Who Wears the Pants?
Here’s an illustration of where [selective] biblical literalism can take one. In Deuteronomy 22:5, the writer states in plain King James English, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”
This text has been interpreted to mean that women cannot wear pants, even though men wore robes, not trousers, when this text was written.
Thus, at my Christian school and the church that sponsored it, women wore dresses, skirts, even culottes, but not pants and certainly not shorts. We wore them with nylons and heels in the relentless heat of south Florida.
I could perhaps have borne it better—after all, my Christian college let us wear pants only after five p.m., another bizarre rule—if all of Deuteronomy were evenly applied. For example, one chapter earlier, provisions were made for stoning a rebellious son. Any number of such sons sat in my classes, and no one was throwing rocks at them, least of all their frustrated or doting parents.
The saga of women and pants at our church and school took place over several years and stages. First, wearing pants was clearly forbidden. Then it was decided that pants with an elastic waistband could be worn; they didn't pertain to a man. Next, pants with side zippers were acceptable; no man would wear those. One teacher, an excellent seamstress, moved all the zippers in the pants she still owned.
Color was the next determiner of true manliness—no man would wear pastels, so sherbet-colored pants, even with a zipper in front, were acceptable for women. Never mind that Florida was and is littered with men playing golf in pink or mint green or yellow trousers. A manly man would always wear black, navy, brown, or gray.
By the time that final ruling came down, the women in my circle were weary and cynical. We suspected that these changes had nothing to do with biblical interpretation but may have owed their origin to the fashion desires of the pastor’s wife. She was petite and cute; she looked darling in pants.
[The photo is from an ad for Lilly Pulitzer, noted for the brilliant tropical colors of her fabric.]
A three-fold cord, proclaims Ecclesiastes, is not quickly broken.
During the week of teacher orientation, sitting in a stuffy upstairs room, I started to see exactly what I’d signed on to do, including expectations I’m not sure the principal and I covered in our two phone conversations. One was our absolute allegiance to the church that sponsored the school, which he expressed crudely as “No visitee other churchee.”
We were expected to be at all services and to take part in the Thursday evening visitation program, but with a twist. We were to visit not prospective members, but the homes of students in our classrooms or home rooms. We always went two by two, which was how Jesus sent out seventy of his followers to preach and heal. The fact that I had six sophomores in my home room did not excuse me from going with someone else after I’d visited those six families.
The rationale was based on a simple idea: “If you know the parent, you know the child.” The school also believed in a “three-fold cord,” which Scripture said was not quickly broken. If parents, teachers, and the church were all working together for the same goal, it was more likely to happen.
At least we weren’t making cold calls; we were to phone the family of the week and set up a convenient time (always on a Thursday evening, though). All teachers know that Thursday is one of the worst evenings to go back out; we’d almost survived the week, had only one more day to slog through—but had to be charming and intelligent for parents, say something encouraging about their adolescent. Occasionally, we got lucky and were invited to dinner, saving the cost of a meal at home.
Visitation was agony for an introvert like me, but I did this for the seven years I worked at the school. At one point our principal, who wanted to ensure our compliance and possibly had a sadistic streak, passed out our paper paychecks on Thursday evenings when we met at the church. That was before he started passing them out Friday afternoons at staff meetings. Either way, it meant a frantic run to the bank on Friday after school, hoping to avoid bounced checks.
I found this photo at https://www.vintag.es/2021/03/daytona-beach-1970s.html
Paul wanted to stop at Daytona Beach on Day Two of our trip; back then, you could still drive onto the beach and park very near the ocean, while mindful of the incoming tide so that your car didn’t get stuck in the sand. We rented inner tubes (anything aquatic beyond dog paddling or floating was beyond me). The tube and I were blissfully on our way to Morocco when I heard the lifeguard’s whistle. But I was too far out; he had to swim out and tow me back in. I slightly twisted my ankle, so for the rest of that day, I propped it on the cooler with ice on it. Paul had a sunburn, so we made quite the pair.
The principal had sent directions to the home of a married couple, my new colleagues, with whom Paul would stay; the school would pay for me to stay in a hotel, alone. Somehow, we missed a turn. Because of our stop in Daytona, it was already dark, and we were in a neighborhood that I found a bit scary.
“Pull in at the Burger King,” I told Paul, “So I can use the pay phone.”
I called Mr. Griffith. “We’re at a Burger King next to a hospital. I think the street sign says Dixie Highway. Can you give me the directions again?”
“I know exactly where you are. I’ll come get you,” he said. And so, sunburned, gimpy, wearing shorts (verboten, I would soon learn), I met my new boss.
I had a week before teacher orientation began to find a place to live. I suppose Mr. Griffith gave me a list of places; Paul and I went searching. I chose a small, partly-furnished detached building behind a large home.
It boasted one large room—the first thing we saw upon entering was a double bed, followed by a rattan chair and space for a sofa, capped by a small kitchen table with two chairs set in front of a window. Two short legs were built off the living area, one for a kitchen and one for a bathroom, reached via a hallway open closet that housed a dresser.
There was a window air conditioner but no heating unit. That didn’t bother me. This was southern Florida; when would I need heat? It was near the school—a left turn and a right, only a few miles away.
We carried in all my worldly goods and headed off to Montgomery Ward to buy a sofa. I’d never had so much as a checkbook; I doubt I knew how to reconcile my balance with the statement. My new Ward’s plastic, used to pay for the sofa, was my first credit card. I had no idea what a mess I would be in shortly.
The plaid sofa bed I bought was ugly, but it was 1973, when décor options ran to orange, brown, and olive green. It fit in the space, that was the main thing, and I was ready for company, should any decide to appear.
An Unexpected Phone Call
With my upside-down life, I was home, asleep in the basement when the door opened and my brother yelled down, “Judy, phone call!” I came to reluctantly and clambered upstairs, picked up the black rotary dial phone’s receiver in the kitchen, and said hello.
“Hello, this is Ken Griffith from Berean Christian School in West Palm Beach, Florida,” a voice rapidly boomed. “I’m calling to see if you are still interested in a position teaching English.”
Like Roethke, I take my waking slow. I heard Marine Christian School, and was fuzzy on exactly where in Florida West Palm Beach might be. He told me his English teacher had just gotten engaged and wanted to prepare for her wedding, not to teach. She’d graduated from the same college I had (I knew her slightly), and they’d been happy with her. So he’d contacted the education department there, where my résumé was on file. I was being considered, along with another woman from my graduating class.
We talked for a bit longer; he promised to call again in two days for an answer. He told me they were prepared to fly me down to see the school or to give me $100 toward my move.
When I told my parents about this unexpected possibility, they were opposed to the idea. After I left for work, they discussed it, deciding they would intercept Ken’s second call and tell him I wasn’t interested. They would not tell me he’d called back. I didn’t learn of this plan until much later.
Staying near family was the model for their lives, visiting frequently with parents, siblings, and their children. Why would I go a thousand miles away where I knew no one?
God works in mysterious ways. I called Ken back the next day to ask more questions; the only one I remember is whether the school had been founded to keep Blacks out, which I’d learned was one of the underlying causes of the growth of Christian schools, especially in the South. He assured me that was not the case. He asked me if I had a “teachable spirit.” I had no idea what he meant, but I knew the right answer was yes, so I said I did. At the end of that conversation, he offered me the job, and I took it, accepting the money toward the move rather than a plane ticket to visit.
I’d been to Key West during college, hated it, and had promised myself never to return to the state. I knew southern Florida would be hot and there would be bugs, but this clearly was God’s answer to my pleas to serve Him and earn a living. I would teach grades 6-10 English (they were adding a grade a year, like an add-a-bead necklace, and tenth was then the pinnacle). I wasn’t remotely qualified to teach sixth grade, but I didn’t want to spend my life living in my parents’ basement and working with troubled kids, for which I had no real training or aptitude. I would redeem my failure to find a job or a man who wanted to marry me.
Years later, I learned from Ken’s wife that he’d had second thoughts once I accepted the job offer. He’d hired a disembodied voice and a résumé. No Facebook, no LinkedIN, no Instagram—he had no idea what he was getting. In that environment, there was only one important question left, and he couldn’t ask me.
“Barb,” he asked his wife, “what if she weighs 300 pounds?”
“Then you’ll get a lot for your money.”
If I wasn’t going to teach in a public school, and I wasn’t ready for the mission field, how then could I best serve God, who—from everything I could gather—appreciated sacrificing oneself? Clearly, I was meant to go back to live in the same city as my parents, so that I could be appropriately miserable. Convinced of my calling, I applied to the only Christian school in the area.
I interviewed—and did not get the job. In my own eyes I was doubly a failure; the expectation in those days and in my church was that a young woman would have a dual degree at graduation: BA and MRS.
I had no plan B; I rarely do. I had set myself up to be supremely miserable and self-sacrificing. I would go not just to my parents’ city but also to their home and look for work when I got there. I had no idea what I was doing and not a clue as to what God might be doing.
The Akron Children’s Home, based in a multi-story brick building not far from the rubber factories in town, wanted to provide a home-like atmosphere away from the smog for young people. Multiple buildings had been erected just down the road from my high school, not two miles from my parents’ home. With no experience in supervising teenagers, I was hired as a houseparent, for no reason I could see. I was an English and Bible major, with no social work background.
Two adults shared the responsibility of live-in parents, each working four days round the clock, three days off, sleeping there with the young people. The director had assigned me to Kibler Hall, a dozen girls ages 13 to 17, known to be problems. Boys climbed in the second-story windows, girls climbed out, marijuana was prevalent. Why he placed me—only five years older than the oldest girls and naïve—among them is a mystery.
One afternoon we were in the kitchen/dining area, making sandwiches for lunch, when a thirteen-year-old girl brandished a butcher knife in my face. I don’t recall why she was angry or which of the other girls calmed her down. Paralyzed with fear and shock then, I’ve blocked it all.
I decided it was time to quit, even though I’d had the job only about a month and had no other options.
Memory picks up in the director’s office with his refusal to accept my resignation and instead making a counteroffer. The girls of Kibler clearly needed a different model of house parenting, with someone awake on night duty to keep the boys and drugs out and the girls in. Would I take on the night shift? Dealing directly with the girls would no longer be my responsibility.
Having no better option, I agreed to try. So, I entered a strange existence of staying awake, reading, praying, and journaling, checking on the girls, and talking to the night watchman, who turned out to have been my beloved junior high school bus driver. During the day I slept in my parent’s partially finished basement, which my mother had divided into living spaces, and which was cooler and quieter than my bedroom upstairs.
In addition to wanting to become a missionary, I also wanted to test the idea of teaching in a public school and being “salt and light” in that environment. This desire was rooted in my great admiration for an adjunct at my college who advised our campus newspaper and yes, taught in a public school nearby. I thought she was wonderfully honest and crisp. One example of her pungent speech: “If you’re just quoting the party line, don’t quote it.”
It was hard to decide when to do my student teaching, but I settled on fall quarter. I was assigned to a public high school in a nearby town, teaching several classes of English.
I was nervous and overprepared, but got along well with the kids. My cooperating teacher seemed to hate me. I suspected she might be jealous; we were having more fun than she was. That reality didn’t make me want to teach in a public school. What if my colleagues didn’t like me for being a Christian?
The turning point came one afternoon when my roommate showed up, which was not like her. She came to tell me that a recent graduate who was doing a short-term mission stint had just died. He’d been a popular athlete, newly married, seemingly healthy. Everyone was shocked.
The two of us found a space somewhere and prayed for his young widow and that this terrible thing might somehow be turned to good. Later, after she’d gone back to campus and I’d gone back to class, I wondered: if I’d been alone when I’d gotten that news, with whom would I have prayed?
Now I can see that there were other Christians teaching there. and that I was perfectly capable of digesting bad news and praying on my own. But the event shook me, and I decided to search for a job in a Christian school.
On Not Becoming a Missionary
While still in Bolivia, I wrote this journal entry near the end of my time in Santa Cruz:
Decided that yesterday’s “blahs” was probably just an old-fashioned case of homesickness. If nothing else, this trip has shown me things I will need for life on the [mission] field—like being able to listen to a foreign language and not miss English.
As it turned out, I didn’t go back, didn’t become a missionary. There were practical barriers: I had student loans to pay off, plus the two Baptist mission agencies I knew about didn’t allow single women to “open” a new field. In their minds, the first thing to be done was to start a church, which of course a woman couldn’t do. (Actually, in many cultures in the global South, a woman starting a church would not succeed because of the gender roles rigidly enforced, even more so than in the Baptist churches I knew in the U.S.)
Instead, for seven years I taught in a Christian school in Florida that made my college feel liberal. I decided that those students—some of whom were Hispanic—were my mission field. I did the best I could, making all the mistakes of a young teacher and then some.
But first, I had a stint of student teaching in Ohio during my final year of college.
What I Learned About Missions
a contemporary aerial photo of Santa Cruz, Bolivia
“There’s twice as much to do and half as much time to get it done,” as Opal said one day. To give an example: Living in a tropical climate meant that the kitchen cupboards had to be emptied and scrubbed weekly to avoid a major bug infestation. I hated doing it. Also, without refrigeration, shopping had to be done daily at the market in town. They splurged for me and bought meat sometimes.
I was certainly an extra expense, but I wasn’t really much help. Opal taught English at a local college; I helped grade papers. I bathed the younger children. I helped make papaya jam and a birthday cake. I quilted. I sang in a quickly assembled trio of young people at the church.
Five weeks is a long time when you can’t understand much of anything that’s said or done around you. My finest moment came at an evening church meeting in a dimly lit building when I missed the bench and landed in the dirt. The children laughed and the ice was broken.
There was neither running water nor electricity—my electric shaver remained packed. Had I not realized I would be reading and writing by kerosene lantern or brushing my teeth in the front yard, spitting in the dust as the orphans did? Or had I blocked all that in my desire to be a missionary?
No indoor plumbing meant using the outhouse. Because I was an honored guest, I was given my own roll of toilet paper—the children used old newspapers. The outhouse was positioned on high ground behind the house, which was fine until it rained, making mud all the way up the slight hill.
My enthusiasm for missions waned a bit, but my appreciation for amenities such as running water and modern sanitation increased. Turning on a tap back in Akron and getting hot water was newly a miracle.
Viva la Revolucion!
On August 19 the year I was in Bolivia, a revolution broke out in the city. The people were rebelling against the communist governor who had been appointed.
Those in Santa Cruz where I was were fighting Communism, believing that the simple folks in the Alta Plana (the high plains, where eighty percent of the population was illiterate) would be gullible enough to believe the promises of the Leftists.
We heard rumors that truckloads of wild Indians were trying to arrive to fight for Communism, but they were blocked. Communists threatened to burn the university; some people were killed in the fighting in the plaza. We cancelled church a few times; members of the congregation had been threatened. Schools were closed, and we were under a 10:00 curfew. The only planes flying belonged to the army. Fighting had extended to the capital, La Paz, and both the president and the vice-president had fled the country.
Externally, all was fine at the orphanage, far enough outside town that we were removed from the fighting. We had to live on rice for a bit, because the trucks carrying produce couldn’t get through. Prices were skyrocketing as a result—bananas went from 25 cents a stem to $1.00. Kerosene was also in short supply; I imagined that I would soon be quilting by candlelight. The biggest problem I had was that the phone lines were cut, and there was no way to assure my parents that I was safe.
Perhaps the most important gain I had in that month was the realization that God would have to take care of my parents. My prayer time was devoted to begging God to give my mother (the more nervous one of the pair) some peace. Later, I would learn that she was calling New York Times and the Bolivian embassy daily. As soon as the phone lines were restored, I went into town (we had no phone service that far out of town) and called her.
When we decided it was safe to go into town, I saw snipers on the rooftops. That was about the extent of the excitement for me. Mr. S. was fairly blasé about the whole thing, telling me that revolution was the Bolivian national pastime.
An International Experience
My college didn’t have a study abroad program; we did missions abroad. The new campus pastor began Missionary Internship Service (MIS), with teams going along with faculty or staff members to foreign missions. Soccer or basketball teams, musical teams, puppet teams all dispersed for a short-term summer mission experience.
I felt called to missions, and I wanted very much to work with John and Opal, a couple working in Bolivia whom I'd met through my church and with whom I’d begun a correspondence. So I began trying to raise funds, as any missionary would, to get to Santa Cruz during the summer between my junior and senior years.
Here is a salient fact about my parents: they hated to say no to anything my brother or I wanted, even if they didn’t want us to do them or to have them. When I fell short of the money I needed for five weeks in Bolivia with missionaries my church supported, my mother held a garage sale, with all the proceeds going toward my plane ticket.
John and Opal, not young by then, had made a life for themselves in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. They had an orphanage just outside of the city, and Opal taught English at a local college to help make ends meet. They worked with another free agent couple, a woman who had married a Bolivian and lived in the city.
I flew—my first-ever airplane ride—with another student who was headed to Cochabamba to do her student teaching. We went from Cleveland to Miami, where we met up with another student teacher. After a long layover that included a trip to downtown Miami, we flew to La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia. I was dazzled, completely prepared to dismiss the airline’s loudspeaker warning of thin air and going slowly to adjust to the high altitude.
Then I saw the stewardesses sitting in the back of the plane with oxygen masks on, and reconsidered. This was not Vermont and I was not Julie Andrews singing across the tarmack. We were at 11,975 feet above sea level, in the world capital that had the highest altitude, more than twice the height of mountains in Vermont, and about eleven times higher than Akron, Ohio, the city named for height.
The day after, I got onto a tiny plane headed to Santa Cruz. I'd sent Opal a letter detailing when I would arrive, but I had made the mistake of thinking the post office functioned as it did in my country. She later told me that the post office workers put what mail they could in the proper mailboxes. However, whatever mail was left at the end of the day would be buried by the next day’s avalanche of mail. She had never received my letter.
I had two years of high school Spanish, not enough to make sense of the mess I was in. Finally someone called the German consulate—I have no idea not the U.S. one, unless there wasn’t one there in the early 1970s. I had only a few words of German, so that didn’t seem promising, but they knew the couple that John and Opal worked with and took me to their house. They got hold of my missionary couple; Opal pulled up in a Jeep-like affair with Lucas, her adopted Bolivian son, riding shotgun.
“Good morning,” he said to me in English, and they were the sweetest words I’d heard in a long time.
I was a conservative Baptist girl who grew up to become a career Christian, working first in a Baptist school and then in a Baptist college. For about three decades, it was very good until it wasn’t, and I had to leave. But the Baptists formed me. This is my homage to the good times and good people of the world I left, finally, at forty-three, when I became an Episcopalian. These are my memories; others might disagree with my recollections. So be it.
Here is a hymn from my childhood, still worth hearing young voices in four-part harmony sing.