So what do you do when it seems like your birth parents, your adoptive family and your church tell you that you, the individual person, are worthless? You start looking for other ways to make progress. In the 1970s there was another way that had made astounding progress in recent years, and that was through collective action and identification with a movement. Perhaps that could work for me. If I was not allowed to help myself as an individual, perhaps I could work for the advancement of a group that would benefit me in the long run, such as feminism.
By the mid-1970s my family was settling in to a new life in Birmingham and it seemed like my country was settling in to a new life as well, one that seemed sincerely interested in using reason and compassion to fix the errors of the past. Progress had been made on ending racial and gender discrimination, and more progress was coming. These developments were hailed as Good Things by our leaders and in the press. There were a few people grumbling about the changes in private conversations and letters to the editor, but never in public. It didn’t seem important.
School started to become interesting when they decided to start one of those newfangled “gifted” programs. I was ostracized by my peers for reasons I did not understand (high IQ and trauma), classes were deadly dull, and I had stopped paying attention and just sat there reading whatever I had checked out of the library. My reading teacher fought to get me tested for the program even though my grades were poor because I was reading a different book every day. The tests revealed that I was gifted, and I was put into the new class on probation over the strenuous objections of the principal, who apparently thought being bored in his classrooms was somehow inherently immoral.
I learned the two most important things I would learn in elementary school about that time, and oddly enough both of them were taught to me by male military veterans. The first lesson was taught to me by my new gifted-ed teacher, a 50s-era Army veteran who had used his benefits to earn a Master’s in Psychology. He taught me that the things which made me look at the world so differently than everyone else and isolated me from my classmates were matters of psychology, not moral failings on my part. They were in the process of being named, studied, and understood. I took a great deal of comfort from this fact. In the lifetimes of my adoptive parents and grandparents these same types of researchers had worked diligently to eradicate so many of the great plagues that had swept over mankind, like smallpox and polio. Surely they would be no less diligent in finding productive ways to deal with depression and anxiety.
The second lesson came from my new P.E. coach, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who had been stationed in San Francisco and learned about yoga and meditation while he was there. I don’t think the school approved of such things, but he would mix in as much yoga and meditation as he could with the soccer and gym hockey. He taught us meditative breathing, and practicing that form of stress relief helped keep me from cracking under the stress.
Meanwhile I was noticing some discrepancies at church. People talked about gender equality in church, but like the Queen’s jam in Alice in Wonderland, it was always equality tomorrow, never equality today. Women would be allowed to preach any day now, but somehow never today or any other day on the schedule calendar.
By now I had noticed that most people didn’t come to hear the preacher speak in the first place, they came to take part in the activities going on in the Fellowship Hall. These activities were organized by the church ladies. Therefore the big draw at the church was the work of the women, not the work of the all-male clergy. Yet, when the preacher called out the names of the notable members who had helped the church at the beginning of the service and asked them to stand and be recognized he only called on men. After they were honored there would be a general platitude about the “wonderful work done by the ladies of the church”, but no women would be named and recognized, and no individual woman’s work would be held up for commendation.
There were also definite differences between “women’s work” and “men’s work”. Women in the church cooked, cleaned, decorated, organized events, and took care of children. Men in the church wrote and administrated. Even at that age I knew that my God-given gift was writing. There was no place for a women writer at my church, even with a gift coming from God. God had not seen fit to gift me with any talent at all for cleaning, decorating, organizing or anything else which women were allowed to do. In fifty years I have picked up some very slight skills along those lines, but nothing that will ever approach my ability to string words together. So if God truly meant for men and women to occupy different spheres, why had He given me a gift that did not fit in with my gender? It didn’t make any sense. Either God had made a mistake, or the church had. The latter seemed far more likely.
Meanwhile our preacher was getting ready to retire. A new minister had been found by the steering committee, and exciting new things were being planned by the church organizers. Maybe it would finally be the day for that equality jam.
I had a lot to learn.