Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Fundamentalist at Bob Jones Univeristy: Part 4

Previous posts in this series can be found under the tag "memoir."

Heading into 1997, I was desperate to buy into the myth of John Ellis. Although I was finally beginning to succeed in crafting an identity that placed me squarely outside the camp of Fundamentalism[1], I was acutely aware that the reality did not live up to the hype – my hype. I never felt nearly as cool as I tried to convince others that I was. To help flesh out the façade, I believed that I needed to learn anything and everything possible about pop culture[2]. I went to see every movie I could in the movie theatre, I joined Columbia House and BMI multiple times in order to stockpile my CD collection, and I devoured entertainment magazines. My appearance was also important to selling my image, but being a Bob Jones University student made that somewhat difficult. There is a point where no matter what you do, your shirt is still tucked in and you’re still wearing a tie. Going into Christmas break of ’96, I decided that one of my goals for the upcoming semester was to grow my hair as long as possible.   

Most of that Christmas break was spent in Ohio; my oldest sister had given birth to my parent’s first grandbaby. By the time we got back down to Florida, there was a little over a week left of Christmas break. I met my future ex-wife during that week.

My brother and I were standing in line to buy tickets for a movie at the Cordova Mall Cinema when a dark-haired, pretty girl struck up a conversation with my brother. This bothered me. It bothered me because she was talking to him and not to me. It helped my ego a little when upon introductions I learned that the two of them had met taking a class the previous summer at Pensacola Junior College. Oddly enough, she was also a BJU student. For those of you well versed in Fundamentalist culture, the fact that two BJU students who had been in school together for two and a half years didn't meet until in a movie theatre in Pensacola, FL, of all places, should, at the least, cause you to wrinkle your nose a bit at the statistical[3] and cultural absurdity that was our initial meeting. That meeting ended with a promise that I would call her after we got back to school.

A couple of days later I was in University Mall with my other sister and her fiancé; we were killing time before seeing Romeo & Juliet at the dollar theatre behind the mall. While walking around the mall, we ran into Bronwynne. She was on a date. We talked for a minute or two, and then she and her date made their way into Sears. I was struck with the desire to buy into the hype of the cool John Ellis, and so after psyching myself up, I followed them into Sears with the plan to ask her out in front of her date. I found the two of them in the middle of a clothing section. I write “a clothing section” because I was terrified and wasn’t paying attention to anything but my sweaty palms, beating heart, and Bronwynne. I walked up and positioning myself between the two of them and bluntly said to her, “I’m headed over to Silver Screens. Want to come with me?” She said yes. (To the deflation of my ego, I found out later that her decision was based less on her feelings for me, and more on her "feelings" for the other guy.)

I arrived back at Bob Jones University for second semester a couple of days early. I don’t remember why I was early. If it had been first semester, I would've been early because of the Campus Store. Whatever the reason, I didn’t stay on campus. Instead, I stayed in the apartment of a friend of a friend - all BJU students. Those two days consisted of going to the movies, drinking cheap beer, and girls. And Rage Against the Machine.

Although it had been released almost a year earlier, I don’t remember hearing Rage’s “Bulls on Parade” until those couple of days leading up to second semester of ’97. The song began to help my mind collate some things I had observed in the workplace (specifically at the tree service company[4]) with books I had begun to read, and thoughts about social justice began to foment in my brain. That coming semester, I wrote a paper on McCarthyism and also read Bertrand Russell’s Roads to Freedom, a book I stole from the BJU library[5]. All humans long for a salvation, and I was beginning to find a salvation that had nothing to do with the Church (more on that in posts to come).

I began to find and utilize symbols, like the yin yang, that I knew would be a type of line of demarcation for many of those around me. I bought several books about Daoism and Buddhism, but I never really understood either religion. That didn’t matter. I understood enough to know that Eastern Religions did not comport with Biblical Christianity, and that was all I needed to know. That, and adorning my book-bag, books, and self with symbols from Eastern Religions helped, or so I believed, with my drawing a line of distinction between my tucked in shirt and tie and the tucked in shirts and ties of the guys around me. The stupid thing (well, one of the stupid things) was that whenever anyone would challenge me about having a yin yang on my book-bag, instead of taking the opportunity to vocally declare my rejection of Christianity, I would instead try to massage the meaning into a vaguely Christian context. Usually the conversations ended with the individual shrugging their shoulders and smiling sadly as they walked away in defeat, or so I thought; in reality, they were probably just unsure of how to navigate my stupidity without being rude.  

Growing my hair long ended up being easier than most people would’ve expected on the campus of Bob Jones University in the mid-nineties. Having a hall leader roommate helped; I always knew when hair check was. *Excursion: “hair check” was an almost weekly event; there were a couple of weeks a semester when there would be no hair check. Hall leaders would position themselves at all the entrances into the chapel auditorium. Chapel was mandatory, unless you had to work, and so, in theory, every male BJU student would file past a hall leader who would be dutifully inspecting the hair of the guys. If the hair didn’t check, the hall leaders would take the offending student’s i.d. card. Knowing when hair checks were taking place afforded me the opportunity to volunteer each and every week to work for whichever co-worker was scheduled to work in the Campus Store through chapel on hair check days. It also helped that, as I previously wrote about here, I had a hall leader roommate who was more concerned with exhibiting grace to his roommate than he was in getting him in trouble. Plus, I would slick my hair back and plaster it to my head. It looked dumb, but I didn’t care; long hair for summer break was my endgame. By the end of the semester, my hair was almost down to my chin. I have a picture of me at the BJU vs. Furman soccer game, and in the picture it’s obvious that my hair was as hard as a rock.

My silly and petty externals aside, that semester was primarily marked by my dating life – seeing how I eventually married the girl I began dating that semester.

After I returned to school, I embraced my mantra to enjoy the ride for as long as I was stuck on it. To me, that meant primarily girls. I began “dating” several girls, and, if you understand the “dating” culture of BJU, one date can be considered casual, two dates means the two of you are probably headed to shared devotions, and three dates means that the girl’s best friends are already lobbying for the Maid of Honor position and the guy is, well, the guy is thinking about the iminent honeymoon. So, what I viewed as me just having fun and casually dating several dark haired beauties (they all had dark hair and looked vaguely similar – one day I’ll explore that with a therapist), pretty much the entire culture around me viewed me as a snake not to be trusted, which came back a couple of months later to bite me in the ass. I knew, because it was obvious in the ways that they were beginning to respond to me, that the girls I was “dating” were tiring of me stringing them along, and it had only been three weeks. So, I had to “choose.”[6] I made my “choice” based on one variable – Bronwynne lived in the same town as I did, which meant that we could go home together on the occasional weekend and, hence, be alone together. “Alone” being code for improving my chances of having sex with her. As I’ve already acknowledged in footnote #6, I was a douchebag.

Like most blossoming romances, our initial month or so of dating was characterized by the gushy dance of wide-eyed hyperbole fueled by exciting, new lust. In other words, you don’t want to hear about it. Our blossoming romance didn’t get very far that semester, though, because I broke up with her after about two and a half months. The reason – I missed answering only to myself. In my mind, I hadn’t yet fully discovered the power of freedom from the moral constraints of Christianity, and was eager to explore a life unfettered by obligations to anyone else; with summer break fast approaching, I ripped the Band-Aid off. Plus, there was a cute freshman who sat next to me in one of my classes.

I broke up with her out of the blue, taking her completely by surprise. As far as she knew, things were going great. We did the “cool” couple things at BJU like going to the Dating Parlor in order to make fun of the other couples who were in the Dating Parlor[7], illicitly meeting up at Westgate Mall in Spartanburg in order to make out in the movie theatre[8], and going over to the homes of brand new BJU staff members, which made them university approved chaperones, who had also been your friends/classmates the year before and either didn’t care what you did on their couch or were to afraid of being thought of as a Boje to say anything[9].

Our breakup was quite a traumatic event, both to her and within certain, large circles on campus. First, I had essentially been lying to her, and she, believing me, had reciprocated and had fully invested herself in our relationship, including allowing her grades to suffer a little because I had absolutely no interest in studying. Secondly, she was one of the “cool” kids on campus, and an uneasy alliance had settled in between me and her friends. They distrusted me from the get-go, and I was a smug jackass to them from the get-go. I would smile semi-politely when they would say something to me, and they would semi-politely greet me whenever they saw me on campus.  So, on one hand, they were very happy when I broke up with her (which made our eventual reconciliation awkward for some), but they were also concerned, rightly so, for their friend. They took the opportunity to let their friends and acquaintances in the student body know how they felt about me. My student counselor, Tom, whom you may remember from an earlier post, told me about the vitriol directed at me and how I was considered persona non grata by the “cool” kids. I didn’t care. At that point in my life, the opinion of BJU students was not a priority for me. I had already begun to learn that there was a hard and fast line of distinction between the “cool” kids at Bob Jones University and those on the outside whom I considered “cool.” That being said, and in hindsight, the “cool” kids at BJU were correct in their opinion and attempted ostracizing of me after I broke up with Bronwynne. I deserved it.

What did bug me about the whole brouhaha was that it had a negative impact on my wooing of that cute freshman girl who sat beside me. She told me that her friends had warned her about me. It took some smooth-talking (translation – lying) on my part to circumvent the outside counsel of her roommates and friends. She caved, and I rewarded her by ignoring the letter she sent me at the beginning of summer break (Bronwynne and I were already back together at that point). The next semester, my last, whenever I ran into that cute, now sophomore girl, she always had a look in her eyes that made me think she was contemplating enacting physical violence on me. I don’t think that anyone would have blamed her if she had.
 
I entered the summer of ’97 proud of myself. I was now an “actor,” had become the campus douchebag, and had had fun on my own terms. I believed that during that semester, and ultimately year, I had finally escaped and transcended the clutches and stench of Bob Jones University and by extension Christianity. That and my hair was almost down to my chin.


[1] Or so I believed. Years later, while working as a bartender in downtown Greenville, BJU students were obvious no matter what they were wearing, not wearing, or illicit activities they were engaged in.
[2] If your trivia team is in need of someone who is an expert on all things pop culture related from the years of 1996-2003, I’m your man.
[3] I have no idea if it’s a statistical absurdity.
[4] During the summer of ’97, I found out that one of my coworkers the previous summer had broken his back. He didn’t have health insurance and was also unable to work. My dad’s church took his family food, but the owner of the tree service company didn’t hold his job for him. That previous summer, I had asked him why he didn’t go work for one of the larger tree service companies that offered better pay and benefits. He said that he was helping his friend build his business and that it would pay out in the long run.
[5] The school billed me for it, so I only feel slightly guilty when I see it on my bookshelf.
[6] Please understand that I wrote that sentence, and some of the others, from my 1997 douchebag perspective.
[7] I’m beginning to think that I need to post a BJU dictionary for those who aren’t familiar with the fundamentalist sub-culture’s lingo. Dating Parlor -  big room filled with couches that couples sit on (but not to close) staring into each other’s eyes with the occasional conversation about “where” you’re going to go on your honeymoon; all this happens under the beady, watchful eyes of the Chicken Lady.
[8] At least in the mid-90’s, I think BJU students single-handedly kept the Westgate Mall movie theatre in business. We would all pretend to not see each other, which was difficult to do when the person at the next ticket window was showing their BJU id card for the student discount, too.
[9] The fearful ones were a risk. There was always the possibility that they would develop a  sudden attack of conscious and turn you in to the Dean of Students office. Better to stick with the chaperones that you knew were “cool.”

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