by Tim Gilmore, 9/26/2020
1. Classroom Open to the Sky
My desk stood against this wall. Now there’s no roof above it. Where once I sat, working my way toward a math trophy, dog fennel grows up from a rotten floor toward buckled plaster and busted Venetian blinds on a window closed beneath an open sky. Longleaf pines reach high and green above the trailer park across the street.
How could I not have known of the fire? How couldn’t I have known the school shut down, and that it closed 30 years ago? How could I not have felt this piece of my early story vanish? Somehow, without thinking, I always assumed its continuance.
This is the school I attended near the ends of both my mother’s life and my innocence. This is the school I attended when I fell for one of the few Asian girls there, feeling strangely brave enough to announce it. Here, I tried unceasingly to keep myself from teasing Jimmy, the dirty hyperactive kid whose always exposed shirttail announced his last name in large Magic Marker letters in his mother’s handwriting. Here, I knew Jeremiah when he died in that gruesome car accident.
The church is much smaller than I remembered and the school, Kindergarten through 12th grade, was barely bigger. Here’s the courtyard where we played “Red Light, Green Light,” the stained glass windows where the hearse parked to take Jeremiah’s body to the gravesite, the small office that contained a) “the bookstore,” the couple of racks of Jack T. Chick tracts and fundamentalist comic books for which I saved my money, and b) the desk of the principal of the school and pastor of the church, Chris Pappas, who paddled me the last day of my attendance because the school bully had pushed me and I’d pushed him back.
Jeremiah’s death reminded me of the Chick tract called Somebody Goofed in which a boy races his car against a train, dies in the subsequent accident and ends up in Hell. He thinks he’s arrived with his friend, but the friend pulls off a mask, revealing himself to be Satan, and says, “You were wrong! You didn’t accept Jesus Christ as your own Lord and personal savior!”
I speak with Pastor Pappas on the phone tonight. He’s kind and gracious. He’s 82 years old. He was (almost) always gentle, even when the doctrines were not. Small as the school was, I’m surprised he remembers me. We talk about Jeremiah.
2. Sex Education and the Six Inch Rule
Behind the school building that burned a year and half ago, Michael once gathered several of us boys, dressed in the school uniform of blue dress pants, white button-up shirt and tie, and told us he’d learned some things about sex. We knew nothing and were eager to learn. We all knew “Sex education” was something sinful that happened in public schools, while Collins Road enforced the “Six Inch Rule,” forbidding students from physical contact. Protecting us from “Sex Ed,” the teaching of biological evolution, and public school racial desegregation was why my parents and those of friends had enrolled us in private schools.
So Michael told us what he’d discovered. Someone in his family was a nurse. He said girls had something like testicles that stayed up inside them. He tried to show us a manual with anatomical line drawings. We laughed and mocked him. We were embarrassed. He may or may not have used the word “ovary.”
My friend Nathan had told me “a dirty joke” he could hardly believe he’d heard from his own father. It had something to do with three dogs and their names. One dog was named Beethoven, because he was a pianist. Pee-’n’ist. Because the dog peed a lot. That was the dirty joke. The one time I went to Nathan’s house for a sleepover was the first night I ate Taco Bell. I was also coming down with a stomach bug and Nathan’s mom took me home before midnight. She told parents and classroom monitors I couldn’t handle “Mexican food.”
We didn’t have teachers, because the PACEs taught us. We had “classroom monitors” instead. Collins Road Christian Academy was an A.C.E. school and used Accelerated Christian Education, a curriculum begun by a private company in 1970 and meant to allow Baptist fundamentalism to rival those godless public schools. A student coming in from third grade in a public school could start equivalent level PACEs, short workbooks supposedly corresponding to public school grade levels. A PACE was a Packet of Accelerated Christian Education, and as fast as you could race through PACEs, you could accelerate through grades.
We sat in our cubicles, corkboard dividers on either side of our desks. In our private divided spaces, we worked on PACEs for science, math, history or English, according to our own laziness or initiative. If you needed a monitor’s assistance, you placed a small flag on a plastic wand in a designated hole above your “office.” I’ve never forgotten the way Miss Coston illustrated prepositions to me as words that fit the blank in the sentence, “The rabbit ran ___ the log.” You raised a “Christian flag” if you needed academic help and an American flag to ask any permission. We said pledges to both.
3. Jehovah Jireh and Jennifer
The 1985-’86 yearbook is 40 pages long, black and white, Xeroxed on glossy paper and stapled. Many of the images are too dark to make out what’s happening and the few captions contain simple grammatical errors and misspellings. Though the school taught that television and popular music were inherently evil, some of those captions allude to popular TV advertisements. A skinny student raising a fist in victory at a bowling alley accompanies the caption, “Raise your hand if your [sic] sure,” riffing off ’80s ads for Sure-brand deodorant. The name of the yearbook is spelled both “Jehovah-jireh” and “Jehovah Jirah.”
The front cover shows a knight on a horse and says, “Collins Road Christian Academy” and “Jehovah-Jireh,” the name of the place mentioned in the Book of Genesis where God demanded Abraham bind his son Isaac as human sacrifice. In the story, God offers a ram as a substitute at the last minute, but only after Abraham has proven his faith by being willing to cut his son’s throat. (“Jehovah” is also written “YHWH,” the unpronounceable Tetragrammaton, the four letters, in Talmudic exegesis, representing the true name of God, which cannot be uttered or represented.) When I was 11 years old and my mother lay paralyzed at home, dying from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, it never occurred to me that naming a school yearbook for the place where Abraham agreed to murder his son might seem odd.
Just inside the yearbook’s front cover, a smudged photocopied image of a tiny black boy appends the caption, “In Memory of Marco Damon West. Bloomed on earth / Blossomed in heaven.” I vaguely recall that the school’s one black student died, first grade, regret I know not how to honor his life. I remember Jeremiah Blair, pudgy and blond, my age, who died in a collision with a semi-truck. I remember his funeral. I’d remembered he was decapitated, but after 35 years, couldn’t recall the source of this gruesome information. When I spoke with Chris Pappas tonight, he said it was Jeremiah’s grandmother the truck trailer beheaded, not my friend.
I’d forgotten I’d won second place in the junior high spelling bee that year. My friend Alan took third. I still have the award ribbon somewhere. I’m disappointed I didn’t do better. The school had only 81 students, including nine seniors and four Kindergartners. Though spelling bee categories included “senior high” and “junior high,” we didn’t use those terms. After Kindergarten, grades one and two had 12 students, including the Hall twins and Alan’s little sister. Other than seniors, the other grades split into Learning Center One and Learning Center Two.
I see Jennifer’s yearbook photo in “Learning Center One,” just northeast of me with my bowl-cut hair combed straight down. I’m shocked to see I crossed out Jimmy’s face, beside mine, with a pen. There’s Nathan, opposite end of the middle column from Jennifer, Nathan, whom I was administered “swats,” as paddlings were called, for pushing back, and Jennifer, the contours of whose face and kind smiling eyes absorbed me. Never could I separate beauty from kindness and intelligence. As my mother lay dying, I was falling for a Filipina at the end of my childhood.
Kim’s photo is next to mine. I thought she was so pretty. I think I thought of her for a time, it may’ve been weeks or days, as my girlfriend. I think it was Betsy, but if I’m wrong, I apologize for misprisions of childhood memories, who flirtatiously called me “Tiger Eyes.” I never quite knew why.
4. Corrupting the Youth
I hung out at my friend Michael’s house several times in the afternoons. He was raised by a single dad who was always at work. Michael introduced me to rock n’ roll, which all my life I’d been taught was Satanic. Pastor Pappas told us about it in Chapel on Fridays, when all students congregated in the church sanctuary. He quoted Frank Zappa, something tongue-in-cheek about creating music to corrupt the nation’s youth. “Straight from the horse’s mouth.” We heard rock songs played backwards for secret messages supposedly called “backmasking.”
At Michael’s house, we listened to Peter Frampton’s 1976 live recording of “Do You Feel Like We Do?” from Frampton Comes Alive, so I could hear how Frampton made his guitar talk. He showed me a Playboy video of a woman swimming naked and the curves of her breasts broke the lines by which I arranged things in my mind. Sometimes, Michael said, he smoked his dad’s cigarettes. When he pointed out that I’d loaded the cigarette backward in my mouth, I laughed, said I’d meant to do it, because I didn’t want to smoke.
He introduced me to the heavy metal band Iron Maiden and 1970s and ’80s custom van art. He showed me Iron Maiden’s mascot “Eddie” in album illustrations, told me how a sky-high skeletal demonic Eddie stepped out over the audience at concerts. In our 15 minute breaks at school, I glanced at Michael’s father’s van magazines. In the 1970s, the personalized full-sized van was like a playboy apartment on wheels, part muscle car, part sex pad, with swanky and sleazy interiors often featuring shag carpet and funky lights, and with custom frescos painted on the outside. People drove their vans across the country to show them off at van shows. The sides of these vans depicted naked women, serpents, eagles, naked women consumed by serpents and eagles, and naked women spread-eagled.
More than a dozen magazines devoted themselves to “vanning” in the 1970s, some had survived into the ’80s, and Michael’s dad was a connoisseur of them all. There was Van World, Vanner’s Guide, Hot Rod Vans, Custom Van and Truck and Van Ideas. Somehow, one of Pastor Pappas’s sons, I think it was Jimmy, confiscated a magazine showing cartoon women in various acts of ecstasy with snakes and dragons. I don’t know why we didn’t get in worse trouble.
Jimmy Pappas once snatched a sheet of paper I’d passed to a friend with a Top 10 list of fictional pop songs with names I thought hysterically funny. He brought me aside and asked me accusatorily how I knew so much about popular music. Truth was, I didn’t, I’d made it all up, but I felt like some kind of child deviant. The time I accidentally farted in his class and girls curled their lips and shunted away their desks and I felt my face turn oven-hot crimson, he snapped, “Mr. Gilmore, do you have a problem?” I shook my head no, unable to speak. “Sure you do,” he said. “Next time it happens, you’re going to the principal’s office.” The principal, of course, was his father.
5. All Our Righteousness as Filthy Rags
Chris Pappas grew up Greek Orthodox, his parents immigrants, joined the Marines, then realized at age 26, according to a public testimony, that “all his good works, in which he had placed his trust, damned him to hell.” So he “agonized” in misery, realized he was “vile,” begged God’s forgiveness and attended Luther Rice Seminary.
If that seems extreme, it’s the Calvinist Biblical understanding with which I grew up, that of Isaiah 64, which calls each one of us an “unclean thing” and says our very best is nothing but garbage, “all our righteousness as filthy rags.” It’s the notion of “Original Sin,” that we’re born evil and hellbound, without which fact Jesus’s death as vicarious atonement made no sense.
The pastor’s statement of core beliefs says, “Christ is to be exalted as the only Savior of the world,” that “Marriage is to be a picture and a reflection of the love relationship between Christ (the Groom) and the Church (His Bride),” and that “Fathers / Heads of Households should discipline all those within their home.”
That too aligns with the patriarchy in which I was raised. I once argued bitterly with my father after we sat together in his church on Father’s Day in his last years and heard his pastor say an abused wife had no right to leave her husband, but needed to put all her faith in her truer husband, “the Lord.” I’ve raised my daughters to think very differently, and if there’s an irony in that, since I’m their father, they’re smart independent young women, of whom I’m proud. I’m their dad, not their Moses or their Noah.
My father spoke highly, at first, of Pastor Pappas. Across my mother’s sickness, everything changed. She lashed out at my father. I lashed out, taking my mother’s side. She saw strange men standing by her bed. My father said they were angels. When he brought in his Bible and asked her to join him in devotions, she called him a hypocrite. I lay down by her paralyzed side to read her Psalms and the Book of Revelation. I looked everywhere for the angels and tried to hear their voices.
When Pastor Pappas began picking me up in the church van to drive me to school in the mornings, his views on Predestination and the Rapture bothered my father more and more. Predestination meant God knew before we existed which of us would enter Heaven. “Free will” seemed not to matter. Still more controversially, amillennialism, emphasis on the one-letter prefix, indicated that God would not prevail on earth for 1,000 years after the Rapture (that singular event when God pulls Christians up into Heaven and leaves everyone else on the doomed and damned earth) because God already prevails. My father wrestled with Predestination, admitted the Bible supported it, but stuck by the Rapture.
One of our PACEs said gentleness required strength. I still believe it. Chris Pappas was gentle and loving. Until the paddling. When my father picked me up from school that final day, he said the swats didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be coming back. My mother was gone. This chapter was done.
On the phone tonight, despite decades, I recognize Chris Pappas’s voice right away. He thinks the school closed sometime in the early ’90s, ’92 or ’93, but isn’t entirely sure. There’d been a split in the church, he says, and then another split. At the end, the school taught only elementary grades. It broke his heart to close it. He’s always hoped it might reopen. His sons Jimmy and Alan, who taught and coached at the school, went on to careers in logistics.
Before he’d come to Collins Road Baptist Church in the late 1970s, the tiny congregation couldn’t keep a pastor for more than a few months. The church started in 1950, the school in 1978. Collins Road Christian Academy lasted about 15 years and has been closed for 30, but it was an extension, Chris Pappas says, of his family. I remember feeling a part of it.
6. Jesus Brings the Sword
I still have the math trophy. It consists of a plastic oil lamp atop a blue cylinder with a marble base bearing the inscription, “Collins Road Christian Math Award.” That I received this award is no indication of my math skills.
From my high school Stanford Achievement Test to my Graduate Record Examination to apply to the University of Florida’s Ph.D. program, my math scores tanked beside my analytical reasoning and verbal scores. The two halves of my brain seemed to belong to two different people.
But in 1986, by the time I’d finished enough math PACEs to earn my trophy, I’d supposedly exceeded public school equivalencies so that mathematically I was two or three years ahead. In fact, by the time I finally transferred from Trinity Christian Academy to a public school in 10th grade, I was so far behind in math, I’d never catch up.
I was, however, excelling in reading and writing in ways Collins Road Christian Academy encouraged but barely recognized. I read everything assigned and more, finding and imbibing and synthesizing texts in discourse to those I’d been assigned. Perhaps no other Jacksonville schools were so grounded in text and exegesis as private Biblically based institutions, though they valued strict adherence to absolutist understandings, not critical interpretation.
Still, the differences between Scriptural meanings I learned at school and those I heard elsewhere at church made me wonder how the same texts could be understood so differently. I argued with classroom monitors. It surprised me even as the words came out of my mouth.
One monitor said God hated sinners. I quoted him childhood lyrics, “God is love,” and asked him how “God is hate” would sound? He quoted me the fifth and sixth verses of the first Psalm: “Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” Thus: “The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
I had, at my side, scripture I’d memorized and thought about and internalized, but he had more. Jesus may’ve “turned the other cheek” when struck, but Matthew 10:34 warned: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but the sword.”
Evangelicals all voted the same—thanks in part to political fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and groups like Moral Majority—but politics weren’t supposed to eclipse faith. We were “in the world, but not of the world,” stark difference in prepositions. Republicans still spoke of “family values” and “a kinder, gentler nation.” I can’t imagine the evangelicals and fundamentalists of the 1980s could have sold Donald J. Trump their souls, nor their birthright. They might even have dubbed him the Antichrist.
I remember Pastor Pappas visiting us, me and my father, at home. My mother was on her deathbed. He told us God sometimes took longer to end suffering than he did my mother’s. Truly, God’s taking my mother quickly, her sickness into paralysis lasting only (only?) two years, signified God’s great grace and his love for me, his child. But I was my mother’s child, and it took more strength than I had left to try to see my mother’s death in this light.
At the end of every workbook, we left the metal folding chairs at our cubicles, having stuck an American flag in the hole above the corkboard divider, and approached the table in the center of the room to take that workbook’s final test. If we passed, we got a star on our chart. If we passed with an A, the star sticker was gold. The charts in my office, lined alongside the other student offices facing the walls around the room, I’d covered in gold stars. My mother always told me God had a special plan for me. I’d no idea how small was my place in the world, how inconsequential these successes.
Now these rooms have no ceilings. The earth grows up around and through the detritus of fire and rot, reclaiming the world as it’s done from the start. I’ve deleted a thousand words about “Popcorn Day,” with its dozens of flavors, and my time on Collins Road’s basketball and flag football teams. There are worlds more of truth than I’ve said. There are more worlds left unsaid than I’ve shared.
In these rotten roofless rooms lie sodden copies of books on Calvinist principles and what looks like a real grenade with the safety pin attached. I still don’t know what started the fire. I spoke to former students, none of whom seemed to know when or why the school had closed. One former monitor said, “Things change.” Even Chris Pappas couldn’t tell me for sure. Years blurred. They’d always believed in self-isolation, but now the fact that the school ever existed seems almost invisible.
One time Craig, the little boy with thick glasses who told me he liked houseflies, told me he wasn’t saved. He was seeking. “Saved” meant you’d “accepted Jesus into your heart” and wouldn’t burn forever in Hell. I was stunned. His mother was a monitor and his siblings attended the school. Had I heard him wrong? A Sea King? That’s how I heard it. And why did the Sea King like houseflies?
But verses in the Book of Matthew said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”
I assume and hope Craig found what he sought. I haven’t. Faith, Craig’s sister, tells me, “Jeremiah was my brother’s best friend and his death shook him up so bad that’s when he did question his salvation and accepted Jesus as his Savior shortly after the funeral.” She started Kindergarten here, four years old, 1979, left after her freshman year, ninth grade, when the school shut down, 1990. Her time at Collins Road extended the school’s full span.
I’ve been seeking and knocking since my mother got sick. Often people with answers are terrifying, while those with questions give me hope. Besides, I like asking questions and I like coming up with my own. It keeps me moving. When you stop asking questions, you’ve come to the end.