Book Excerpt: 'My Fundamentalist Education'

Nevertheless, my kindergarten classroom was cheerful and crowded, even though there were only twenty kids in it. There were brightly colored cubbies and green cots stacked in a corner and several small round tables surrounded by tiny nicked green stools. We didn't stay in our classroom for long; we walked to chapel and to the cafeteria and to the art room and the playground, and whenever we did we collected the acorns that fell from the oaks. We used the hollows of the trees to store those found objects that children have a preternatural ability to unearth. By the end of the school day, I was filthy -- the upper half of my legs grimy with playground sand and the lower half protected by white knee socks that had turned a dirty gray. The smell of small humid bodies was a constant, with temperatures in the 80s, and the inevitable exertions of kindergarten quickly rendering us into grubby, ripe gangs.

The Florida climate was a physical presence that pervaded every moment of those first school days. You felt it in the humid classrooms, where wall-unit air conditioners wheezed and rattled and dripped throughout the day. You experienced it firsthand in gym class, which was held outside at ten every morning and seemed a brutal affair, even for a child as eager to be outdoors as I was.

By midmorning it was already hot, the air thick with humidity. The gym teacher made us run the perimeter of the school campus, following the chain-link fence to a bank of punk trees, with peeling white bark and a pungent scent, that marked our school's borders. V-shaped weeds, which grew high and fast in the field where we ran, slapped against my legs, leaving small black seeds that would itch for the rest of the day. By mid-run, panting and pink, a stinging stitch developing in my side and my school-issue gym uniform soaked with perspiration, I would begin reciting the books of the Bible I'd been learning to memorize, convinced that if I could just make it through half of the Old Testament, I would survive the run. Inevitably, by the time I reached Judges, one of my punier wheezing classmates would collapse with the tell-tale crimson color of heat exhaustion, and we would help carry her to the school office, where one of the secretaries would slap a damp paper towel on her forehead and have her lie down on a cot next to the mimeograph machine for an hour.

Nature constantly encroached. In displays of elementary school machismo, little boys caught brown anole lizards, forced open their little mouths, and clamped them to their ears, where they would dangle as accessories until our shrieking convinced them to end the lizards' suffering. When, one day, I was the first person to turn on the lights in the bathroom outside my classroom, I was treated to the sight of several cockroaches scurrying into the floor drain. Large fire-ant mounds rose in the fields where we ran and dotted the playground. The courtyard of the elementary school building, overgrown with ferns and weeds, became boggy after thunderstorms, and the liquid offerings of its centerpiece, a pink fiberglass water fountain, bore the sharp taste of chlorine and were as warm as a bath.

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