The other day, Greta Christina, over on her blog, asked for atheists’ “coming out” stories. “Coming out” is, I assume, terminology borrowed from the old Gay Liberation movement and refers to coming out of the closet. Of course, this presumes that there was a closet in the first place. Although my parents never discussed their lack of belief, I was vaguely aware that they didn’t follow a religion. My mother likes to laugh about the time when I was three or four and I asked her if we were “Hanukkah or Christmas.” If we had lived in a village, my grandfather, grumpy and cantankerous, would probably have been the village atheist.
However, Greta Christina says she’s looking for not only the dramatic coming-out-to-the-folks story, but stories about coming out to fellow students and others. I do have one of those.
I was the new kid in school. In my previous school I was being bullied and it had turned physical. Bullying was not the cause it is today. Not only did the school administrators do nothing about it, but during a conference with my parents the principal looked at me and directly asked what I was doing to bring it on. To this day, I don’t know. I think the girl was looking for a convenient target and I happened to fit the bill. In any case, this reaction on the part of the school alarmed my parents. Now that I’m an adult, I think they made the right decision. They pulled me out of school. As it happened, both my parents worked in public schools in different towns. My father worked in a large city with a big bureaucracy, but my mother worked in a small town. She talked to the relevant people and a day or two later I found myself listening to the song “Tell Me Why You Don’t Like Mondays” as we drove to the high school. She dropped me off before heading to the middle school where she worked and I sat on the lawn in front of the school for about an hour or so every morning waiting for school to start.
There were some demographic differences between the town where my former school was located and the new one. There was a distinct class difference. In terms of money, the difference was not huge, but the parents in my first town mostly had college degrees while in the second town most of the parents had learned trades. It was a prosperous blue-collar town of union members with steady jobs. In retrospect, it was a world that seems almost anachronistic today. Where the students in the first town were ethnically and religiously diverse, the new town was split almost evenly between people of Irish descent and those of Italian descent. They had one thing in common, however, the town was solidly, although not exclusively, Catholic. However, it was Catholic enough that, the first week there, someone helpfully pointed out to me in the lunch room the one Jewish student and attempted to identify the handful of Protestants. There was no hostility in this that I could detect. The Jewish girl was head of the cheerleading squad and one of the most popular girls by far. My guide seemed to think it was something of a novelty. Coming from a town that was about a third Jewish, this seemed frankly weird, but I don’t recall that I said anything.
Around this time, I had a minor injury which kept me out of gym class for an extended time. The gym teacher thought it was silly for me to sit on the sidelines watching the other kids several times a week, so it was arranged that I would go to the library where I would help the librarian shelve books. I’ve always been a bit of a loner, and this was generally a pleasant time for me. I would try to make myself useful, but there wasn’t always much to do. After putting away the cart full of books, I would take a novel and sit at one of the big library tables. One day, while I was reading, if my memory serves me well, Jane Eyre, several senior boys walked in. Although it was a small school, as a freshman I had never talked to any of them, but I recognized them because they were tall, handsome, buff and popular. They sat down at my table and started chatting with the confidence that popular students have that their presence is welcome, smiling as if we’d been friends for ages. They asked my name and what I was reading. They pretended to be fascinated by the romantic problems of Jane and Mr. Rochester with a seriousness that could only mean that they were flirting. They asked where I had gone to school before. They asked if I was Irish or Italian.
This shook me up a bit because I had been brought up to believe that there were certain questions that should never be asked and they were about occupation, ethnicity and religion. I can’t say I was offended, but I was taken aback, but the boys continued to be friendly and flirtatious as I answered, “Neither,” and gave a list of eight if they really wanted to know. They didn’t seem to care.
Then they asked, “What is your religion.” I said I was an atheist.
One of them said, “What’s that?” Another asked if I worshiped Satan with less apparent interest than he had shown in the plot of Jane Eyre.
I said, “No, that would be Satanists.”
So what did I worship, he wanted to know. Nothing, was my answer.
“Do you have a nickname?”
No, I regretted to tell them, I did not.
“You should have a nickname,” they all agreed with confidence. They mulled it over a bit. I was wearing a dark purple pullover. One of them decided that I looked like an eggplant. This seemed to tickle their collective funny bone and it was quickly decided that my nickname would be “Eggplant.”
The bell rang and the boys got up to go. One of them punched me on the shoulder and said, “See you around, Eggplant.”
This story could be entitled “How I got the world’s stupidest nickname.” Unless, of course, there’s someone called Artichoke.
Of course, this is a terrible story because, as we know, a good story contains drama and conflict. In a way, it’s packed with assumptions about ethnicity, identity, class and religion, but in the end it’s all rather anti-climatic, and that’s a good thing in real life if not in stories. Yet I think it’s a good story to tell because there is no need for these things to create conflict. We live in a pluralistic world that’s becoming more pluralistic by the day. I think the boring stories need to be told, too, because they’re part of a bigger picture.