Great Moments in American History:  Dodgeball and Gender at Mary L. Daly Elementary School in early 1972

One of the very important things I learned in the 4th grade was that you don’t mess with Sharon Osowski.

That lesson was learned one day in early 1972 at my elementary school in Elkhart, Indiana.  On that particular afternoon, the weather was quite nasty and our class could not go outside for afternoon recess.  But there was a problem.  Our teacher, Mr. Bacon, had been counting on making an important phone call while we were out on the playground.   What to do?

Mr. Bacon improvised.  He told the girls that they were going stay in the room and the boys were going to go down to the gym to play dodgeball.  I am pretty sure he reasoned, quite logically, that the girls were mature enough not to foment a revolution while unsupervised.  And I am pretty sure he reasoned, quite logically, that the boys were immature enough that if they occupied themselves with a mindless game of running and throwing and catching and dodging, they would not figure out how to foment a revolution.

Ah, the criss-cross texture, the bright red color, the little black rubber air hole, the slight smell of rubber:  this is the stuff of 4th Grade Bliss!

Ah, yes: the checkered texture, the bright red color, the little black rubber air hole, the faint smell of rubber: this is the stuff of 4th Grade Joy!

My reasoning was that the day had suddenly turned into something of a holiday.  There was no greater gift that God could bestow upon us at school than that absolutely wonderful game of dodgeball.  The joy was that much greater when the gift arrived unexpectedly.  And so, we boys went down to the gym and had a great time.

After a while, Mr. Bacon came into the gym and directed us back to the classroom, ahead of him.  We returned in a state of 4th-grade boyish bliss.  But as we walked into the classroom we were puzzled by the general state of things.  We found the room quiet and empty, completely devoid of girls.  This was strange.

Then, as we walked to our tables to sit down, the door to the girls’ bathroom suddenly swung open.  (Each classroom in this school had a boy’s and a girl’s bathroom connected to it.)  Sharon Osowski came marching out, leading the entire class of girls.   In a truly remarkable display of group discipline, the girls popped out from that small bathroom in single-file formation — there came Amy Peterson, Jodi Romberger, Karen Osowksi (Sharon’s twin sister), Mary Lovejoy, Cynthia Vaughn, and more — the whole female lot of them.  They each had written slogans on notebook paper that rang with cries of injustice.  Things like “Girls Can Play Dodgeball, too!” and “Boys shouldn’t have all the fun!”  They had taped these to their rulers, which they held aloft, protest-style.  And as they marched around the room, they chanted something like “Unfair to Girls!  Unfair to Girls!”

It was a sight to behold.

Indeed, I was a bit amused at first. But as I took my seat at my table and watched the girls snake around the room, I became annoyed.  It seemed to me like the girls were blaming the boys for this whole dodgeball situation.  But what had I done?  I only went down to the gym because Mr. Bacon told us to.  It wasn’t my fault that the girls didn’t get to play dodgeball.   To my way of reasoning, their protest seemed a bit unfair to us boys and, quite frankly, unduly confrontational.  And as that protest line, led by Sharon Osowski, marched closer to my seat, something in me just snapped.  I suddenly reached up and ripped the paper off of Sharon’s ruler.

This was a mistake.

It was a mistake for a number of reasons.  1) You don’t mess with Sharon Osowski.  2)  I was sitting and she was standing, so she had the height advantage.   3) She held a dangerous weapon in her hand.  4) Mr. Bacon had just walked through the door, the instant before I snapped.  He saw the entire violent episode, brief as it was.

Several things happened very quickly at that moment.  Sharon Osowski, who knows how to use a ruler, immediately abandoned whatever principles of peaceful protest she had picked up from Martin Luther King, Jr.  She swiftly turned her plowshare into a sword and brought it down on my head.  For maximum effect, no doubt, she made sure that she did not lead with the flat side of the ruler, but with the edge with the metal strip.  I am here to testify that it hurt.

Before I even had a chance to consider whether or not I wanted to tangle further with Sharon Osowski, Mr. Bacon took control of the room.  Sensing that, despite his best efforts, the revolution had been fomented after all, he immediately ordered the girls to take their seats and, in no uncertain terms, told everyone to be quiet.

Don't let the peaceful exterior fool you.  Inside the walls of Mary L. Daly Elementary School, social conflicts of global proportions played out.

Don’t let the peaceful exterior fool you. Inside the walls of Mary L. Daly Elementary School, desperate 4th graders have struggled amidst a veritable maelstrom of social conflict.

He then turned his wrath upon the person most responsible for the social unrest he had witnessed. To my surprise, shock, and utter humiliation, that person was me.  Now, I hated to get in trouble and I especially hated it when my getting-in-trouble happened publicly.  But here, in front of the entire class, Mr. Bacon charged me with a whole list of crimes, which seemed to my fourth-grade mind to include assault & battery, vandalism, libel, and treason.  He may have mentioned the First Amendment.

With the rebellion quashed, the room returned to its normal elementary school productiveness, which probably meant mathematics or spelling or geography.  All I know is that my head hurt and I had been publicly humiliated.  I was trying hard not to cry in front of the five other classmates at my table, because boys were not supposed to cry.  As fate would have it, Sharon Osowski sat at my table.  But in addition to being an impressive community organizer, Sharon Osowski was a mature fourth grade girl.  And so, after a few minutes of listening to my sniffles, she apologized.  “I’m sorry I hit you, Jay,” she whispered.  “But you shouldn’t have ripped off my paper.”

In addition to being a disrupter of peaceful protests, I was an immature fourth grade boy.  So I did not apologize, or say anything in return.

It was, actually, a significant moment in American history.  I’m serious about this.  I’ll explain why in my next post.

(Historian’s note: The above account is how I remember the event. I need to point out that historians are very aware that people commonly mis-remember some facts about events that took place long ago, so some of my details may not be fully accurate.  However, I am quite sure that my joy for dodgeball, Mr. Bacon’s dilemma, Sharon Osowski’s sense of injustice, and my hurting head speak to the truth of what transpired on that fateful day).


The Bible vs. The Qur’an

No, this is not a post setting up a heavy-weight battle between two powerhouses who slug it out, like the Rome vs. Carthage, or the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, or Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner.

Not exactly, I guess.  But you know where my faith commitments lie.  So I confess that I want to make a theological point about how God works in the world and what that has to do with language.

If you have had some instruction in world religions or if you just pick things up about the world, you might know that, when it comes to language, Christians and Muslims view their sacred texts in different ways.  Christians believe that the Bible can be translated into any language and it will still be sacred.  It’s still the Bible.   Muslims, however, believe the Qur’an is only the Qur’an if it is read in Arabic.  You could translate it into English, but if you do that, it is no longer sacred and it is no longer authoritative.  In other words, to truly read the Qur’an as a sacred text, one has to read it in Arabic.

So what?

Mandinka boys....who actually seem a lot like boys everywhere, regardless of the language.

Mandinka boys….who actually seem a lot like boys everywhere, regardless of the language.

I began to understand the significance of this a number of years ago when I participated in a seminar led by Lamin Sanneh.  Sanneh, who today is Professor of World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, grew up as a Muslim in the Gambia.  His people were the Mandinka.  As a young boy, Sanneh was sent off to Qur’an school to learn the sacred scriptures. That meant, of course, that Sanneh had to learn Arabic. As I recall him telling the story, Sanneh internalized the message that his own language, Mandinka, which was spoken at home, in the market, and in the fields, was not a language fit for the holy things of Allah.

Years later, Sanneh was drawn to Christianity.  In the midst of the process of exploring Christianity, he had been struck by the reality that the Bible was translated into the Mandinka language.  All his Islamic training, of course, had taught him that one had to work very hard to master a very special language in order to approach Allah, (assuming one was a privileged male with access to Qur’an school to begin with.)  Yet here was Christianity, translating its sacred text into Mandinka.  What kind of God was this, whose holy words could be spoken in this language used by little girls, and pottery merchants, and goat-herders?

Translation, then, not only made it possible for the Bible to be spoken in Sanneh’s heart-language.  Biblical translation implicitly declares that God cares about the Mandinka language, Mandinka culture, and Mandinka girls and Mandinka pottery merchants and Mandinka goat-herders.  Not to mention Swedes, Brazilians, Kikuyu, Japanese, and Arabs.  This is a profound and mysterious way the incarnation works.  God meets us where we are.

I was reminded of this while reading John 4 this morning.  This is the wonderful story where Jesus stops to talk to the woman at the well.  The setting alone blows me away, when I think about it.  God did not have to become flesh.  And even then, God could have appeared anywhere in history, in any way, to anybody.  So, of all the prominent, godly, smart, talented, or notable people down through history whom God could speak to, God chooses to have a compassionate face-to face conversation with an unknown Samaritan woman of dubious reputation.

What kind of God is this?


Boxing Day, The Wizard of Oz, Kikuyu Bibles, That Sort of Thing…..

And now, for a holiday that Americans don’t spend any money on….because it is British.

Many years ago, when I was teaching at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya, I took part in an old English tradition on Boxing Day.  As I found out, Boxing Day has nothing to do with that dubious athletic goal of punching another person senseless, (sorry for sounding like an elitist snob here, but why do we consider boxing to be a “sport?”)  Boxing Day, rather, stemmed from a 19th century tradition when people would box up food and other items on December 26 to take out to the neighborhood poor.

As a former British colony, Kenyans still celebrated Boxing Day.  Like the British, though, few Kenyans actually boxed up food for the local poor any more.   In fact, most Kenyans, like Americans, may not even know what this holiday was all about.  The Brits themselves may be a bit fuzzy themselves.  From what I can tell from my English friend and colleague, Malcolm Gold, when he was growing up the English primarily celebrated Boxing Day by watching “The Wizard of Oz” on the telly.  Because, you know, munchkins and flying monkeys.

A time-honored holiday tradition!  For some people, I guess.

A time-honored holiday tradition! For some people, I guess.

At any rate, one year when I was in Kenya, the chaplain of our school for missionary kids had decided that it would be good to resurrect the old English custom since there were a lot of poor in our area.   He had collected money from the students during the previous term and then purchased goods to take out to the community on Boxing Day.  I went along to help because it sounded like a good thing to do.  And I didn’t have TV reception to get “The Wizard of Oz.”

Our chaplain had worked with the Kikuyu elders of the local church to identify about a dozen of the poorest households in the community.  In Kenya this means those who are what economists would call “desperately poor” rather than just “poor.”   These people had far fewer resources than those in poverty in the US — we’re talking about people who make something like $200 to $600 a year, with no soup kitchens, welfare or rescue missions around.  They were, of course, quite grateful to be getting a box full of food.  These people knew what it was like to have days when you did not have much, if anything, to eat.  And that is why I was rather surprised to see that a number of them got even more excited (as did a few neighbors who had gathered around) to find that our chaplain had included a Kikuyu Bible in the box.

Think of this:  you are poor, you sometimes don’t have enough food to eat, you receive a box of food, but you get most excited about a Bible in the box?

I could end the post right here with a nice evangelical moral about how valuable the Bible is.  I won’t do that though, for two reasons.  First of all, it is a little too simple.  It sounds a little too much like the sappy moralistic stories that Victorian Christians used to tell their children in Sunday School to get them to be good.  Therefore it would come off sounding shallower than what it really was.  (I ought to point out, though, that those same sappy Victorian Christians did think they ought to personally get up and try to do something to help others, which is much more commendable than sitting at home watching Judy Garland and Toto cavort with a scarecrow.   Though, you know, that would be fun).

Today you can get the Kikuyu Bible online for free...if you have enough economic resources to have internet access.

Today you can get the Kikuyu Bible online for free…if you have enough economic resources to have internet access.

The second and primary reason I don’t end the story here is because there are important theological and cultural dynamics at play here.  These were Bibles that had been translated into Kikuyu.  At that time, for reasons that I don’t understand, there had been publishing problems in Kenya.  Kikuyu Bibles were in short supply.  But not other Bibles.  There were plenty of English and Swahili Bibles to be found.  Most of the Africans in our community spoke Kikuyu, English and Swahili.  So, if they could get Bibles that they could read, what was so special about a Bible in Kikuyu?

The answer lies in understanding how language works and what that has to do with the Christian faith.  A friend of mine who is an anthropologist and a missionary talks about the importance of the “heart language.”  For those of us who grew up in the United States and really only know one language, this is kind of hard to grasp.  But for those who know several languages, there is often something special about the “mother tongue” or language that one learned first, as a child.  Great truths take on far more power, meaning and significance when they are communicated in the first language one learned.   It might be something like the mix of passions and emotions that can arise within you when you hear a favorite old hymn or song.  For those who grew up speaking Kikuyu before learning Swahili or English, a Kikuyu Bible will have far more meaning and power.

The “heart language.”  There is a lot to this — important theological, cultural and historical implications to this relationship between language and culture.  And it is important for the church today.  My plan is to explore these in the next couple of posts.


Mother’s Day, Termites, Advertising and Kikuyu Men. That Sort of Thing.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and that means we Americans are all busy spending money, just like we do with every holiday.  The latest estimates show Americans will spend $20 billion on Mother’s Day items this year, surpassing both Halloween and Easter.

I am sure you sense a critique coming, but before I launch into it, I have to confess that I am not a very good gift-giver.  What is worse, I haven’t always been as appreciative to my mother or my wife as I should be (on Mother’s Day or at other times).  So the questions about consumerism and holidays that I raise do not stem from my own virtue and righteousness.  Let me draw from some others.

First, it is worth noting that we Americans tend to turn every holiday into a spending spree.  I once met a fellow scholar from England who was visiting the United States over Memorial Day weekend.  He found the idea of “Memorial Day sales” to be very curious.  In Britain, Memorial Day (or Remembrance Day, as the Brits call it) is a somber event where one is supposed to honor and remember the many who have died in war.  It is serious business.  Why, my British acquaintance more or less asked, do we Americans think we should use the day to sell mattresses at half price?  Good question.

That raises the question of what consumerism does to the meaning, habits and practices of holidays.  Admittedly, as far as our holidays go, there is probably less self-indulgence in Mother’s Day as others.  It is more other-oriented than many.  Still, the economics of the thing has a way of shaping the meaning of the holiday.  Critics have argued that Mother’s Day is primarily an opportunity for florists, greeting card companies, restaurants and other companies to make a buck.

But has anyone ever been as ticked off about Mother’s Day as Anna Jarvis?  Angered by the “greedy” businessmen who dominated the holiday, she called them “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites.”

I like the “other termites” part.  It’s a nice touch.

Why was Anna Jarvis so mad?  Well, she pretty much invented the holiday.  Then she watched American consumerism kick in and take it places she did not want it to go.

Clever Title, don't you think?

Clever Title, don’t you think?

The story of the relationship between consumerism and Mother’s Day (and Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day) is told by Leigh Erich Schmidt in Consumer Rites:  The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.  (I received this book as a gift at Christmas one year — the ironies there make me happy).

Jarvis created the Mother’s Day International Association and convinced politicians, newspaper editors and church leaders to recognize the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1908.  A dedicated evangelical who grew up as a Methodist in West Virginia, Jarvis intended the day to be grounded in the church, where mothers would be celebrated not only for their domestic duties, (which, of course, is primarily how middle-class Americans thought of mothers in 1908) but to encourage others in their piety and roles in developing spiritual qualities in children.

And then, unintended consequences.  The very success of her movement ended up bringing her frustrations. Florists latched onto the day very quickly.  Jarvis had suggested that people wear white carnations to honor their mothers, a simple recommendation that sent prices for the flower skyrocketing each May.  By 1910, the floral industry began suggesting to customers that flowers also should be given to mothers as gifts.  And then, well, what the heck, why not decorate churches, homes, Sunday schools and cemeteries with flowers on the holiday as well?  Floral trade organizations encouraged aggressive marketing campaigns, while simultaneously advising their businesses that “the commercial aspect is at all times to be kept concealed.”  Americans, of course, are suckers for good advertising.  The catchy phrase, “Say it With Flowers” convinced many that spending money was the best way to express one’s affection for one’s mother.   By 1920, the holiday had been so deeply entrenched in the world of consumerism, that Jarvis despaired that the meaning of the holiday had been hijacked by commercial interests.  Hence the “other termites” thing.

Say what with flowers?  Do we know?

Say what with flowers? Do we know?

I can understand Jarvis’ frustration.  You may have noticed that consumerism bothers me somewhat.  That is fallout from living in Kenya for six years and coming back to the United States with new eyes.  Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out the implications of this system that envelops us.  I have been a bit suspicious that Mother’s Day is often more of a Hallmark-driven holiday than a grounded appreciation for important people in our lives.

You can imagine, then, that I was a bit nonplussed a few years ago when a Kenyan friend of mine told me about an African pastor he knew who had introduced Mother’s Day into his church.  This pastor had spent a number of years at a seminary in the United States and returned to Kenya with this idea.  Inwardly, I groaned a little, worried that it would end up simply embedding consumerism and materialism into this African church.

I should have known, though, that institutions that get transplanted in the soil of a different culture don’t grow into the same kind of plant.  Here is the situation:  traditional Kikuyu men were socialized into ordering around their wives (and other women) to do tasks. Like many traditional cultures, the Kikuyu have a fair amount of patriarchy embedded in the way they did things. One expression of this patriarchy was that husbands would not show any appreciation to their wives.  And that has all sorts of implications for how men and women related to one another, as well as how gender relations were structured.

We caught glimpses of this when we lived in Kenya.  There were times in public places when African men — strangers — would approach my wife and tell her how she should be parenting our young children.   And then expected her to act on those instructions.  Right there.

It takes a village to raise a child and it also takes a village to get women to act as the men want them to.

But the Kikuyu pastor, as my friend explained, introduced Mother’s Day as a way to instruct the men in his congregation that they were not only to do something nice for their wives, they were to recognize that women were important and valuable.  They were to tell their wives this and thank them for something they did.   These actions were quite different for the Kikuyu men in that church.  This pastor had not simply picked up the idea that Mother’s Day was about men buying flowers for mothers and wives.  He saw that the Christian faith had implications for gender relations — at the very least, men should not lord themselves over women.  There are far more implications for gender in the Christian faith than that, of course, but I find this a significant development for this church.

Whatever her flaws, (and she had them), Anna Jarvis would have been pleased, I think, with this Kenyan pastor.  She understood that the way we related to one another mattered.  Jarvis said that “any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter, than any fancy greeting card,” and she is probably right.  A card can prevent people from actually thinking about and articulating what is important in a relationship.

I’m not anti-gift (nor was Jarvis).  For many mothers, receiving gifts may be a meaningful way to accept the love of others.  But there are other ideas out there besides those we get in our advertisements.  Maybe we should think more deeply about whether gifts are the best way to express gratitude and honor those we love.  A phone call, a note, time together, making meals…I don’t know.  It probably depends.  I’m not very good at this, which means I need to think about it more.

I’d be interested to hear about any non-consumeristic ways you have of handling Mother’s Day.