by Scarlet A
In high school, I was a loner. In conservative Davis County Utah, I stood out like an Alpha Bitch in a prairie-dog town. Not completely by choice, but certainly because I had chosen to be an inactive Mormon and to speak my mind about socially liberal politics and refused to remain silent about certain horrors that had befallen my autistic brother in a state-run institution. But, if there is one extracurricular activity for a smart, independent, articulate teen girl, it’s the speech and debate team. We were encouraged to take “unique” and contrary stands on political issues for the sake of the argument and to truly learn and appreciate the art and science of heuristics.
Once I had proved my chops as a mere sophomore, by winning the school oratory contest—the first sophomore to do it at the ultra-competitive Bountiful High School—I was immediately placed on the competitive team and spent Saturdays, weekends and even time after school sharpening my tongue, critical thinking skills and the art of verbal evisceration.
Having socially liberal parents (and a father who had ceased to believe in Mormonism early in my life), both of whom were professional educators, we had a healthy respect for the separation of church and state. We were sensitive of this because as Mormons who once lived on a military base, we faced being ostracized and viewed with great suspicion. In that environment, the separation of church and state was a mantle of protection and ensured respect. Thus, keeping religion private was a value we held dear.
I was shocked and a little horrified when before my first debate meet, our coach gathered us into the classroom at a public high school to pray. I gasped, audibly and asked how this was separation of church and state and said I was uncomfortable. The glares and anger were undeniable.
Praying before a debate tournament apparently was as sacred a covenant as baptism, Temple Covenants, Hindu Brahma bulls, facing Mecca and holy war. I was told I could stand apart from the prayer circle and be silent during the prayer. So I stood with the two openly non-Mormons on a competitive team of approximately 25 and remained silent—standing apart socially, physically, metaphysically, politically and ideologically from the rest.
As the debate season progressed, I was once asked to lead a prayer and declined as I did not believe that prayer was appropriate inside a public school with the approval of the teachers and coaches. While my debate teacher respected the decision and did work to make the non-genuflectors feel a greater sense of camaraderie on the team, I got a lot of flak from other competitors who confronted me plenty about why I wouldn’t pray.
Sasha C once asked if it was true that I was an atheist. At the time, I wasn’t.
Another girl asked if it was true that I had made a pact with Satan to be a successful debater. The response to which was: “Are you on drugs? I can’t be a good debater without selling my soul? Yeah, I made a pact with Satan.” I would later find out that blatant sarcasm isn’t a language the rumor mill speaks.
But the one who stands out was Matt Eyring, the son of Henry B. Eyring. He spoke in absolutes. He was condescending and told me what he thought of my acts of Civil Disobedience. He was a senior, popular, his dad was famous, his grandfather was famous and he knew the subtleties of how to wield peer pressure, particularly against a wayward and “wild girl.” He was also, like his father, very tall and seemed very aware that stature can intimidate in close proximity given his predilection to close the gap of personal space with 5 ft. 2 inch me when we disagreed.
He particularly hated it when I was able to quote Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi from memory about the benefits of standing by one’s principles in the face of adversity. Remember, it was the debate team, we were nothing if not a font of quotes to support any point of view proffered, with an arsenal of equally reactive supporting arguments to slay opponents.
My favorite, and the one which seemed to engender the most ire, was from John Stuart Mill, whom my father made me read the first time I was socially ostracized for not attending church: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
I reminded him that his religious pioneer ancestors were booted out and discriminated against for being different and in the minority. I asked if he was going to take on the role of the oppressor and run me out of Dodge. He relented. It seemed ironic that he would try to socially isolate a loner given that his own grandfather was denied a Nobel Prize for trying to unite science with secular. Why was I a pariah for wanting some Constitutionally protected civil liberties? We came to a silent agreement that day that I’d avoid him and he’d avoid me. It worked out quite well until the end of the school year.
My parents were out of town during the Speech and Debate Team end-of-year banquet. So, I went with a friend, another non-Mormon. It was fun. I had forged some friendships and some kids’ parents genuinely respected me despite my inactivity in church. Before the banquet, we were mingling and talking and drinking punch, when I felt a strong hand grip my right shoulder and pull me close in one of those Mormon-authority-side-to-side hugs. It was uncomfortable as men never seem to understand that a vice-grip hurts. It was Henry B. Eyring. He started walking me over to a less-crowded area saying he needed to talk to me. In fact, I believe he said “prompted” to talk to me.
I was shocked that the First Counselor of the Presiding Bishopric was strong-arming me at a debate dinner in the school cafeteria. He hunched his shoulders and bowed his head at an awkward angle for his stature to facilitate staring me straight in the eyes. He told me how talented I was and that he had heard how gifted I was at public speaking and in argumentation.
He then turned to face me; his clutch on my shoulder still there and still uncomfortable, was now harnessing my back so I had to face him.
“You need to use your gift for speech for the greater glory of Heavenly Father and not ‘The Adversary.’”
I had been given fatherly talks by Church leaders before, but I had never been accused of consorting with Satan. I was absolutely enraged that a man who was supposed to have superhero abilities in the gift of discernment—who could see through claptrap like Superman could see through walls—was believing idle gossip from bored high school students. At that moment, I didn’t care who he was, he didn’t get to tell me I was evil. I wasn’t. I was an awkward kid who didn’t fit into a conservative Mormon mold.
Who the hell did he think he was? I knew at that moment that prophets were just men and that “priesthood” was just a word.
“And just what is it about my speeches that makes you think I am glorifying Satan? Do you even know what my competitive oratory was about?”
He seemed shocked that I responded with something less than abject, compliant subservience. “Do you know who I am?”
Who didn’t? It had been only a year since the General Conference where he had been called to The Presiding Bishopric. All Bountiful was abuzz about one of its own being on the tenure-track to prophethood.
I was ready at the moment of the paternal quarter-Nelson to cop to being sarcastic, iconoclastic, feminist, outspoken and maybe even snide, but evil? EVIL? Did this man know the volunteer hours I spent in my childhood and adolescence volunteering for autistic people and other disabled people? Did this man know that just one year earlier in junior high I had ended a friendship with someone who made fun of a kid with epilepsy who had a grand mal seizure? Evil?
“Yes I do.” I retorted. “Do you know who I am? Apparently not if you think I am friends with Satan.” I reiterated, “Just how is it you figure, I am doing anything for the greater good of Satan?”
“Young Lady, probe your heart!” He released my shoulder, which remained sore for a day, and he walked away.
“Yeah, I’ll take that into consideration,” I said in a raised voice—unamused, singled-out, bewildered and pissed off.
My heart didn’t need probing. Neither did my upper back or shoulder.
I don’t know of any other Protestant religious leader who would approach, single out and physically separate a girl from an activity at a public school to discuss a religious matter, except perhaps, the villainous preacher in Footloose. I still stand all amazed at the liberties he took with my civil rights, my personal space and the attack on my character.
But in a religion where women’s stature is akin to livestock (any questions about women and livestock? Go re-acquaint yourself with Johnny Lingo, Mahana and an 8-cow wife), an endowed man believes it is not just his right, but his duty to cross every conceivable social boundary to brand a 15-year old girl with a Scarlet Letter and put her on the track to glory without even bothering to nod at her parents.
I learned to embrace my Scarlet Letter that day. To this day, I embroider it, I emblazon it—resplendent, with clearly defined outlines and borders. If being a brazen, outspoken harridan kept the Holy-Melchizedek-Vulcan neck pinch at bay, then a brazen, outspoken harridan I would be. I have since learned, harridan is as harridan does and priesthood is as priesthood does!