A Mixed Bag: Salome’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Salome” is a pseudonym. 

My experience going from homeschooling to college has been a mixed bag… but one I wouldn’t change for the world, no matter how shitty it was at the time. I have grown a lot and become a lot more normal, and rejected much of the legalism and hard conservatism of my youth, and all at a conservative Christian college which most people find restrictive!

I found enormous freedom (although I’m really careful about what I share with Student Life), and have become a moderate Republican (although if you were to ask the people I hung out with in my conservative activist days, I’m sure they’d call me a RINO, a flaming liberal bitch, and/or an idiot) and a feminist. I’ve found that there are actually a lot of people at my school (the administration of which prides itself in producing conservative culture warriors lol).

Thankfully, it’s usually safe to ask questions and come to my own conclusions among the professors. I even confessed to a couple of my professors that I’m not sure I believe in God anymore. I’ve become a lot more moderate, so I actually love my school and find myself defending a lot of the stuff it does. By the way, I still attend this school, so my knowledge of its culture and expectations are up to date. 🙂

I should also note that I’m really glad that I went to a small Christian school. Almost all of my professors know me by name. Several have put in long extra hours to get me to understand the subject matter, and are always willing to talk about non-academic stuff. Several have become friends and confidantes who’ve gotten me through really dark days. One has helped me manage my depression (because it’s unsafe to go to the school-sanctioned counseling or to Student Life) and has kept me after class to make sure that I weathered the panic attack that was clawing its way through my gut. He has checked up on me several times to make sure that I’m not suicidal.

Another helped me strategize how best to handle the sexual harassment I found myself woefully unprepared for in a culture which still asks women what they were wearing. When my anxiety and depression nearly paralyzed me, his office was a safe place where I could cry and swear and drink coffee with him. He has prayed for me a lot.

Another learned completely by chance about the recent death threats I’ve received, and has been praying with me (which… I mean. Even though I’m not sure I believe in God, that understanding and grace and prayer is so comforting). He has been talking through the Problem of Evil with me, and since he’s the philosophy prof, his answers are thoughtful and gracious. Yet another prof was a victim of one of the times that my pain exploded into rage, but he has forgiven me for losing my shit with him, and we still (carefully) joke and talk today. I look back fondly at the classes I took with him nowadays, and miss his quirkiness and dry sense of humor. I really don’t think that would have been met with so much grace at a normal school.

Anyway, I was homeschooled from 1st grade all the way through my high school graduation (although I managed to convince my mom to let me take a few classes at a Christian private school for my last two years of high school… which was a lifesaver omg). At first, my mom said that she wanted to homeschool us so that she could have more of an influence on us and spend more time with us than her mom did with her. As fucking creepy as that probably sounds to you all, I really can’t blame her, because her mom was a very emotionally absent single mom who’s tough as nails but hard and bitter. In the late 90’s, though, we started going to an evangelical church with a high concentration of homeschoolers. By 2000, my parents had made friends with these homeschoolers and had switched to religious reasons to homeschool us. They accepted the normal cocktail of homeschool ideology.

My homeschooling was spotty. I taught myself almost everything, which worked for most things, but I didn’t know how to write an essay until 8th grade when a homeschooling mom in my community realized that that was a major gap, but that I wasn’t stupid and undertook to teach me how to write. I still struggle with writing a lot. I don’t know why, but comma errors are my nemesis (which causes my poor professors pain when they read my papers). I also still struggle with basic arithmetic. But I have always read voraciously (and thus become friends with basically every librarian I meet), and trained myself to think critically and logically. I can spell better than almost everyone. My mind is full of trivia about science, history, and literature. I have always had this lust for truth, and have some measure of intuitive intellectual courage (when I bought a Qu’ran, I had to hide it for some time because my mom flipped out and thought that I’d convert and my dad threatened to burn it if he saw it… I read it, and have studied Islam, and still not Muslim. Interestingly, they also objected when I started hanging out with Presbyterians because they thought I’d become Presbyterian… which I eventually did to their dismay). I was woefully unprepared for the (very real) intellectual rigor of my college career, though, and my professors have spent long hours catching me up (because we technically don’t have remedial classes at my school).

I was the awkward, introverted homeschooler that nobody really understood or cared about. I was angry all the fucking time, and could blow up at anything. I had few friends. I had no sense of humor. I didn’t understand some basic hygiene (didn’t shower every day, and didn’t wash down south for several years because that made sense with the shame-based purity culture I grew up in, and my mom didn’t teach me how to clean myself, so yes, I stank and I stank bad). My view of sex was skewed, so I missed a lot of innuendo, which led to some awkward interactions. So I was really isolated. It’s hard to convey the horrendous pain and awkwardness and shame. I didn’t understand how to be good to people, because of the anger and violence which surrounded me at home. I’m still terrible at small talk. I get bored really quickly. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to learn how to listen. I always felt like I was out of sync everyone around me. I felt like a foreigner who was unable to communicate and remained unseen and unvalued.

I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but when I chose the school I did, I was running from my family. I had been fighting for some measure of freedom for years, and with every freedom I won for myself, my parents flipped out even more, although they would eventually chill after they figured out that I wasn’t a heathen – only to repeat the cycle of me asking, them flipping out, me doing whatever it was anyway, them crying and screaming at me, and then them chilling out until the next time I did something that wasn’t acceptable for a good homeschooled little girl.

My first semester in college was fucking amazing. I got thrown into a room with one of the officially closeted but obvious lesbians in the school and an alcoholic. I learned tolerance very, very quickly. They introduced me to secular pop music, gave me the courage to start swearing openly (only did it behind my parents’ back in high school, which didn’t go over well when I went home for the first several breaks), gave me honest feedback on how to dress (the alcoholic informed me that my favorite shirt made me look like a grandma and I wasn’t allowed to wear it anymore), and forced me to get my own email account and a facebook account (they literally ripped my computer out of my hands and made both accounts right in front of me). Oh, yeah, and the lesbian roommate sent me soft porn out of the blue (which scarred my poor little homeschooler soul).

Academically, I did well my first semester. I got all of the coolest professors, had all the subjects I find easy, and skated by on my natural intelligence. But my study methods sucked, and I didn’t know how to take good notes (I’m a lot better now, but I’m still working on that). I didn’t always know the most basic things about classroom etiquette. Deadlines are hard for me (even though I love having deadlines. Yes, I know how contradictory that is. Yes, I’m as confused about it as you are). I also found myself learning from good, godly men and women who disagree with me and disagree with each other. I started to correct some of the misconceptions about history that I had. I learned that America’s immigration system has a sordid, racist history. I remember that day really clearly, actually, because I was in my favorite class with my favorite professor (who’s a really sweet. And Ivy-league educated. And happens to be married to a Latina woman). In the midst of class he said that first generation immigrants tend not to integrate well into American culture, but that their kids learn English and learn how to integrate their ethnic backgrounds with American culture. He said that a lot of the conservative resistance to immigration was just racism and paranoia, and has been the same arguments for a really long time… and those arguments have been proven baseless time and time again.

The more I listened and the more I learned about history, the more I became convinced that much of what I grew up with was wrong. I figured out that my dad is extremely racist, and that I had unconsciously picked up some of his bias. I had never been consciously racist, and would have said that racism is wrong, but the more minorities I met and the more I studied history, I realized that I needed to uproot much of what I had thought beforehand. To be honest, I’m still learning how to listen to people whose experiences are different from mine.

I also found myself interacting with people whose theological backgrounds were different from mine. I remember very clearly the first conversation I had with the first Lutheran I met. He informed me that he doesn’t really sweat the doctrinal fine points, and really just participates. Back then I was really shocked and thought he was a heathen. Now, he’s one of my dearest friends.

There was a dark cloud gathering over that first semester, though. I found myself getting deeper and deeper into an emotionally abusive relationship (which I’ve written about previously on HA, so I won’t go into detail). It didn’t get unbearable until Christmas break and into the spring semester, but it was bad.

Then Christmas break hit. I flew home, and found myself at war with my parents. I had started dressing normally, painting my toenails, wearing makeup, swearing, going to a Presbyterian church, and had a head stuffed full of ideas. My parents were losing control and they were panicked. Every day was a battle. They screamed at me for hours (I’ve also written about that on HA), and threatened to disown me. Fortunately, they didn’t, but the threat was enough to make me careful about what I shared with them.

The next semester, I came back broken and fearful. My relationship with my boyfriend was souring as he tried to establish control and I resisted. The academic honeymoon period was over, and my lack of skills left me treading water. My GPA plummeted due to the controlling boyfriend and lack of study skills. I stopped going to church, lost a lot of friends, and found myself deeply depressed.

I realized eventually that I would literally debate anyone about anything that year, and it took me forever to learn how to have a respectful, chill, normal conversation about normal topics.

That summer, I had to fight my parents to go back. Part of it was that they didn’t want me to take out loans, and didn’t want to help me pay for it. I managed to scrape most of the tuition cost together, and convinced them to pay for the rest (god, I have more skills than people give me credit for…).

Sophomore year was super rough. Almost all of my classes were things I’m not good at, with boring professors and a shitload of reading due every class. My GPA died in a cold, dark hole and I’m STILL trying to resurrect it. I figured out that I have a really hard time trying in classes that don’t come naturally. I didn’t have any motivation to actually study.

Socially, my abusive relationship had fucked me up so badly that my old rage roared back to life with a vengeance, and I became known as a vicious person and it was best not to mess with me. I lost more friendships, and was miserable.

A couple of the friends I *did* have came out to me, though, and as there were more people I loved in the category of “gay people,” I found myself realizing that much of the way I had learned to talk about the LGBT community was horrible and homophobic. I’m so, so sorry for that. I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive myself for the horrendous shit that came out of my mouth.

That year was also the year that I tried being an emotional support for one of my professors… I didn’t realize how inappropriate that was. I still cringe when I think about it.

Junior year was much the same academically. The same professor who taught me about the reality of racism also really gently told me that sometimes when I don’t understand an idea, I dismiss it impatiently as idiotic. That was a hard lesson to learn. I studied a lot of non-Western history that year, for which I’m really grateful. I also learned that I had been overly dogmatic and I needed to be more gracious with the people who disagree with me. I took and passed a survey of physics class just for the hell of it (and the sense of triumph was intoxicating). Since arithmetic is difficult, I had no idea I was capable of that… but I figured out that I have an intuitive grasp of physics.

The most important lessons I learned junior year were social lessons. I started making new friends. I’m forever grateful that they saw beneath how prickly I am and realized that my anger was because I’d been hurt so badly. It became a joke among my friends. They’d tell me not to murder anyone, and in turn gave me safe places to curl up when panic ripped through my gut. I became rather famous for my profanity-laden pep talks, and started receiving requests for them fairly regularly. I started going to a new church and everyone there was nice to me (and still are). Some alumni from my school go there too, and they invited me into their home. I find my broken soul healing every time I’m with them. I watch them parent their girls in a delightfully non-gendered and gentle way. They interact with each other gently and with mutual respect. The man does housework and helps make dinner. They’re also delightfully nerdy. It’s comforting to know that it’s possible to recover from our backgrounds and become good people and capable adults. I met Christians who drink and swear (which gave me the courage to inform my parents on my 21st birthday that I was drinking and they could either come celebrate with me and make sure I consumed responsibly, or I could drink – and drive – alone and possibly die in a car accident… they couldn’t really argue with that logic, so we went out to dinner at my favorite restaurant and I had a drink with dinner and we had fun). I know now what unconditional love looks like. During a particularly bad panic attack, my favorite professor really gently looked at me and told me that I didn’t have to be good to be worth loving and worth living.

I also became the victim of sustained sexual harassment from two different supervisors at my job on campus (yes, at a fucking Christian school). I was woefully unprepared. I didn’t know that harassment was illegal. I didn’t know that much of the minor stuff that I considered creepy but normal was actually harassment and grounds for getting the bastards fired. I had to learn about sex online so that I knew what my supervisors were talking about and how to protect myself (which is why I’m a feminist and a passionate advocate for sex ed.). When I finally did come forward, the manager had zero rhyme or reason for her reaction. She fired the one guy, but the other is still working there now and I have to see him every day.

This was also the year that I started trying to work on my anger. I realized that lashing out and hurting people because I hurt is wrong. I think that’s why my mom was so screwed up. She took all her grief and rage and insecurities from her own childhood and took it out on us. That’s not the person I want to be. I know I can be a monster, but I can also break the chains of my childhood.

I also went from trying to be “normal” to allowing myself to be unapologetically smart and nerdy… because I know the difference now between being a tiny little homeschooler who didn’t understand and was afraid of the world around her to being able to come up with my own special variation on normalcy. And that’s okay. I don’t have to look like everyone else… but I don’t have to fit myself into the restrictive categories I was taught as a girl.

I still struggle with a lot. I know that I get really emotionally invested in my schoolwork. I kinda spill emotional pain all over random people sometimes. I tend to overshare (which is a pretty common problem with homeschoolers in my experience) with professors I trust without even realizing that that’s what I’m doing. I’m still learning about healthy ways to resolve conflict. I’m actively trying to undo a lifetime of learned racism.

I do have friends of other ethnicities, sexual orientations, and outside the gender binary, now. I have a go-to alcoholic drink (but I still experiment sometimes), and know how to drink responsibly. I can have an intelligent conversation about multiple religions. I’m learning how to listen and show mercy instead of hysterically wringing my hands about the fall of American civilization all the time (BTW, in case you’re wondering, pretty sure American civilization isn’t going to fall because of gay people being able to marry).

I do have advice and suggested reading:

  1. Understand where people are coming from and exercise charity. If you look at 1 Corinthians 13 and your reaction doesn’t look like that, it’s not charity. Don’t be combative… people aren’t usually trying to destroy your faith. There is no vast left-wing bogeyman conspiracy.
  2. Read up on philosophical Pragmatism. American culture is more or less pragmatic, and that will help you understand your culture.
  3. I recommend dipping your foot in little by little to avoid culture shock. Don’t start out reading Richard Dawkins or Ayn Rand (I suggest using Ayn Rand to roast marshmallows, actually).
  4. Read Martin Luther’s “On Christian Liberty.” It was instrumental in teaching me how to distinguish between the legalism I grew up with and real Christian liberty.
  5. It’s okay to doubt your faith. God’s a big boy. He can take it.
  6. If you grew up evangelical, I suggest reading D.G. Hart’s book, “That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century.” It’s a really good intellectual criticism of evangelicalism, and I believe that Hart is a Christian, which will make it easier to swallow if your parents flip out as much as mine. Even if you remain evangelical, you should read this to challenge yourself and see weaknesses in your beliefs.
  7. Related: if your beliefs can’t stand up under criticism, they’re really shallow and probably not worth holding.
  8. I also recommend Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn is not a Christian, but this book is really wise anyway, and there’s plenty to glean from it. Actually, literally everyone should read this book… not just homeschool graduates.
  9. Read secular poets and novelists. The current poet laureate is pretty amazing. Read John Le Carre and Daniel Silva. Also, don’t be afraid of non-Western writers. I have less experience there, so I can’t be of help. Experiment a little.
  10. Music does not have to be explicitly about Jesus to be okay to listen to. Our parents came out of the heyday of rock-as-rebellion in the 1960’s-1980’s, so they’re a little paranoid.
  11. David Barton and the authors of The Light and the Glory are bad historians who allow their agendas to corrupt their responsibility to tell the truth. Source: I’m majoring in American History, and I looked into their books and there are soooooo many glaring errors. Don’t do it. Just don’t. If you want a really good Christian historian, look up Mark Noll or Steven Keillor. Mary Habeck is also an amazing historian who writes and lectures about Islamic extremism (and is a world class military historian). If you need further advice on how to choose a reputable source, look at their credentials and the publisher, as well as where they teach.
  12. Read C.S. Lewis’ book “A Grief Observed” if you’re going through enormous pain or loss. I cried the whole damn time but felt better afterwards.
  13. It’s okay to google stuff. It took me a freakishly long time to figure that out.
  14. It is never EVER your fault if you are the victim of harassment, bullying, rape, or abuse. I don’t care what you were wearing or whether you were drunk. You share NO culpability for someone else’s sin.
  15. Recognize the warning signs of an abusive relationship and get the hell out if you see them, but be careful while doing so. You can’t change them or save them. Love doesn’t look like manipulation, control, or isolation. Trust your gut.
  16. Don’t let your anger run your life. Find a balance between anger and mercy toward the people you’re angry at. Don’t demonize people because they’re still people, even if you disagree with them. Also, demonizing people historically doesn’t end well.
  17. Normalcy and happiness are possible. You aren’t trapped. Discover. Travel. Dance. Sing. Eat good food and drink booze (legally, of course. Don’t be a fucking idiot).
  18. Finally, you’re worth loving and you’re worth living. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.  

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