One of the things I loved most about growing up Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) was that I learned so many things I wasn’t supposed to learn.
Lots of kids learn things they aren’t supposed to learn. For instance, I learned things in fifth grade from Delbert Thrash that fifth grade boys shouldn’t learn. I learned why dogs sometimes climb onto the backs of other dogs, and I learned deaf signs for words I wasn’t supposed to know.
Of course, I also learned a lot of things from my uncle Phil, who, I now realize, learned them exactly the same way I did. He learned them because his BPF members told him he really shouldn’t know these things.
For instance, one time we were playing with cars and trucks and pretending to build a road. I said, “Let’s put a dam here.”
Phil, who was four years older than me, and who knew damn well “dam” was a perfectly good word, said, “You can’t say ‘damn.’ It’s a bad word.”
I said, “No, it isn’t. It’s a perfectly good word.” And I proceeded to say it over and over again. “Dam, dam, dam, dam, dam.” Phil, warned me that he was going to tell on me, but I just kept right on damning myself. “Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam.”
He warned me that I was going to get the switch. The switch, I should point out, was a huge branch cut from a mesquite tree which my grandfather kept hanging over the closet door as a reminder of what would happen if errant children crossed one line too many.
Let me segue at this moment, because many of my liberal friends and readers (and liberalism, I should point out, is far too conservative for my tastes) would be horrified by the image of my grandfather switching children with a mesquite branch—which can have thorns as long as two inches.
Those readers clearly don’t understand the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which was prevalent in American politics in the fifties when I grew up (as, I might point out, were TLAs or Three Letter Acronyms). The grandfather variation of MAD was that a child threatened with a mesquite switch would immediately cease to misbehave once warned that a switching was imminent.
And, for the most part, this was true. But I should point out that, when pushed to the test, my grandfather was very good at sleight of hand. He would replace the mesquite switch with a normal one which, since we couldn’t see behind us, still felt as though we had been switched with thorns.
Even this image would horrify some readers, but I survived. And while I would never advocate switching myself, and certainly would never advocate indiscriminate punishment, sometimes time outs and kinder/gentler punishment simply doesn’t work with children determined to push the limits.
Ask my mother.
I should also point out to conservative readers, who feel vindicated that I just gave what they perceive to be a blanket endorsement to corporal punishment, that in my experience to children who believe the rewards of misdeeds outweigh any possible punishment, no punishment is effective.
Ask my mother.
And now back to the story.
Thinking he had me dead to rights, Phil went to my parents and grandparents to tell them about my cursing spree. I knew he was ratting me out, but I had nothing to hide. So I picked up a truck and drove it back and forth across my new building block dam while still saying proudly “dam, dam, dam, dam.”
To my surprise, both parents and grandparents were horrified when they entered the room and heard me saying “dam, dam, dam….” And that’s when I discovered that I was not as immune to judgement as I had believed.
“Phillip,” my mother cried, “what are you saying? At your grandparents’ house?”
So I asked what was wrong with the word “dam.” Didn’t we, in fact, travel to Hoover Dam on one summer vacation?1
That was when I learned there was a bad word, “damn,” spelled with a silent “n.” But were it not for everyone’s overreaction, I would never have known about the word and I would never have spent the rest of our trip silently practicing the ways I could say “damn” when I was out of hearing range. (Damn it, damn you, damn, damn, damn.)
At least not until I met Delbert in the fifth grade. But that’s an altogether different story.
You see, BPFs have to make sure to bring to children’s attention every inappropriate thing that would otherwise pass right over their heads. Sometimes they tell you outright. Some stranger will let a word slip in conversation, or make an inappropriate gesture and they will tell you that, under no circumstances, should you ever do that.
Soon, however, body language is all you need to tip you off that something deliciously forbidden is transpiring. Parents tense up, cast each other meaningful glances, and sometimes even steer you quickly out of the room.
My mother continued these practices with my own son and nieces. If we watched a movie where something inappropriate occurred, she would be sure to rush to the VCR and turn it off, or put her hands over their ears. As a consequence, as soon as she left the room they would rewind to the exact spot to see what had disturbed her.
In this way I learned from my family that “a bun in the oven” is not being served for dinner, that 69 is not just a number, “playing doctor” was not about thermometers, and that there was something bad about looking at girl’s bodies (especially girls in shorts or swim suits). As a consequence, I began to examine girls’ bodies long before I would have otherwise because I needed to see what I shouldn’t be seeing.
I would have discovered this all on my own, mind you. But I did learn them well in advance of peers whose parents simply went about their business without calling these things to their children’s attention.
I also learned things that were completely false. For instance my parents assured me, as I approached my teens, that I should’t hang out with Catholic girls because they were “fast” or “loose.”2 Needless to say, once I understood why that was important, I dated every Catholic girl who would go out with me.
And, you know what? Mom and Dad were wrong. The Jesuits could put the fear of God into Catholic girls in ways that Baptist preachers never dreamed of.
Try as hard as we can, we can’t lock morality onto our families like chastity belts, as hard as we may wish to. And often, pointing out the sources of temptation, will actually show the paths to temptation that the innocent might never have seen before. This is something the Christian Right misses in their determination to bring everyone’s sins into the light but their own.
When Christian groups protested The Last Temptation of Christ, they drummed up audiences who would not have gone otherwise. Banning books makes people want to read them to find out why they’re banned.
Then, when people discovered the terrible evil isn’t so terrible, those same Christians are perceived as children crying wolf. They end up preaching to the saved, who don’t need their warnings.
We even end up burying ourselves in triviality and contradiction. I was told that the phrase “god damn it” when stubbing your toe was evil because it took the Lord’s name in vain. And, yes, it does. But doesn’t saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes also take the Lord’s name in vain? Both invoke the name of God with no real thought or intent to damn or bless.
Maybe we need to remind ourselves, as Paul did, that many things are sinful only because we perceive them to be so. This means we should not do them, not that we should correct others when they do. Or tempt people to try them out by telling them over and over again how deliciously evil they are.