They said he was coming soon. We were given no other information. For us this meant a lot of work preparing for his arrival. For the entire week we practiced in the hot sun, marching, singing, repeating words of welcome. None of us was enjoying this, not for one moment. Once back inside the school house, we returned to reading, writing and recitation. The period for arithmetic and geography was taken up by marching and singing. We had rehearsed the national anthem and, of course, “God save the king” repeatedly, which convinced some of us that it must certainly be difficult for the king to be saved. The guest’s arrival had been announced many months ago. The initial excitement and expectation fizzled over time, and all enthusiasm disappeared when the marching started. The rest of the day was normal. The children were restless as is customary, especially on Friday afternoon, waiting for three o’clock and dismissal. Promptly at three o’clock the head-master rang the bell. Everyone stood at attention. The head-master prayed a stern prayer as fervently as if this was his last day on earth. No one really listened. We wanted to hear “amen” which was a good clue he was winding down. Today he had already said “amen” three times with no signs of ending. This was disappointing. The weight of the prayer led to fidgeting and low sounding giggles, but nothing as disrespectful as a cough or other vile things. The final “amen” was received gratefully, but then we were told to sit and wait for an announcement. This was clearly unusual, and if I may say so, inconsiderate. We had already tolerated a lengthy prayer. It was the custom to bolt for the door at the “amen.” Today, it seemed, something was up.
The head-master introduced a gentleman whose name escapes me. He was short and rather stout in stature, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt. He held a fan in his right hand with which he relieved the heat in his red face. Someone in the back of the class giggled noisily, and the teacher wrote down her name for later castigation. The stranger announced that the special person for whom we had been preparing was to arrive on Monday morning and all of us were expected to be present. He sat down without thinking to thank us for our patience or the inconvenience. We immediately made for the exit, but the head-master rang the bell and stopped us in mid-step. He was not done with us yet. He announced again that all of us were to be present. He expected everyone to bathe and wear our best clothes for the arrival of the special guest. Then, as if to show the stranger that he had total control of the school house, he dismissed us one class at a time, each forming a line and marching mannerly and respectfully. My class was just in front of the stage, so we were the last to leave. Mine was a very disciplined parochial school.
I did not think of school during the weekend. I seldom thought of school anyway. Very late in the day on Sunday I remembered to tell my mother that I must wear my best clothes on Monday for the event. This was, of course, the first time she heard of the event, as it was not my custom to let school events intrude upon my home. This was my way of showing respect to my parents while at the same time protecting them from any unseemly complaint about their child at school. More than a year ago in one of his Wednesday sermons the head-master had mentioned that one must not mix apples and oranges; more than that I did not hear. I assumed that he had brought that idea from his home in America, but I found it useful, and was in total agreement with him. We seldom saw apples in my country, but I knew an apple when I saw one, and I doubt that I would ever mix apples and oranges, nor did I mix school and home. I felt satisfied that his sermon had given me justification for my way of life and I pledged to listen more carefully next time.
I met Monday without enthusiasm. I had to go to school, which was distressing enough; now I had to wear ill-fitting clothes that I had last worn to the funeral of a relative, which I was forced to attend, because the deceased was a relative of my father, and all males must attend. To this day I do not know why. I had never been to a funeral for female relatives, though in my short memory two had passed, one, an adolescent, the other an ageing cousin of about thirty years of age. Monday morning at the school house was a sight to behold. The head-master stood at the door to examine each child for defect. I don’t recall that any was turned back, but it took some time to settle in each class. The normally authoritarian and severe teachers were overtaken by an anxiety that was clearly visible. Everything had to be just perfect. I was sure that no one was enjoying this day. Upon the stage in front of me were many folding chairs not yet occupied, and also special chairs for important guests. I thought that we were going to have many guests on the stage, which I relished, because they were often more entertaining than the speakers we had had.
The head-master rang the bell and everyone stood to attention. We were well rehearsed. He opened the day with a prayer that sounded more like a lament than a benediction, but children could not be expected to know the difference. After the prayers we sat down in an orderly manner that would be expected in a parochial school. The head –master then announced that the third standard (3rd.grade) had been selected to sing the national anthem and we were asked to take our seats upon the stage. I was surprised and annoyed. I don’t know all the words to the national anthem, and of course we were to sing “God save the king,” which I don’t remember well either. However, my class had several good singers and I would not be noticed in the back. We took our seats, with decorum, in silence, as befits a chosen group.
With great excitement the guest entered the school house with two attendants, probably from the church as they were both dressed in black suits and wore a somber look. He ascended the stage with a flourish, shook hands with the head-master and took his seat. I am sure that this was rehearsed as it was flawless. The head-master led the third standard in the expected songs and motioned us to sit. The guest saluted us with polite applause. The head-master then introduced the guest, reading from a printed page. He spoke for so long that I wondered if the guest were ever going to get a chance to speak.
Our guest was identified as an Evangelist. He was taller than anyone I had ever seen, and sweated more than most. He was clearly uncomfortable in this heat. Added to that, it was Monday, and the slaughterhouse was open, the breeze bringing the scent of things to which he was not accustomed. He had come from America, a place called Moline, as best I can remember. I cannot tell you his name for I made no effort to remember it. I don’t think any of us knew what an evangelist was. Whatever they were, they did not live among us. However, all of this was cleared up by his very first words. “Jesus is coming to save you from your iniquities.” I knew immediately than an evangelist is a preacher, but not like the preachers here. An evangelist is a preacher that comes from far away, from America, to save children from the devil. I was very impressed.
“Jesus is coming to take away your iniquities,” he repeated. I only got the part about iniquities. I thought, I don’t have any iniquities for Jesus to take away. If I had had any, my mother would certainly have taken them away by now. Since the third standard class was nearest to him on the stage, he decided to use us as an example. After speaking about sin for about an hour he was going to apply lessons learned to us. He knew a lot about sin, I must give him that. He was going to deliver us from sin and set us free and show us the way to eternal life. He spoke with conviction and sincerity. And perspired profusely.
But he knew nothing about the third standard class. The third standard is an impregnable heathendom, impenetrable to commands, exhortation or threats. We believe everything. We believe nothing. But never for more than a few minutes, certainly not long enough to be delivered from hell. The third standard is filled with vortices of challenges into which ideas, beliefs, doubts, rumors, are all sucked by the minute. No belief survives; no doubt survives. The third standard is a laboratory of creation and decay, where certainty and uncertainty come to be born and to die. It is a place where we are the experimenters, challenging the forces of knowledge and learning. We are an encyclopedia of possibilities waiting to gain a footing. The third standard is where the art of living takes its first steps, where first love strikes hard without warning, and where each desk is filled with broken hearts.
The Evangelist knew none of this.
He prayed over us, a long and tiresome prayer, smacking his lips occasionally apparently in satisfaction that his prayer was effective. When it was all over, and he departed after receiving a fond farewell, we all went back to our seats. The teacher handed out small leaflets that we were to take home and read and returned the next day, upon which to be questioned as to content. I did not take mine home. I stuck it under my desk with bit of glue for safe-keeping. It was one thing to be delivered from hell. It was quite another to have to read about it. I just don’t mix apples and oranges. When Monday ended with the obligatory prayer by the head-master, we were given another surprise announcement, that the Evangelist would return the next day to continue his work of redemption. I could not understand why. This went on all week and we grew to like it because little time was left for teaching or homework. Each day a different class was chosen to sit on the stage and was delivered from hell, the reputation of the Evangelist growing more solid with each new soul rescued.
Friday arrived none too soon for all of us, and I would think also for the teachers as well. All enthusiasm for the Evangelist had been diverted to three o’clock post meridian, the time for dismissal, and for us, the real deliverance. However, all did not go well for me. I had noticed during morning prayer a book on the teacher’s desk, poems by Wordsworth. A while ago the head-master had quoted a poem by Wordsworth in one of his Wednesday sermons. Immediately I wanted to be able to quote poems by Wordsworth. I could not resist this opportunity of poems by Wordsworth on the teacher’s desk. I took it without permission and was reading it covertly under the lid of my desk my desk. I was searching for the poem about daffodils when I was discovered. This was definitely proof that I had not been delivered from the devil. I received six lashes with a cane on the seat of my pants for my moral failure in front of the class as was customary. My deliverance had failed, and I blamed the Evangelist for the evident rise in moral awareness in the school house. But I would not be deterred. In the midst of the lashes, I decided that I would read Wordsworth this weekend, and that matter was settled once and for all as far as I was concerned,
Later that morning we listened to the Evangelist. But it was Friday and the boys in third standard came with regular gear, rubber bands and dried beans, instruments of war. Often during the Evangelist’s preaching someone would leap to his or her feet with a loud cry, the result of dried beans reaching their mark. These cries the Evangelist mistook for jubilant surrender to Jesus. His preaching, motivated by such signs of success, became even more fervent, even to inviting people to stand up and profess their faith. Many in the school stood, and this was a golden moment of opportunity. Dried beans found their targets and children jumped and howled. The Evangelist sensing a movement of spirit was as close to glory as one might come and still remain in this world. You could see in his face the joy of new saints marching into the kingdom. His preaching had borne fruit, more than he ever expected. He finished his evangelism with what sounded like a prayer of victory. We had stopped listening around Tuesday at eleven o’clock to attend to the more urgent matter of the cohesion of the third standard. We were going to stick together to get through this ordeal. We certainly did.
Before the Evangelist left the head-master led us in a verse from “Beautiful Savior” which pleased the Evangelist. We gave him a rousing farewell as he prepared to lead another week of evangelizing at another parochial school some distance away.
Over all, it had not been a bad week. We probably learned more than we would admit. Children in the third standard continue to live within the whirlpool of education where nothing survives more than a moment, to give way to something new. This endless curiosity impelled us became stronger with the passing of time, and took us through the rest of our schooling. We developed minds to comprehend; eyes to behold; ears to hear; and the undying sense that nothing is too large for us to imagine nor too small to ignore. And for at least one person, a love of Wordsworth. But please, don’t look in the desks, they are still filled with first love broken hearts, each one lastingly precious.