Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nonbeliever

When I was a kid, I was more of a believer. I remembering praying very hard to God in the dark as I lay in my narrow little colonial-style bed with the drawers under the mattress that contained my winter clothes, staring up at the ceiling, straight through the pink insulation in the attic and the asphalt tiles on the roof, up through the bracing air of the autumnal Connecticut stars and moonlight, straight up to God in his unimaginably bright and clean cloud palace in Heaven, and asking him to give me the ability to fly. (I never got my wish; I got dreams instead: dreams where I hovered over the ground, and if I waved my arms a bit, I floated even higher up, my ascent and descent magnificently gradual and gentle. I still get these dreams.)

It was around this time, or not long after, when my parents were still taking us to a Sunday school in Hartford where we memorized surahs and got G.I. Joe’s for learning how to pray, that I had my first experience with the denial of my belief. Our fourth grade class at my Connecticut public school had opened up to the chapter on world religions in our social studies book. I don’t remember much about that segment of our social studies class. I think we touched ever so briefly on the existence of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, after more detailed discussions of Christianity and Judaism.

At the beginning of our discussion of Islam, our teacher decided it would be a good idea to ask the entire class if anyone present was a Muslim. This was a pretty weird question for her to ask, as she had to know that there were, in the suburban Connecticut classroom in 1983, maybe one or two Jewish kids, with the rest being Christian. I was, conspicuously brown and Indian-looking -- despite the disguise of my blue velour shirt, green corduroy pants, and Keds -- clearly the only possible candidate to raise my hand, though I don’t know that my teacher ever really knew what religion I was for sure.

After she had asked the question, it hung in the air, directly over my head, as my teacher pretended to look around the room for a raised hand declaring belief in Allah. The blond, hazel-eyed, and freckled kids in front of me turned around to see if I would raise my hand (they weren’t sure what I was either). I sat with my eyes fixed on my textbook, specifically (as I remember it) on a little square picture in the margin of thousands of people swirling around the Kaaba in Mecca. My velour shirt suddenly felt very hot and I broke into a sweat. Our teacher continued to wait – I felt her gaze light upon me a couple times, expectantly – as I roiled inside with my first kiddie crisis of faith. Was I a Muslim? Was I willing to out myself in front of my class of clean, virtuous, Easter-egg hunting, Santa-hugging classmates? Would the other kids think I was an airplane hijacker or embassy hostage-taker? Would I have to go to the front of the class and do a show and tell, maybe prostrate to the ground, facing east and mumbling Arabic to demonstrate the mysterious ways of the Muslim – all for educational purposes? Would I be sent to the Principal’s office?

As I remember it, I broke into a sweat as my teacher waited for a response. I swear, she must have waited about a minute, during which time I never raised my eyes. She finally relented, said something to the effect of, “Well, I guess not, then,” and proceeded with the lesson. I was left to remember my cowardice forever.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven myself for being too timid to raise my hand in that class. Looking back, I guess it is entirely understandable that I wouldn’t want to single myself out as some kind of weirdo, but my failure of nerve still rankles. I often think back on that moment, and I often wonder if that experience didn’t have a lot to do with my later shift into agnosticism. Probably not – it’s not surprising that someone raised Muslim (or Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish, for that matter) in America in the 70’s and 80’s would eventually lose faith: my moment of cowardice was probably just a symptom, not a cause. Still, that moment has stuck with me, as have my teacher’s and my classmates’ expectant, disappointed gazes, their eyes asking, “Well, what are you then?”

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