My courtship with religious doubt began in middle school, about half-way through the sixth grade.
I was contently oblivious that the seeds of ideological discontent were being sown by the very entity designed to keep me drinking the Jesus-flavored Kool Kid: Sacred Heart Elementary School.
Sacred Heart was also the middle school I attended from the sixth to eighth grade after having moved from LA to Ventura. My prior Catholic educational adventures had treated me well. Having both grown up with my classmates and having boasted the largest Pokemon Card collection in school, my social integration was quite enjoyable.
And while the whole Jesus thing wasn’t as enthralling, having thoughtful, caring teachers made the whole mythology much easier to swallow.
But my days of coddling came to an end as adolescence approached and a new era of Catholic schooling began. My first few weeks of school were fine. I had made the obligatory “Oh, you’re a new kid too?”-friend and aside from a complete inability to catch a football, things were swimming along. I was no longer hot sh-t on campus (by 2001, Charizard cards had lost their social clout on the playground) but I could deal with being the bottom rung on the middle school totem pole.
It didn’t take long for the disillusion to kick in.
Perhaps the first indication that my new educational institution lacked a moral compass, was during a brief lecture on American history that occurred earlier in the year. In an attempt to explain the origins of our country, my teacher asked: “What makes America so unique is that we’re the only country in the world that is compromised of people from so many different countries. We have no native people.”
Confused, disturbed, and with an acute memory of Disney’s Pocahontas in mind, I shot my hand up in the air. “Wait, but what about the Native Americans?” I waited for a response. Silence. My history teacher pursed her lips and opened them slowly. “Well,” she said in complete confidence, “they don’t count.” She continued the lesson without a blink of her mole crusted eyelids.
This was an age before I had fully embraced profanity. And even then, I knew: Oh sh-t.
If the realization that the human beings responsible for my intellectual development had a completely warped sense of reality wasn’t enough to rattle my naive outlook on mankind, then my classmates certainly destroyed what little hope I had left in Sacred Heart.
The first indication that my peers’ lifestyles were not congruent with His way (note the capital ‘H’ for dramatic/religious emphasis), was a discussion I recall overhearing about half way through the year. Two particularly popular girls spent a majority of math class passing notes and whispering to one another. I couldn’t help but take notice.
When they realized I had been watching, one of the girls quickly turned her head in my direction. Emphasizing each syllable like only an entitled and hormonal middle school girl could, she remarked, “The two of US, were just talking about OUR friends with benefits.” She snickered. “Do YOU have one?” They both laughed.
I thought they were acting foolish. Why OF COURSE I had a friend with benefits! I had several in fact! I was very passionate about volunteering for special needs children. Everybody needs a friend right?
It didn’t take long for me to realize “friends with benefits” wasn’t another term for special needs children. Nor was it a concept I was familiar with. The two girls were speechless, their superior attitudes gone, almost as if my ignorance had inspired a bout of sympathy. They looked me square in the eye, began explaining, and subsequently changed my outlook on the human race. Two words: knowledge bomb.
“What!? You mean, people do that when they’re not dating!? You mean, before they’re married?! Just with anyone?! You have more than one!? But how?! Where?! OH GOD.” Embarrassed and anxious, I continued with my long division, with an overwhelming urge to run home, hug my parents and take a chastity vow.
I had accepted that sexual activity was a fact of life for quite sometime. After all, the birds and bees talk happens much younger when your mom is therapist like mine is. However, I had not accepted the fact that my peers had made a game of it. I could barely handle the anxiety that comes with a round of ‘Mortal Kombat’, let alone trying to ‘score some’. Overhearing my classmates’ forays into the awkward world of middle school hook ups continued to make me uncomfortable but it also became increasingly bearable. That is until the last week of sixth grade, when my world fell apart.
During an assembly, two of my classmates (a boy and a girl) went to the front of the auditorium to discuss an upcoming event on our campus. I immediately heard snickers behind me. My inductive reasoning was at least sharp enough to connect the dots: these two were romantically involved. Or at minimum, friends with benefits (excellent example of using new vocabulary properly). It seemed like normal middle school banter until I clearly heard the boy behind me, “Yeah and she totally gave him a blow job.”
Being the curious and foolish child that I was, I turned around. “Really? That’s so funny! Why would she style his hair? That seems a little silly to me.” I was so proud of my snarky little remark.
My moment of glory lasted for only a second. I heard an entire group of boys laugh behind me. I turned my entire body around. “Alex, you’re dumb,” a different boy scoffed. ”It has nothing to do with hair. It’s when a girl…” You can fill in the rest. And then: BOOM. My innocence, reason, and general understanding of human physiology went out the window. “WHAT!? IT GOES WHERE!? Who would do that?! Who thought of this!? WHY!? WHY!?”
I went home, gave my grandparents a kiss, and played with my dog. I flirted with the idea of monkhood. It was clear that day had ended my faith in Sacred Heart School.
In retrospect, I might be entirely too dramatic about my middle school years. After all, my mind was bound to be exposed to all of this eventually, right? But while that may be case, being thrown into such a turbulent whirlwind of sex, lies, and Jesus too quickly may have been a bit much for my impressionable psyche.
In the end, though, I turned out all right.
Sure, I may have a paralyzing fear of intimacy and an unhealthy hatred of communion wafers, but who doesn’t come out of middle school a little messed up?