Book Excerpt: 'My Fundamentalist Education'

Few of my classmates made a strong impression on me in those first weeks. There was a bed wetter who was forced to drag his soiled cot outside to be hosed off after every nap time, and a missionary's daughter who talked a lot about her parents and the jungle but seemed awkward and out of place indoors. Outside our classroom was a large metal barrel, painted blue, that hung horizontally on two lengths of chain. Its top and bottom circular sections had been removed to make a kind of barrel swing. One of the greatest thrills of my kindergarten life was squeezing into the barrel with two other children and being pushed into a high arc by my classmates, the sound of small hands slapping and echoing within the rust-smelling, claustrophobic interior. It was here that I made my first friend at Keswick.

As I crawled into place in the barrel, I glanced over to see a boy wedging himself, with some difficulty, into the spot next to me. This was unheard of, a transgression of a sacred yet unspoken kindergarten boundary of play: separation of the sexes. Seeing my suspicious glance, the unflappable boy had the wit, despite the cramped quarters, to introduce himself, and we were friends from that day forward.

He was Manuel DeAbaya, the son of Filipino parents who doted on him and anyone lucky enough to befriend him in school. His mother, a stocky, clucking woman with broad, brown forearms, would make delicious exotic things encased in layers of papery-thin deep-fried dough and send them to school with Manuel, where we would devour them. At his house after school, she would hover near a table full of treats, smiling and emitting encouraging murmurs until we'd polished off the entire tray of them. Manuel and I quickly became inseparable, walking next to each other in our boys' and girls' lines to the cafeteria, pushing our cots together during nap time, and sneaking the newspaper off of our teacher's desk to try to read to each other. Soon Mama DeAbaya was looking on me with the certainty of a woman who knew I was born to be her son's arranged bride.

Our days became a predictable routine. We had learned three things on that first day of school, things that would become part of my daily life for the next thirteen years. Pointing to the American flag, which I recognized, our teacher taught us the pledge of allegiance. But when she turned to the other flag that flanked the chalkboard, I didn't know what to make of it. It was a tired polyester thing, white, with a square of purple in the top left-hand corner.

Embedded in the square was a cross of deep red. It was, she said proudly, the Christian flag, and every morning from that day forward, I placed my right hand across my heart, fixed my eyes on that cross, and pledged allegiance "to the Christian flag, and to the Savior, for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe." This avowal became as natural an act as breathing.

And when my teacher held up a thick black book and explained that it was God's word, we learned to pledge to it too. "I pledge allegiance, to the Bible, God's Holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God." These words, once hidden inside a heart, are impossible to dislodge, and memorization ensured that they would be ever at the ready.

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