Saturday, January 13, 2007

Saving Tammy's Soul

Yesterday a student reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago. With all that's been in the news (and on Another History Blog) lately, perhaps folks won't mind if I share the essay with a larger audience. It's a personal statement that touches on what I think are some pretty big issues.

I titled it "Saving Tammy's Soul."
I went to Woodlief Elementary School when I was in sixth grade. Woodlief was a little farming community in piedmont North Carolina. My father was the Methodist preacher there. The people of Woodlief were conservative folks, in their politics, in their social outlook, and in their religion.

We had Bible study once a week at school. The teacher was Miss Brazil, a retired missionary. Miss Brazil conducted the class like she would Sunday School. It wasn’t “The Bible as Literature” or “Christianity in a Comparative Perspective”; the class was unapologetically evangelical, proselytizing, beginning and ending with prayer, full of the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross and the promise of God’s grace.

The son of a minister who had always preached in rural North Carolina churches, I saw nothing wrong with the class. And I liked Miss Brazil, a sweet and gentle soul.

Bible study was not required. Students could (with their parents’ permission, I suppose) leave the classroom and spend the hour in the library. In my class, all the students stayed, except one. Tammy was a pretty girl, smart and pleasant. I could never figure out why she left the classroom when Miss Brazil came in.

Tammy always wore nice clothes. I didn’t know her parents. Perhaps they were professionals, maybe doctors or lawyers. I assumed they weren’t church-goers.

I wasn’t sweet on Tammy or anything like that, but I sure did hate knowing that she was going to Hell.

That was 1968. We moved away that summer, when my father was appointed to a church up in the mountains of North Carolina. I haven’t seen Tammy since, but I think of her from time to time.

I thought of her this morning, during my Georgia History class at Kennesaw State. The students and I were discussing Cherokee creation myths--how the earth was formed, the origins of suffering and disease, where the corn came from, that sort of thing.

According to Cherokee myth, the earth is an island floating in a huge sea. Hills and valleys were formed when the Great Buzzard, flying low over the earth when the ground was still soft, became tired and let his wings strike the ground. The first people were a sister and brother, who were alone until he struck her with a fish and told her to multiply. Animals developed diseases, which they aimed especially at hunters who failed to ask for pardon from the spirits of the deer they killed. Plants, more sympathetic to man, provided remedies for the diseases. And so on.

"What’s the purpose of myths?” I asked.

One student said, “To explain the inexplicable.” (She really said that. I have some sharp students.) We talked about Greek and Roman myths and how they helped people understand their place in the universe and how the world functioned--explaining the inexplicable.

Someone brought up the creation story from Genesis--Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the serpent and the apple, why women now suffer in childbirth--and pointed out the similarities and differences between that and the Cherokee version of creation.

And that’s when I thought of Tammy.

The “liberal” in “liberal arts education” means “broad”--both a broad education (in the arts and humanities, rather than a narrowly focused vocational or professional education) and one that results in a more broad-minded perspective.

A liberal arts education teaches us that the people we study were the product of their time and place. In a very real and significant sense, and in ways they probably never realized, their culture dictated who they were and what they believed.

Once students understand that, I hope they take the next step and realize that the same thing applies to us: we too are the product of our time and place.

That’s a big step, and not always an easy one. The idea that we are tied to our culture just as much as were the people we study--well, it can be unsettling.

But it’s an important idea, one I wish I could go back thirty-five years and teach that boy at Woodlief Elementary School, the one who was worried about Tammy’s soul.
See, it wasn't Tammy's soul that needed saving ....