(This summer my church has graciously granted me a sabbatical to finish my book, Too Smart for God. As I write, I’ll be posting some excerpts here for your enjoyment and for your feedback before I submit it to the inevitable rejection process. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter Two, about growing up in Richmond, Virginia until I was 12 (1974). This is specifically about the church where we worshiped during that time.)
During elementary school I was in the Cherub Choir, the coolest part of which were the white robes we wore on the rare occasions when they let us sing in church. If you pulled the collar up over your head, those robes made you into a mighty fine ghost! The Choir Director, a tightly wound woman who was more suited to working with professional choristers than snotty elementary school singers, somehow failed to appreciate the cool factor and demanded that we “wear those robes correctly or you won’t wear one at all.”
Christmas service my third grade year was going to be exciting because the Cherub Choir was going to put on those robes and sing TWO songs! One was “Silent Night;” all I remember about that one is the Choir Director’s apoplexy over our making the “peace” in the first “Sleep in heavenly peace” a big slur of notes rather than making a smooth transition between the syllables. She wanted “Pee-eece” We kept giving her “peeeeeeeece” with the “eee’s” climbing, climbing, climbing, ever higher.
But the biggest burr under the director’s piano bench was the “Pa rum pum pum pum”s in “Little Drummer Boy.” She wanted us to “roll those r’s” each time we said “rum.” “Pa rrrrrum pum pum pum” is the effect she wanted. I don’t remember her name, but I remember her rolling her r’s to demonstrate over and over as if our eternal salvation – and hers – depended on it.
But I was lost. You see, if I had been born in Mexico or some other Spanish-speaking country, I would have been thrown into speech therapy. Because it is impossible for me to roll my r’s. I’ve tried . . . Lord knows I’ve tried and never harder than in the Cherub Choir in third grade. But my tongue just would not cooperate.
One afternoon at rehearsal as Christmas drew near the Choir Director winced with each “Par rum pum pum pum.” I thought I could just blend in, but her trained ear was having none of it. “Who is not rolling their r’s? I’ll have each of you do it solo. Speak up now.”
What could I do. I raised my chubby hand, the shame of the Cherub Choir.
“Well, you just mouth the words to this one, David.”
“All of them, or just the par rum pum pum pums?”
She winced again at my flat “rum.” “All of them. The entire song. It won’t do for you to be jumping in and out.”
So on Christmas I stood there with the other kids in my white robe facing the congregation, doing my best not to slur the notes on “Silent Night,” then being Milli or Vanilli (of course this was 1971, long before “Girl You Know It’s True [That We Can’t Sing]”) on “The Little Drummer Boy.” It’s crazy, but as I write this I can still experience that “everybody’s looking at me, the kid who can’t roll an r” feeling. I don’t need to look into a mirror to see that my cheeks are turning crimson. I was letting down the Choir Director, the pastors, and probably God himself.
All those folks were upset again by music a year later, but not by my singing. My fourth grade Sunday School teacher – although an older, grey-haired woman – was a radical, at least for that place and time. It was 1972, the year Nixon trounced McGovern. I remember going to vote with my dad that year and getting a postcard of Richard Nixon and his family having a laugh around the piano. What a great family. What a great man! Who could ever vote for anyone else?
But there were whispers around the church. “Did you hear about Mrs. Thomas? She voted for McGovern!”
And then there was the song Mrs. Thomas wanted her class to sing in church. “Everything is Beautiful,” by Ray Stevens. We worked hard on it, and we loved it, especially the part about Jesus loving the little children. Us! I certainly was a fan – there were no r’s to roll! But, there was that stuff in the song about not judging people for the length of their hair or the clothes that they wore. That was obviously about hippies. And especially troubling was which children the song said Jesus loved – “red and yellow, black and white” ones.
Remember, this was a place and a time where mixing of the races was just not done . . . it was the year I’d stayed home from school for a day along with all my friends as part of some kind of boycott to protest the potential integration of Richmond schools. (In my parents’ defense, they weren’t very committed to the boycott. My sister and I were only allowed to stay home after much cajoling of my mom – not because we were hardcore segregationists but because it was almost as good as a snow day – and after she called around to find out “What everybody else is doing.”)
So mixing all those kinds of children even in a song was iffy, especially led by a McGovernite which was the next thing to being a Communist. I had no idea what all the fuss was about, but what I got out of it was an understanding that Jesus did indeed love all the little children, but separately. Just like in our neighborhoods and in our schools . . . and in our churches.
But . . . and this is why I’m not even sure I remember Mrs. Thomas’ name correctly but I am sure she is someone who has inspired me since I came back to the church . . . we ended up singing the song. In church.
You go Mrs. Thomas. Or whatever your name is.