My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Denett, was pregnant the entire school year. She waddled down the narrow row between our desks, occasionally hitting someone in the eye with her extended womb. During nap time she put headphones on her stomach and we could faintly hear classical music drifting out, though none of us knew why she put them on her stomach and not her ears.
In first grade I had Mrs. Rankin, whose husband was a high school coach, and so underneath her perfumy smell was the faint odor of the Atomic Balm the track runners rubbed into their calves before the long jump or decathlon.
Mrs. McCarthy in 2nd grade was old and doddering and occasionally lost her pencil in her hair, and the two Mrs. Bradys, my 3rd and 4th grade teachers, attended square dances and hay-gathering events on their off-days.
But it was Mrs. Butler in 5th grade who taught us we were all going to hell.
This was the rural South, the thick strap of the Bible Belt, near the buckle. Every morning our elementary school principal said a prayer over the intercom. Our school’s daily flyer always listed a Bible verse of the day, and before any sporting event we bowed our heads and mumbled the Lord’s Prayer. Those of us in my fifth grade class already knew, from being dragged to church with our grandparents, that drinking and drugs and fornication started a slow spiral that led straight to the other place, but those were only the biggies, Mrs. Butler told us, the ones everyone knew to watch for. This was the first day of school, the ink not yet dry where we had signed our names in our textbooks, which, we were told, we would be reading very little from because non-Bible literature did not glorify God. She stood in front of the class tapping her teeth with a pencil, her name written in tight white cursive on the chalkboard behind her. The bell had just rung and outside it was still summer, heat shimmering from the sidewalks and already a fetid stink developing in the air from sweat and lack of deodorant.
“Satan,” she said, “is everywhere,” and then began a long list of things she considered unholy, such as the digital watches we wore, the rock-n-roll music we listened to, and our failure to say grace before drinking our pint cartons of chocolate milk at snack time.
When we weren’t learning about Columbus bringing Christianity to the heathens in the New World or how America was founded on religious principles, we heard about the dangers of wrist wear, evil colors, devil worship, communism, and not having table manners. According to Mrs. Butler, yellow represented Satan, digital devices were banned in the Bible, and devil-worshippers were everywhere, probably in the big yellow house with the digital sign out front. The Soviet Union was full of atheist-communists, which we thought meant they lived in a commune and didn’t bathe, but which Mrs. Butler told us meant they hated God and America and wanted to destroy us. Not saying grace was an invitation for demons to fly in your mouth while you were chewing. I think now it would have been a better argument for us to chew our food with our mouths closed than to say grace, but in 5th grade, we weren’t taking any chances, so we did both. Or most of us did—thirty years later, I’m sure Steve Garrison still chews his food with his mouth open.
Mrs. Butler went to one of the churches even the religious among us feared, a one-room Pentecostal with paint flaking from the steeple and a sign out front that always said “Repent” or “Judgment Day Is Upon Us” in straight black letters. None of us had ever been inside it, but we’d all heard rumors of people flopping on the floor, speaking in fire and claiming tongues, visions of chariots and cherubs appearing in the air. We imagined the Sunday service lasting ten or twelve hours as the preacher—a small thin man with iron-grey hair plastered to his head—read long lists of the evil dangers loose in the world, his congregation nodding their heads and amening every few seconds as he listed hairspray, tomatoes, and books not written by an apostle as things to avoid in life. Every Monday Mrs. Butler came to school with a new list of evils to watch for: hoofed animals, cemeteries not on hallowed ground, meals containing eggplant.
Led by Mrs. Butler, we prayed both before and after the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning. She led our class in collaborative grace before we went single-file to the lunchroom, and then reminded us to say individual grace before we ate yesterday’s meatloaf. When a boy in our class’s father was injured at work, Mrs. Butler reminded us all to pray for him, and to pray for the boy, who took off his thick glasses and wiped at his eyes before running out the door when the bell rang. Perhaps we took it too far, but we began to pray before recess that no one would get hurt, and when someone did get hurt we prayed for his or her speedy recovery, that the Bactine would not sting too much, that the scab on his knee would heal quickly, that the Band-aid would not stick to his skin. When storm clouds came threatening over the hills in the west, we prayed that tornadoes would not strike our town. When the lights went out we prayed they would come back on. We clasped hands as we hid under our desks during nuclear missile drills and prayed that everyone’s life be spared, and when it was over: the storm, the missile warning, the trip to the nurse’s office, we thanked God that everything had turned out fine in the end.
She wore black horn-rimmed glasses that actually looked like horns where they framed her short black hair. She always wore a greyish sweater and wool skirt that made someone in the class sneeze. It might have been the girl who was a Jehovah’s Witness, and Mrs. Butler might have worn them on purpose, although it’s possible I am just being vindictive. But it’s strange to me now to still be thinking about her. She was about as old as I am now, which doesn’t seem real, and some days her sweater was as grey as the rain, and her face under the flickering fluorescent lights as grey as the weather, and we almost felt sorry for her as she stared out the window while we wrote in our journals, until she reminded us that country music, which our parents listened to, was just as bad as rock-n-roll, although in a less Satan-worshippy way.
When she began her long lists of the sin afflicting our world, we were forced to think of the immoral things our parents did: drinking, smoking, the sex we knew went on from the late-night sounds vibrating the walls of our houses, the quickening pulse of bedsprings. My parents went to church on Easter and Christmas, and rarely any other time, which made me wonder, after a few months with Mrs. Butler, about their immortal souls, and mine, and where we would end up when a storm finally flattened the town or frogs fell from the sky like the book of Revelations tells us will happen. Down the road from my house stood a Baptist church, where the preacher said some of the same things Mrs. Butler did, and we began to wonder what is right and wrong in this world. We knew from the Ten Commandments written on the courthouse lawn that killing was wrong, and adultery, and worshipping carved statues, but we never knew, at that age, where to draw the line. If carved statues were evil then maybe yellow was too. Working on Sunday was evil, but what if the calendar had been messed up at some point and Sunday was actually Friday? And what exactly did honoring thy father and mother mean? Were we supposed to carve images of them? Was it adultery to hold hands with two girls in one recess? Was it stealing if you meant to give something you had stolen back after you had grown tired of it?
She warned us of wrist-watches and prime colors because she knew, she said, how easy it was for Satan to get inside you, which always made me think of the movie Alien and that thing that comes spitting out of the man’s stomach. Every action we performed had an inherent danger attached to it, either for our bodies or our souls. We could walk out the door and get hit by a snowmobile or be abducted into a yellow-worshipping cult, and then where would we be, Mrs. Butler seemed to ask—where would we end up?
As August swept into September we began to see the long year ahead of us. We had to pray before being let out to recess, a prayer led by Mrs. Butler, where she would ask the lord to watch over us, and protect us from spinal injury, broken teeth, collapsed lungs, punctured spleens, pierced eyes, or anything she worried might happen to us while we played touch football or TV tag. She started off each day with another Bible verse after the school-approved prayer and Bible verse, and ended each day by reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, and sometimes, while we wrote in our journals, our finger-paintings drying on the walls, we’d raise our heads to see her sitting at her desk, reading from a Bible with her initials emblazoned on the cover, her jaw silently working. Out the window we could see the recess fields, with volleyball net and assorted jungle gym equipment, the soccer field gone muddy now with fall rains, the streets surrounding the school, the houses beyond that. Above the houses rose the water towers with the name of the town painted in big high letters, and in the other direction we could just see the spires of the Baptist church and the Methodist church, across the street from one another at the center of town, signboards out front reading “God Forgives,” and “There is one place hotter than Arkansas.”
In early October she began intoning her hatred for Halloween. Our school year was divided by the holidays, preparing for Halloween giving way to preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In our journals we wrote “What Halloween Means to Me” and Mrs. Butler admonished us not to forget the Lord in anything we said or did or wrote. Halloween, she said, was a time to reflect on hell and the torment that awaited us there, not to stuff our faces with fake orange peanuts and chocolate vampires. It glorified witches and werewolves, she told us, ghosts and ghouls and goblins, demons and doppelgangers. All were agents of Satan. Costumes were evil, because once you put on the skin of a witch or a warlock, it was far too easy, she admonished, to become one. She warned us to dress as doctors and nurses, cowboys and cowgirls, and whatever we did, not to accept food from strangers, for razor blades lurked in every apple, and poison in every peanut butter cup.
Thanksgiving was a pagan harvest ritual, and people would do best to remember that. It was God who founded this country through the Puritans, she said, and it was God we needed to give thanks to, not Indians.
Christmas, we would learn, was under attack. Look at the commercialism! she would rail. Look at the symbolism! Where’s Jesus in all this? Santa is just a few rearranged letters from Satan! Or Stan! She reminded us that we should not be celebrating with presents and pagan trees, but the birth of Christ, our savior and messiah, without whom we would have no reason for living, and I am reminded now how fiercely some people need to cling to a reason for living, the strange sadness that sometimes comes up on us that we actually need a reason—whether internal or eternal—to keep us going.
Of course we thought her strange. No one could possibly have a problem with Halloween. No one could equate the color yellow with evil. No one could actually believe music was inherently wrong, that certain types of rhythms might inspire Satan to rise up through the tiled floors of A.R. Hederick Elementary School and drag us screaming down to hell. But when the principal, a huge man with huge hands and a red-veined nose, who kept an “electric” paddle in his office, reads verses from Revelations every morning over the loudspeaker, you tend to accept that evil lurks in the world, and you might want to be looking out for it.
I’ve often wondered why she was never fired. But this was the breadbasket of the Religious Right, where tornadoes wiped out towns every spring and the sirens lit up the night so we could all practice what to do if Soviet missiles ever launched toward us. The conservative 80s had not yet changed to the perhaps-slightly-more-liberal 90s, and it seemed no one was upset enough at the non-separation of church and state to complain to the school board. I imagined faceless men in gray suits hearing the rumblings of unease at what she preached in the classroom, but always they folded their hands and grunted and decided to let it be, thinking fear and worship a good thing in children in a changing world, and so we sat silently, trying to sleep while she read “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” trying to ignore the constant prayer, the stories of sin and death, fire and brimstone, the listing of the evils at loose in the world in the form of Judas Priest and Dungeons and Dragons and the visible light spectrum, the way the constant worry made us feel. Firing her would have saved generations of 5th grade students from her opinions of evil snare drums and paintbrushes, from fear for their mortal souls, but that didn’t happen, or, if it did, happened much later, and year after year students were forced to listen to her read from Genesis the story of God creating the world, of Adam and Eve and the serpent, the naming of rivers and beasts, Cain and Abel, not stopping until it was time for recess. After recess there would be all the begats and how old the oldest old men were, all the way up to Noah and God destroying the world because of its evilness, before the day ended and they went home to their small houses with the sad crocheted doilies and signs reading “Bless This Mess.”
The old elementary school has been torn down now and a new one built where the old one stood. The old sidewalks where we jumped over the cracks to spare our mothers’ backs are gone, as are the lights that hung in the covered hallways and lit up on dark afternoons when the storm clouds rolled in from the west and we all prayed silently at our desks that whatever was coming for us would pass over quickly. The Cold War is long gone, as am I, as are all the people I huddled in prayer with, our hands clasped tightly together, whispering words to ward off whatever it was we feared most.
On the last day of school several of us decided we were going to tell Mrs. Butler off. We’d swirl our index fingers around our ears and then point at her. We’d tell her we loved the color yellow. We’d proudly hold up our wrist-watches and proclaim our love for rock-n-roll. We wanted her to know she’d made us feel scared and uncertain and small, and telling her she was crazy was our way of extracting revenge for forcing us to see evil lurking everywhere in the world, and to live in constant fear, finding comfort only in words offered while kneeling, whispered under our breath like children with the covers pulled over our heads.
But as we waited to walk out the door that last day thirty years ago, and we could see the sunlight beyond the doorway, Mrs. Butler took off her glasses to clean them on her shirt. She looked up for a moment, blinking her weak eyes, and we said nothing. Just stood waiting to leave. She put her glasses back on and we filed out of the class and into the rest of our lives. Mrs. Butler stood at the door, looking out for all of us one last time, offering her form of protection against all the things in the world we might encounter, saying “God bless you, God bless you, God loves you” as we walked by.