Fourth grade was a life-altering school year for me. This was the year I realized not everyone believed the same way I did about God. It was also the year I saw a woman’s naked breasts for the very first time, and it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that the second experience led to the first.
I’ll never forget the day Donny Martin played the greatest prank in the history of Kae Avenue Elementary. Donny sneaked into our classroom during recess and secretly taped a Playboy centerfold picture inside the map of North and South America. We studied geography on Tuesdays and Thursdays, right after recess. Our teacher Mrs. Byrd would slowly hobble over to the map, turn to the class as she pulled the string to unroll it, and declare, “Children, it’s time for geography.” Only this day, as she unrolled the map, it wasn’t two sets of continents staring back at us.
At first Mrs. Byrd didn’t notice the centerfold as she faced the class. We saw the picture but sat in stunned silence, especially the boys. After a few moments, our poor unsuspecting teacher turned around and muttered in her monotonous voice, “Class, today I want you to notice that—” and then catching sight of the bare-chested woman, she screamed, “O-H D-E-A-R G-O-D I-N H-E-A-V-E-N!”
She steadied herself against the wall with her hand, ripped the picture oﬀ the map, and bolted to the principal’s office. The class erupted in laughter. Donny stood up and took a bow. The next day we had a substitute teacher. And when Mrs. Byrd came back, she was never able to regain control of our classroom again.
I had never seen a naked woman before that day, and as much as that was a pleasantly curious experience for a fourth-grade boy, the moment was overshadowed by what followed. In the wake of Mrs. Byrd losing control of the class, something profound happened—the students actually started to talk with one another. As it turned out, we taught ourselves things that year that poor old Mrs. Byrd never could. And for that I am eternally grateful.
Fourth grade was the year I realized that not everyone believed in God like I did. It was the year my friend Jimmy Bickle threw down a theological gauntlet as our classroom line leaders formed two lines to go down to the Christmas program in the gymnasium. Jimmy shot out of his desk like a Hebrew prophet of old and defiantly proclaimed, “I am Jewish. I am proud of this fact. I do not believe in Jesus, and I am not going to participate in the Christmas special this year!”
Jimmy’s outburst triggered an ongoing discussion about religion that lasted until the end of that school year. After the Christmas program, a group of us stood around the dodgeball court and asked, “Jimmy’s Jewish. What religion are you?”
I told everyone I was a Christian because that’s what my parents were.
“Yeah, but what kind of Christian are you?” someone asked.
We attended a non-denominational church. I didn’t know.
“Uh, I think I’m just a Christian,” I told them.
“Yeah, but what kind of Christian?” another asked.
Eventually, just to get them off my back, I blurted out, “I’m a Presbyterian.” I had absolutely no idea what that meant. I had seen it on a church sign somewhere.
During that year I noticed Wendy, the most beautiful nine-year-old girl in the world. I passed Wendy’s house every day when I walked to and from school. One afternoon as we climbed up into her tree house, I tried to hold her hand, but she pushed my arm away.
“My mom said I can only like boys who are Catholics.”
“What’s a Catholic?” I asked.
She said it was her religion.
I awkwardly responded, “Well, I want to be a Catholic, too!”
At end of fourth grade, Kelly Shockerman moved into the house next to Wendy. One day I asked Kelly if he could go to vacation Bible school with me. His parents told him that their family didn’t believe in God, so he wasn’t allowed to go. I was shocked. I thought everyone believed in God.
All of this newfound talk about God, rules, and religion was upsetting to me. It was as if my entire fourth-grade class had been enjoying the day, taking an afternoon stroll together, and then all of a sudden we turned a corner and bullets flew everywhere as the adults in our lives attacked one another’s beliefs. Confused and completely unaware of what was actually happening, one by one we started choosing sides.
And I resented it.
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