Feb 10, 2015

A Letter to Mrs. Frost - Part I & Part II

Huffington Post
Scott Terry
February 10, 2015

My seventh-grade teacher in Evanston, Wyoming, Mrs. Ronci, recognized that I was hungry, and in ways that were unbeknownst to me she wrangled a simple lunch-time job in the school cafeteria where I handed out cartons of milk each day in exchange for a free lunch. It was the first time in my childhood when I recognized that some people, teachers in particular, knew more about me than I desired. I never thanked Mrs. Ronci for her generosity because hunger was something I wanted to keep secret.

For the last few years, I've been feeling an overwhelming desire to contact some teachers from my past. That's typical for cult or abuse survivors like me, I think. Children who grow up in fringe religions, or cults if I use the term I favor, often find themselves where I am today -- craving a need to reconnect with all of those generous and insightful teachers from past decades who had some influence on our lives. Influence that we might not have recognized as being significant at the time, but we now look back upon fondly, wishing we could show our belated gratitude.

Mr. Romero, my fifth-grade teacher, was the first to encourage me to explore my passion to write. Mr. Romero was a thick Italian ex-Marine with a bushy moustache who had just arrived home from the war in Vietnam, and he was my first crush. I adored Mr. Romero. I loved him as much as any 10 year old can love a teacher with childish adoration. Like many children who develop adolescent feelings for teachers, I cried when school ended and Mr. Romero disappeared from my life. I cried when I realized he would never again read my stories.

My writing took a bizarre turn the following year when I fully embraced my religion. A primary doctrine of the Jehovah's Witnesses is that members must share their spirituality with everyone who will listen. Mrs. Georgia Frost, my sixth-grade teacher in Piru, California, endured umpteen written essays from me in which I extolled the many virtues of the Witnesses. Throughout their history, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been expecting the immediate arrival of Armageddon, and I inserted that topic into my writing at every possible opportunity. Sharing my faith with Mrs. Frost, through my writing, brought praise and approval from my parents and fellow Witnesses. I shared my religion with everyone who would listen and then reported the time on my Monthly Field Service Report that the Witnesses require of all members. Yes, that is what I did. I craved the accolades it brought to me, and besides, the End was near. I must share it with everyone. That was a duty imposed upon me by religion.

That same year, my Aunt Jackie received a letter in the mail that she claimed was from Satan. The elders in our Kingdom Hall rushed over and stood around her kitchen, praying to Jehovah, while they lit the letter on fire in her kitchen sink. They had difficulty getting it to burn, which only fueled their assertions that it was from Satan.

In my home, my parents gave out frequent lectures and warnings that I might arrive home from school one day to find that my family had been hauled off to jail for worshipping Jehovah. If that were to happen, I must, as instructed, run to the hills to search for other Witnesses who were evading capture and patiently wait for the death and destruction of an angry God to bring our wicked world to an end. I was 11, and I believed every word my parents and my religion told me. I shared them, ad nauseam, in written school assignments with Mrs. Frost, except for the letter that Aunt Jackie got from Satan. I never told Mrs. Frost about that. Even I knew it sounded crazy to claim to receive mail from Satan.

I wrote a lot about death for Mrs. Frost. Witnesses were likely to be killed for serving Jehovah, I told her. I quoted scriptures. I quoted passages from Witness literature. I assured Mrs. Frost that Armageddon was near. I did not need to focus on education, I told her. The End was near. My religion promised me so.

I was absolutely gifted with the ability to weave religious themes into her assignments. When Mrs. Frost wanted me to write about the American Bicentennial celebration, I wrote about the 200 year anniversary of our country and then segued into a brief discussion about the celebration being a sin, not to mention the fact that Jehovah was going to destroy our country soon. The End would arrive any day now, I wrote.

What I wrote was often a lie. Genius, but full of lies. When Mrs. Frost assigned the task to keep a daily food log over the course of one week, documenting what I had eaten for breakfast each day and evaluating it in terms of my sixth grader's understanding of the USDA food chart, I lied. I lied like I'd never lied before. I constructed elaborate charts of what my breakfast had been, according to what I thought she wanted to believe. I painted a beautiful picture of two wonderfully fluffy scrambled eggs, maybe three slices of bacon, toast, and a glass of real milk.

Mrs. Frost never knew that I was often hungry when I entered her class, but I was sure to let her know about Witnesses who had starved to death in German concentration camps. Yes, starvation was a great thing to include in my food essay. My religion thrived on thoughts of persecution, death, despair, and starvation. Oh, how I wanted to please my religion. Pleasing my church assured me that I would survive Armageddon and live in a beautiful new paradise on earth where I would have plenty to eat. Food would be plentiful in the new world. The Jehovah's Witnesses had assured me so.
A Letter to Mrs. Frost: Part II

I'll never know how my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Frost, stifled the urge to push me out of my cult mindset, because she is certainly dead. I left her classroom more than 30 years ago, and how she was able to mark my essays with an A grade when she most certainly must have wanted to scream is beyond me. She somehow found the ability to encourage my writing while never crossing the line into what could have been construed as condemnation of my faith.

Not once did she utter a word of disapproval. As I would imagine is true of all great teachers, she must have yearned to push my religiously-imposed boundaries on creativity aside and see me write about things that didn't progress into biblical rants about Jehovah's Witnesses. But she didn't. Not once did she question what I wrote, nor did she ever cause me embarrassment. Not once did she acknowledge my blatant attempts to convert her to my faith.

Towards the end of that same year, a gym teacher discovered my sister's bruises and called the police. I will never know how much angst that must have caused her to report the abuse of a child to the authorities. How does a teacher handle a decision such as that? Two officers showed up on our driveway the next day, and my parents assured them that they would not inflict any more bruises. The officers left our home, satisfied with the promise, and my family then left town to join a new congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Wyoming where we hoped that people would not know about our bruises.

Mrs. Ronci entered my life in Wyoming. As teachers are wont to do, she doled out many writing assignments, but I had stopped writing about Armageddon about then. Teachers were not likely to be receptive to my proselytizing, I had realized.

Mr. Smith became my creative writing instructor shortly after. He taught me some wonderful literary skills that I had not previously grasped -- the proper use of pronouns, for example. Mr. Smith once instructed all of his students, including me, to write a very specific and personal essay about the love of our parents. His assignment was so foreign and unrelated to my life that I couldn't complete it. I couldn't tell Mr. Smith what my home life was like. I couldn't write about my parents, or the hunger, the anger, or the loneliness that was pervasive all through my childhood -- so I copied a story from a magazine in the school library and changed enough words to believe it had become my own.

Mr. Smith was so pleased by my essay that he read it out loud to the entire class. I squirmed in my chair and listened to words that weren't mine being read from a homework assignment that had my name written at the top, and wondered what would happen if my deceit was discovered.

It was discovered, two months later. Shortly after he found the original story from which I had plagiarized, Mr. Smith pulled me in to his office to discuss what he referred to as a private matter. After a stern lecture and threats to flunk me, he changed my course grade from an A to a C. An F would have been devastating. A C was a gift.

Just a few years ago, when my memoir was close to being finished and I had begun writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, I found myself thinking about Mr. Smith and what he had done for me. I should find him, I thought. Perhaps I would forward a few of the warm and fuzzy gardening stories I had written for the Chronicle to him. Surely he would be pleased to know that I had become a writer and had outgrown my juvenile immorality and willingness to plagiarize. He would remember me, I was certain. Perhaps he would forgive me, I hoped. Maybe not. No, perhaps he wouldn't forgive me. Plagiarism is an evil thing. It would be best to wait until my memoir was published and send a paperback copy to him, I decided. It would explain everything.

My memoir was published two years ago, and in our modern world of internet capabilities, it didn't take long to find Mr. Smith online. He was dead. Just a year earlier, Mr. Smith had passed away. He will never read my book. I wish I could have talked to him before he died. I wish I could talk to many teachers from my past whom I remember so fondly.

Today, I find myself thinking about teachers in general and the enormous responsibility that comes with their duty to teach and protect children. Is it a burden, I wonder? As gingerly as they must trod through the regulatory landscape in our education system, how do they focus on their teaching obligations when caring for children who have stories like mine?

If Mrs. Frost were alive today, would she remember me? I'm sure she is no longer influencing the lives of children, but I'd sure like to tell her how she influenced mine. For all of those teachers who must yearn for children to be free from abuse or religious indoctrination, I'd like to let them know that I did escape from what was imposed upon me as a child. Sometimes, children do emerge, somewhat unscathed and undamaged from their childhoods. I am one of them. Looking back, my teachers affected my life, and for that, I am thankful.

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