Silenced Voices, Unspeakable Questions: Lena Baird’s Story, Part One

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Lena Baird” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

My junior year at PHC, I was in a small creative writing group. We met every few weeks, and passed around our recent works—short stories, poems, novel excerpts—and wrote comments and critiques in the margins. One week, I wrote a poem in response to a chapel message that had upset me. It was yet another story, from another man, about how something terrible had almost happened—but because of faith in God, disaster was averted at the last moment.

I was sick of hearing those stories. My life experience had been nothing like that, but no one had ever told a story like mine in chapel. So I wrote:

You listen to the story, confident,
knowing the happy ending will arrive,
and leave you satisfied, your mind content,
your questions answered – yes, he did survive:
the usual miracle. But I could tell
a story with another kind of end –
an end of dreams and hopes, a glimpse of hell –
and would you smile, applauding calmly, then?
No, better to keep silent. For till you
have wept for a miracle that did not come,
and found all answers hollow and untrue,
your questions mocked beneath a dying sun –
till you have faced the dark with empty hands –
you will not hear; you cannot understand.

Not a great sonnet, by any means; but it expressed how I felt. The chapel message was not my story. I was struggling to process trauma, and loss, and tragedy. (I was probably clinically depressed, but I didn’t know anything about mental health, because that was another topic no one discussed.) I didn’t feel like I could say this to any of friends. So I said it in a poem, and even that felt like pushing a boundary—saying something people might not accept.

When I got my poem back, with comments, no one seemed to realize I was talking about myself. I don’t have the sheet of paper with comments anymore, but one girl wrote something very similar to this: “This person just doesn’t get it. God is good—someone needs to tell him!”

Not only did she assume that I was writing from the perspective of a fictional character …. she also assumed that the fictional character was male.

I knew all about God. That was the problem. What I knew about God—the narrative of Christian evangelical homeschool culture, the only framework for life I’d been exposed to—did not fit my life, at all.

And even when I dared to speak—obliquely, through creative writing—no one heard my questions.

 

*****

My literature professor liked talking about worldviews. He considered most authors inadequate; their lack of “a Christian worldview” invalidated—or at least diminished—their artistic merits. He talked, frequently, about the need for “a Christian renaissance” in modern literature. From what he said, I got the impression that literature by Christians pretty much stopped with Lewis and Tolkien. Gradually, I realized that this was not accurate. Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize while I was at PHC, but I never heard it mentioned in class. I discovered Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene outside of PHC. They weren’t mentioned as examples of Christian writers, either—possibly because they were Catholics, and Catholics were suspect, at best. (Tolkien, despite his Catholicism, seemed to be infallible.)

I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to express my faith through my writing; but by my junior year, my faith was more doubt than certainty, more questions than answers. I liked O’Connor and Greene and Percy because they wrestled with doubt; their stories expressed a complicated, conflicted, messy faith.

But there wasn’t room for faith like that in class discussions.

There wasn’t room for my story.

*****

My literature professor also talked a lot about gender roles. He said, “If a wife gets up to pray and have her quiet time at seven in the morning, the husband should get up at six.” As leader of the home, apparently the husband had to outdo his wife in everything. It wasn’t a model of marriage that appealed to me—but it was what most of my fellow students seemed to want. They talked a lot about how men were leaders, and women were supposed to support men in leadership. Almost all my friends thought the husband should lead in marriage. Most of them also thought only men should hold leadership roles in the church.

I found this baffling. One day, in the dining hall, I questioned the logic of male leadership. “What if I’m a good musician,” I said, “and the choice for music leader is between me and a man? What if the man doesn’t know how to read music?”

“It doesn’t matter,” my roommate said. “You should step back, and let him lead.”

There were five or six of us at the table. I was the only one who thought knowledge mattered more than gender. I secretly thought women could be pastors, too, but I was afraid to say that. Instead, I listened while they all explained to me that God created all men as leaders.

Later, in literature class, my professor said: “God calls a man to a vision. He calls a woman to a man.”

What did that mean for my dreams? My visions? Couldn’t a man and a woman both have dreams, and support each other in pursuing them?

He didn’t open the floor for discussion. There wasn’t room for my voice.

*****

Gender roles didn’t just factor into literature class and dining hall discussions—they permeated campus culture. The female professors were all single. The male professors were all married. Only men were invited to give chapel messages. On the rare occasions when a woman spoke, we had “split chapel”: the female students met in one room, and listened to the woman speaker. The male students met elsewhere, and listened to a man.

Only male students were allowed to lead singing in chapel. Female students could accompany singing on the piano, if they wished, or they could back up a male singer with guitar. But they were never permitted to stand at the podium and lead singing—except when we had split chapel. If only women were in the room, a woman could lead singing.

In student elections, the candidates for student body president were always male. At least one female student ran for student body vice president, but she wasn’t elected.

Part Two >

4 comments

  • Wow! Once again I’m reading about a past PHC that sounds so different from my own. :/ Gender roles are a topic of significant interest to me, and something I’ve been learning about on the side and debating frequently at PHC.

    I’m sorry about what you had to go through, and would like to encourage you that PHC has made improvements. For example, during chapel, female students sing and read scripture from the stage just like male students, and we’ve had a few (although not as many as I’d like) female chapel speakers, and no split chapels. I took a course from a married female professor (although I do wish that there were more female professors) and we just elected a female student body president, without my having heard anyone question her leadership ability. 🙂

    I look forward to hearing the rest of your story. There are so many different mistakes we can make that hurt others and ourselves, and I want to know more about how we can avoid these kinds of mistakes.

  • Thank you for sharing. I am glad to hear from the above poster that it is better now. But that really doesn’t help or change your situation.

    I like your poem. I think that often Christianity is wrapped up too neatly – life is just not always so neat.

    I was a female youth director at a church. One Sunday a man got up and gave a testimony on how he had just started titling and God provided a raise and a car at a great deal. He was really excited. A couple of days later a man, a farmer in his 60’s, came in to the Pastors office. We were meeting so he just sat down and talked to both of us. He said something like, Pastor, I have tithed my whole life. I have given land to build this church in the last year. My entire crop has brought in half the money it was supposed to this year and all my medical news has been bad. What does that tell me about God.

    I was really shaken. I was in my late 20’s and never heard a man, who loved God, ask a question like that. You are wise beyond your years and have much to share. I hope you keep writing! You stories are importation.

  • Pingback: Silenced Voices, Unspeakable Questions: Lena Baird’s Story, Part Two | Homeschoolers Anonymous

  • (Current PHC junior here.)

    Lena… your poem is as beautiful as it is heart-breaking… my own heart responds in turn as it feels the emptiness and gasping pulse of another heart breaking… I don’t think the girl who left that comment about not getting the goodness of God has read much the psalms (22 and 42 come to mind, among many others)… I hear the same echoes of hollowness and longing permeating them as they do your poem.

    The changes that PHC has undergone are even more profound than the ones referenced by Adriel… We now have both a male and female counselor on campus trained to deal with depression and related issues. Last year, with permission from the administration, a student gave a chapel message sharing how he had once attempted suicide following a long battle with depression. Also last year, a professor who could not be more universally loved and respected on campus gave a chapel message about his personal struggles with depression, with numerous quote from a respected Christian preacher (I think Charles Spurgeon) who had also openly struggled with the mental illness. During last year’s student body president elections, both presidential candidates stated in a public debate the absolute necessity of de-stigmatizing depression within the PHC community; the female candidate, who is now student body president, shared a bit of her own struggles with depression and eating disorder.

    I don’t know if there were senior testimonies during your time at PHC, Lena, but now roughly once a week in the spring semester’s chapel schedule, male and female seniors alike share the stories of their times at PHC. And many, many carry the same echoes as your story… From the podium before the whole student body, many have openly shared about their struggles with depression, with eating disorders, with pornography, with nights of soul-crushing loneliness and their darkest doubts about the goodness of God… and somehow… the continual theme of each testimony (even for those who continue to daily bear their burdens and struggles) has been that in the midst of the mess, pain, anguish, doubts, loneliness, fears, and emptiness… they have discovered that God is still good. There is nothing neat or tidy about many of their stories… but like David, they always return to the living hope that they have found in a God who would not let them go.

    Lena, I don’t know what your story has been since you left PHC. I can only pray that God would not stop pursuing you… I pray that God would forgive those who hurt you so deeply by minimizing your pain and emptiness while at PHC; they had no idea what they were doing to a living soul when they did… and I pray that you would know that the one who entered our world of mess and tears and blood still loves you more than you could ever know or imagine…

    Your heart spills the story, numbly,
    bleeding as much truth as words can lend,
    and aches unsatisfied, your thirst hellish,
    your doubts all proved – yes, the night will not end:

    the familiar emptiness. But I could tell

    stories with another kind of end –
    the death of dreams and hopes, the array of hell –
    yet a glimpse of resurrection.

    But no, better to keep silent… Then, as you

    weep for the miracle that tarries too long
    and find all my answers yet hollow and cruel,
    your tears glittering anguish with the rising sun –

    till eternal night dawns into morning blue –

    till you hope with me, I will weep with you.

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