had told her.
I wrote in my newspaper that, by that reasoning, boys and girls could dance to “Jail House Rock” as long as they held Bibles in their hands and thought about God a lot.
Icky had seemed more certain about the dinosaur-mankind timeline.
“If there wasn’t time for dinosaurs to roam the earth, then there were no dinosaurs,” she said
“But scientists have found dinosaur bones…”
“Planted by the devil to confuse people about God’s creation,” Icky said. “Many scientists are well known to be minions of Satan.”
I was delighted to be able to include that ground-breaking information in the second issue of “Ask!”.
That would have ended the matter, had I been less proud of my product and determined to show it to as many girls in my class as possible.
Which is how Mary Ellen Summers and Janice O’Neal got a hand-printed copy and recognized it as the gold it would certainly be in getting me into big trouble.
“Of course I’ll read it,” Mary Ellen told me. “There are a lot of questions that the Bible doesn’t seem to answer. I think you’re right to ask and I’ll help.”
True to her word, Mary Ellen did read it and shared what she had read with Janice, who pronounced that I was undisputably bound for hell.
After some discussion between themselves and other classmates, members of the divine circle agreed that taking the paper to Icky was the only correct choice.
“I think it’s what Jesus would want us to do,” Janice said.
Icky quickly let me know that reading, let alone writing, a newspaper was “worldly” and being worldly was, of course, a sin.
“But everything can’t be evil,” I said. “Everything can’t be a sin. If we can’t dance and sing and cut our hair or put makeup on a pimple, what would we do in heaven?”
Icky let me know that in heaven, all is perfect and there are no pimples or people who write newspapers, either.
“The road to salvation is strait and narrow,” Icky told her. “And you are in real danger of falling by the wayside, of being caught in Satan’s many traps.”
“But if God made everything, didn’t he make Satan, too?” I asked, mentally beginning to work on “Ask!” issue number three. “And if he knows the beginning and end of everything, why can’t he just poof all the saved people to heaven now and not have us go through hurricanes and child death and head colds?”
Icky sent me home with a sealed note for my parents that I had opened before it reached the hands of Martha and Harvey Woods. In it, Icky expressed her concerns about my questions and tendancy to rebel, symptoms that could mean I was beginning a wayward descent. A conference was recommended, one to be arranged urgently, with the last word underlined three times.
Conversation in the Woods household was heated the night mama met with Icky earlier at the school. Daddy, who to his wife’s dismay attended “the church of the stars and the planets” whenever he went night fishing, considered the matter serious — but in an entirely different light than did mama and Icky.
“What kind of an education is she getting at that pricey private school, anyway?” he bellowed from the kitchen table, “Everybody knows there were dinosaurs. Saying the devil planted fake bones is just stupid. And that woman calls herself a teacher.”
“The point isn’t about dinosaurs, it’s Becky’s inability to accept the teachings of the Bible,” mama cried while I listened from a crack in my bedroom door. “And it’s about what Mrs. Eckhardt feels may be a tendancy toward dramatizing herself. Rebecca doesn’t get along with the other girls, either. And where, do you suppose, does she get her anti-church leanings? It’s certainly not my side of the family tree.”
“Humph,” said daddy, returning to his bomb shelter plans.
“If you went to church once in a while, maybe we wouldn’t have a heretic for a daughter,” mama snapped. “I pray to God that she won’t turn into a harlot from all those Elvis records she listens to.”
Mama had gone on about Elvis since the family watched him on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” shaking his hips like a demon before she had time to get up and change the channel.
I wondered about harlots and Mary Magdelene. If Jesus liked being friends with scarlet women so much, why weren’t they guaranteed a pathway on the heavenly streets of gold on which to ply their trade?
This infant idea grew in my head until I could think of nothing but finding an outfit — the kind of special outfit her daddy said were worn by women who liked to stand on streetcorners. Wearing something like that, I thought, would be dramatic enough to force Icky to tell the truth.
Four weeks later, I sat at my desk, rubber bands digging into my thighs as Icky’s prayer ended and the girls resumed their seats. Outwardly, I was rigid as stone as Icky instructed the class to read to themselves the specified chapters of Leviticus. Then Icky left the room.
I sat without touching my little white leather Bible, starring straight ahead at the blackboard, knowing that Icky had gone to the head mistress about me. Indeed, when Icky stuck her head in the door, it was to summon me from class and to escort me to Mrs. Wales’s office.
I’d never in my life been in such trouble as to merit a visit to Mrs. Wales’s office. My only other visit to that august presence had been to receive a prize for a fourth-grade art project. So it was a surprise to find the lady looking so stern.
“Sit down, Rebecca,” Mrs. Wales said cooly after Icky left to return to her classroom. “I see you are in violation of Gulfview’s dress code, among other infractions you have committed in recent weeks.”
Underneath Mrs. Wales’ folded hands were hand-drawn copies of both of my newspapers.
“Have you ever seen what happens to a barrel of healthy, juicy apples when one of the apples has a worm inside?” Mrs. Wales asked softly.
“No, I’ve only been to my grandparents’ farm and they don’t grow apples.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what happens. The worm grows and makes more worms and they get into the other apples. In the end, the apples that were healthy are just as rotten, just as — let us say tainted — as the first wormy apple.”
There was silence as I adjusted my thinking to agriculture and to recognize myself as the wormy apple under discussion.
“So what would you do when you find a barrel of good apples contains one apple with a worm inside?” Mrs. Wales smiled encouragingly.
“Throw the bad apple away?”
“Exactly!” Mrs. Wales smiled as if I had just won another prize. “And why would you throw the bad apple away?”
I suddenly realized that this would be my last day at Gulfview. That whatever life held for me, it was likely that I wasn’t going to be a missionary or a deaconess in the church.
“You would throw the bad apple away because you don’t want to infect the good apples,” Mrs. Wales said. “You don’t want the good apples to become as diseased, as tainted and rotten as the apple with a worm at its core.”
I burst into tears, unaware that the carefully applied charcoal was making its way down my cheeks along with the flood of tears, as Mrs. Wales called mama and asked her to come and get her daughter who was expelled from school.
“I just wanted to know about the dinosaurs and David dancing and why the black ladies didn’t have anybody to sit with them,” I sobbed.
But Mrs. Wales was busy on the phone to Martha Woods.
“Yes, Mrs. Woods, I think expulsion, in this case, is for the best,” Mrs. Wales said to the phone receiver. “Perhaps Rebecca will flourish in public school, where God and his commandments are not regarded as highly or as important as they are in Gulfview.”
Over the next two decades, I did go to public school, then a university and into a career in journalism. I worked as a reporter and editor. One of a series of articles I’d penned, “Organized Religion: The Last Bastion of Segregation?”, won a state prize in the mid-sized newspaper category for features.
In my later career as a travel writer, I got to visit and write about the main attractions and backroad finds in various countries. I found that I enjoyed discovering cultural wonders, including the architectural beauty with which people expressed their faiths.
In my quest to learn about the precepts of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Shintoism and and every other religion she could find, I was insatiable. I always made a point to stop in at shrines, synagogues, mosques and churches.
I never again set foot inside Gulfview or any other fundamentalist church except for the day my daughter married a good man who happened to be a member of a such a church. Even then, the mother of the bride sat on the back row so that she could leave for the reception as soon as the pronouncement of marriage was made.
My college-age grandson Harvey Junior asked me one day why I volunteered my spare time in nonprofit groups opposed to vouchers that would funnel public funds into private parochial schools.
It was time for the red box, I thought, and quietly went into my spare bedroom and retrieved from a large black brass-bound trunk a recepticle containing sheets of folded rice paper. Inside were the surviving Red Chief notepaper copies of “Ask! And Ye Shall Receive.”
She also handed her grandson a yellowing, typewritten letter that had been tucked in with her first newspapers. The letter, dated April 27, 1958, was addressed to thirteen-year-old Rebecca Woods from the church’s board of directors. There were also several small empty packets that fell in his lap as he unfolded the letter.
It has been several weeks since your expulsion from Gulfview Girls Academy. We, the church elders, hope you have had time to reflect on why your expulsion was necessary, given your obstinate refusal to seek a Christ-like demeanor and way of life.
It has come to our attention that you have continued to attend both Sunday School and regular church services. Unfortunately, your presence in light of your recent expulsion has caused great comment and concern on the part of our congregation. Your attendance, and your continual questioning of the scripture, is disruptive to others and counterproductive to those who earnestly come to our church in search of God’s holy word.
We must ask that you please stop attending services at our church. We are certain that given time, you will find your own church denomination that perhaps is a better fit for your doubting nature.
Church Board Members
P.S. Enclosed with this letter you will find 12 tithing envelopes pre-addressed to the church. All you need do is to place a stamp on the envelop each month and enclose your 10 percent tithe that God requires. It will go toward the church and school maintenance funds. We believe it is little enough to ask for He who has given so much.”
When Harvey Jr. finished reading, I put the dozen tithing envelopes back in the folds of the letter and placed it among the “Ask!” newspapers and the rice paper covering.
Then I replaced it all inside a special container I had purchased years earlier, a receptacle I thought well-suited for holding those particular contents.
It was a faded red lacy satin box topped with a pair of praying hands constructed entirely of plastic.