Book Excerpt: 'My Fundamentalist Education'

Besides the impressive playground, the school campus included a gymnasium and a conference center, complete with chapel, hotel, and swimming pool, where missionaries "on furlough" came for meetings. In midwinter, with its large pool and plantings of palm trees and azaleas, it must have seemed like a tropical oasis to visitors from up north. But a closer look easily located the fraying and worn; the algae-stained edges of the pool, the moldy carpeting in the corner of the elementary school office, or the music room where the only attempt at creating good acoustics was mustard-colored shag carpeting stapled to the walls. Keswick families were not wealthy; my classmates' shirts were sometimes a little out-at-the-elbows. But the uniforms we wore ensured that most differences in circumstance and class remained muted. We had been advised to sew white patches over any logos that might mark one student's shirt as superior in brand to another. Our class awareness was of the childish variety that equates worn shoes or cheap pants patches with poverty and a house with a trampoline with great wealth. This suited St. Petersburg, where old money can be hard to find, unless it is tucked away, with mothballs, under an aging relative's mattress.

Wealth meant having a house like the one a girl in my kindergarten class lived in. Her father, a home builder, was a mini-tycoon in the dawning age of the McMansion and he built his own oversize dream house as a showplace of his unique talents. At her birthday party that year, I wandered, awestruck and envious, through the gigantic structure. There was a grand entrance hall, and off that was the "fancy formal" sitting room, with plush peach carpet, white leather couches, a lacquered white baby grand piano, and one entire wall tricked out to mimic the Manhattan skyline, complete with a mirror that featured a superimposed sketch of skyscrapers and real twinkling lights. The sunken living room, shag-carpeted, featured a hulking early-generation large-screen television set and two aquariums with piranhas. A lagoon- like swimming pool with a built-in waterfall and slide completed the picture of high living.

Most Keswickians were not this flush, however, and were a different class of people than the mainline Protestants in St. Petersburg, whose churches were downtown. The Keswick mothers unloading their kids at school every morning were women with home permanents, not salon coiffures, and they wore vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears. Families drove sensible American cars and probably took a camping vacation once a year. They would have stuck out at the high Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, where fresh flowers decorated the altar every Sunday and where many of the older female congregants still wore white gloves with their Sunday best.

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