Fear of Children
The tiny class of students sat very still and quiet on their individual squares of carpet.
In came Miss Green, clutching and twisting her hands behind her back as if she were wringing out blood from a towel.
“Look at all these little lambs,” said Miss Green. “Good morning, little angels.”
“Good morning, Miss Green,” said a few of the sleepy 4th grade girls. The boys gawked and fidgeted, looking stung and out-of-sorts in their clean, bright clothes. It was the first Sunday school after vacation, and she recognized many of the pert faces from the summer pasteurization process.
Mrs. Gable in Church Administration insisted that 4th graders were the easiest of all the grades, and that they would be the best to start on. Looking over them, Miss Green relaxed – her shoulders bending and sinuses clicking. These children were big enough to behave, and young enough to be afraid of her for merely being an adult.
“Say, Miss Green,” asked one of the few troublemakers – an energetic, weedy fellow named Owen. “When do we get to be old enough to go to real church? What grade?”
“Shut up, Owen,” said his friend, Lucas. “You still have to go to Sunday school, even if you go to real church. It’s like, double church.”
“Sucks,” said Owen.
“Big church is for big people,” said Miss Green. “Now let’s all go around the room and we can talk about what we did this summer before we start today’s lesson.”
“Miss Green!” said a short, pale girl named Brianna. “Miss Green! I have a question for you.”
“I brought my friend Amanda with me today. I am supposed to ask you if it is okay that she stays here. She slept over last night, and so she had to come to church with me this morning. But she doesn’t go to our church.”
“I can wait outside,” said the girl in question.
Miss Green looked at the interloper. She was an unfortunate girl. Brianna would be trouble soon for the boys, but Amanda had lanky, oily blonde hair and a sour expression pasted across thick lips. She was no charmer. She looked like a girl that would really need religion one day as a comfort and an answer.
Miss Green wondered whether or not Brianna’s parents were taking matters into their own hands and adopting Amanda’s religious education as their own paschal responsibility. If so, Miss Green heartily approved.
“Of course you can stay with us today, Amanda,” said Miss Green. “But let’s not make a habit of it unless we get proper authorization and your mother signs a release form.”
“You have to pay the tuition fees for books, and juice, and crayons,” explained Brianna.
“So what church do you go to then, darling, if not here?” asked Miss Green.
“Amanda doesn’t go to church,” said Brianna. “She says it’s stupid.”
The class giggled. Amanda turned bright red and lowered her eyes. Not to be outdone, Miss Green reddened up as well, looking as if she had been punched in the neck.
They say that a blush is the body’s reaction to the chemical squashing of untenable emotions. If so, then Amanda was swallowing, digesting, and crapping out buckets of anger through the pores of her face. Anger of a highly refined and complicated sort.
Miss Green, for her part, was processing an equally complex emotion in an equally staggering amount.
“I’m sure she doesn’t think THAT at all,” said Miss Green, finally. “Shame on you, Brianna, for saying such a THING about your friend.”
“I didn’t say it!” said Brianna, standing. “She did! I told her she was wrong. I told her you were smart, and that her parents were going to hell.”
“Brianna!” said Miss Green. “Be nice!”
The class snickered. Hands were raised. There were confused looks, and children restlessly scooted carpet squares across the cold tile floor like dogs rubbing their assholes in the grass.
“Of course,” said Miss Green. “Anybody can go to hell if they are evil. But evil people always have a chance to be saved. That’s the glory and power of our Lord.”
“Amen,” said a few children, twitching as if their underwear had been snapped.
During the rest of the week, the Sunday school classroom was a nursery. There were short shelves sheathed with golden books, colored plastic donuts on rocking plastic dills, fluffy things, interlocking people, tiny pots and pans, board games with pegs, flash cards, beeping toy telephones, plastic swords, plastic shields, plastic helmets. No plastic nails or crosses. No tombs, slabs, or burning brush. There WERE Bible character cut-outs tacked up on squares of corkboard, but no stuffed whore of Babylon to cuddle up to.
“Say,” said Owen, standing up and smoothing out the creases in his khakis and then sitting back down, this time hugging his knees. “I went to Italy over the summer with my dad’s company. People don’t go to church over there, either. Instead, they go to museums with all these dead bodies.”
Amanda was in the same English class as Owen. He had problems sitting still there, too. Amanda was glad to know that the problem was universal, and not merely a function of public education. That Owen truly had to run the show everywhere – even when God was looking.
“God is a murderer,” said Amanda, surprising herself. “He wakes some people up to show them the things he has done. To have company for the blood and misery of a world that shouldn’t be. To make them understand his crimes, and then make them agree.”
“Holy shit!” said Lucas. He covered his mouth with his hands, but no one had noticed.
“Where did you ever hear such a thing?” said Miss Green.
“I don’t know,” said Amanda. The class giggled.
They knew Amanda was in trouble, and she wasn’t even a part of them.
“You didn’t get that from your parents, I hope?”
What could Miss Green do? Nothing.
“Not parents,” said Amanda. “It’s just my mom. I don’t have a dad.”
“So your parents are divorced,” said Miss Green, relaxing. “I see.”
Miss Green looked around the room. A big bear of a boy named Jeremiah was picking his nose like it was a lock he was trying to crack.
“So what did you do this summer, Jeremiah?” asked Miss Green.
“Don’t know,” said Jeremiah.
“My mom also says that God is like a wife beater,” said Amanda. “He is an abusive man that we should all try and avoid, but we always go back to him, because we are afraid. And we know that he will beat us, so there is comfort in the raw predictability. The rest of the world doesn’t have any easy answers, but God gives us easy beatings.”
“Amanda,” said Miss Green. “I think you need to wait outside until class is over.”
“Yes, ma’m,” said Amanda.
She stood up. She looked at Owen.
“My mom is a cop,” said Amanda. She walked to the door, opened it, and stepped outside. The air outside was heavy and fresh. The gust of in-blown air made the room smell like pillowcases.
“Can I go, too?” asked Brianna, raising her hand. Miss Green ignored her. It seemed like the right thing to do. Brianna put her hand back down.
“Alright,” said Miss Green. “That was interesting. And it leads right into today’s lesson. I want to talk about what God mean to YOU.”
Everybody was silent, remembering what Amanda had said.
“Jesus,” said Jeremiah. He had forced his way into the chest of his nose and was wiping the treasure on his trousers. “God means Jesus.”
“Very good, Jeremiah,” said Miss Green. “But Jesus is the SON of God, our savior. What about God himself?”
“I don’t know,” said Jeremiah.
“God is like, really big!” said Lucas. “He is like a monster truck, and he can crush anything! He has huge tires, and this sword made of FIRE, and he knows everything bad you do. Also, he smokes.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Miss Green. “Jesus said that God is love. What does that mean?”
“I think God is a beautiful castle,” said Brianna. “The castle floats on clouds, and then when God breathes the whole castle shakes and all of the flags flap in the wind. When he talks, the drawbridge comes down…”
“And fire shoots out his mouth!” said Owen. “And angels are like all of God’s soldiers, and they pour boiling oil on sinners and shoot arrows.”
“Is that what love is?” said Miss Green.
“Maybe,” said Owen sullenly.
“That was very good, Brianna,” said Miss Green. “Jesus also said that his father’s house had many different rooms, like a castle does.”
“Don’t forget about the clouds,” said Brianna. “And there are dragons on each cloud, and they are all fierce and beautiful, but they do what God tells them to do, even though they are monsters. And then Satan has his own dragons, but they are all ugly and never listen to anybody. Not even Satan. That’s why God is better.”
“Hmmm,” said Miss Green.
“I think God is like my kitten,” said a breathless girl named Clementine Marie. Her black hair lay across her slim shoulders in ebony ringlets, and she had sparkling blue eyes that looked everywhere but where they were supposed to. Her father was a doctor, and her mother was an art teacher for FUN. They never came to church, but Clementine’s nanny still dutifully dropped off Clementine on Sunday mornings for school – brushed and beautiful – and then picked her up again afterwards. Miss Green suspected her parents supported Clementine’s religious education to get Clementine out of their hair for Sunday brunch, or yachting practice, or something even more sinful.
“God is like your kitten?” asked Miss Green.
“My kitten is named Colette,” said Clementine Marie. “But she is dead, like Jesus. I see her in my dreams sometimes, and she sits in my lap and lets me pet her and she bites my hand so soft. I pet her and pet her and then I wake up.”
“How is that like God?” asked Miss Green.
“I love my kitten, but she isn’t real anymore,” said Clementine Marie.
“But God is real,” said Miss Green.
“Yes, in your dreams,” said Clementine Marie. “And when you pray, you get what you ask for in your dreams, too. And then life, when you are awake, is for eating and learning how to do math.”
Clementine Marie sighed.
“Can I talk?” said Owen.
“Please,” said Miss Green.
“I went to Italy this summer, like I said, and I saw a lot of pictures of God, so I know all about this. He has a big white beard, and he is always frowning because his children are so disappointing.”
Miss Green frowned. Owen coughed and stood up from his square.
“Except for Jesus, of course, because Jesus came back from the dead. But the rest of his children STAYED dead. Like, some of them had their heads chopped off, and others got pulled apart by horses and were eaten by dogs. This one guy had all of his skin peeled off his body and then they put him in a big pot like they were going to cook him and eat him. But he stayed dead, so God didn’t love him. Like your cat, Clementine Marie. He’s dead, so God doesn’t care.”
Lucas laughed really hard. Owen grinned.
Clementine Marie breathed in and then out again with despondent difficulty, like somebody was sitting on her chest.
“So God is big, and has a beard, and can fly, and he’s mad,” continued Owen. “And so you’ve got to be nice to each other, otherwise NOT ONLY will you not get presents, but your soul will get eaten by all of these horses and this guy with a knife who has no face.”
Owen sat back down.
“Thank you, Owen,” said Miss Green. “But what about what Jesus said? That God is love?”
The class was quiet.
“Jeremiah? What do you think?” asked Miss Green.
Jeremiah had glasses.
“Jesus loves me?” said Jeremiah.
“Very good,” said Miss Green, exasperated.
“But does that mean that love is bigger and stronger than Jesus?” said Lucas. “I don’t get it. How can you pray to love? What is love going to give you?”
“That’s why we pray to Jesus,” said Miss Green, closing her eyes.
“So we can get stuff,” said Lucas, making sure.
“That’s right,” said Miss Green.
“Okay,” said Lucas.
“Can I go sit outside with Amanda now?” asked Brianna. “She doesn’t know anybody. My mom said not to let her out of my sight.”
“Sure,” said Miss Green.
“Thank you, Miss Green,” said Brianna.
Brianna picked up her skirts and meekly slipped out the door. Whenever Miss Green had sex, which wasn’t very often anymore, she liked to slip her finger into her partner’s sphincter and push until his cheeks clenched around her hand and he told her to stop. That’s how her mind felt. She just wanted to go back home and go to sleep.
Miss Green walked over to the supply closet and got down the paper and crayons. She handed them to Jeremiah, who dutifully began handing them around the room. Miss Green sat down in the only chair, falling back a bit accidentally on the chair’s wheels, but catching herself with her hard shoes.
“Let’s all quietly color until it is time to go,” said Miss Green, trembling. “Color something out of the Bible. Draw Romans, or something. And no talking. No talking whatsoever.”