The only time I ever went to public school was my freshman year of high school.
My parents had always scraped every penny together to send us kids to conservative Christian schools. Even my rock ’n’ roll playing Dad, who was always on the outs with our churches, thought we were better off in these schools. But in 1991, my folks went bankrupt, and our house went into foreclosure.
So I’d ride the bus back and forth with the other kids from my rural town. I didn’t talk to anyone, just sat there minding my own business and trying not to be noticed. They’d sing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” like a screaming, off-key choir. My aunt Peg, who went to one of those New Age “Unity” churches, had their album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” All I knew was that I was a Christian and didn’t listen to that kind of music. Throughout my childhood, I’d been hearing pastors judge men for gawking at women, listening to pop radio or being too afraid to witness to the unsaved. Check, check and check. I didn’t fit in with the world – and I didn’t fit in with God, either.
Summer came. I could play whiffle ball and Nintendo with my church friends. I didn’t have to feel guilty about letting the public-school kids go to hell or stupid about not knowing who U2 or the Red Hot Chili Peppers were. The month of July was the best because I could go back to Mountain View Bible Camp in Dublin, N.H., near the Vermont border; I’d been going there since I was 10.
At 15, I knew it was my last year as a camper. I was still small for my age, but maybe I was more coordinated than a lot of the kids. For whatever reason, I played really well in the afternoon games: inner-tube tug, dodgeball, capture-the-flag and an obstacle course with tennis balls being fired at me. I memorized my Bible verses, and I guess I showed some sort of spiritual leadership. I won Camper of the Week. Nobody knew about the nerdy kid I had pushed in the pond, still wearing his pants and shoes. Why couldn’t regular life be more like Mountain View Bible Camp?
The next summer, I went back to camp to work as support staff. I didn’t want to leave the safety, the spiritual highs – God’s shelter from a sinful world. We replaced siding on a dorm, repaired bunks, washed dishes and helped the counselors manage the kids. The camp had nightly sermons, and the preacher that summer came to speak about the evils of rock ’n’ roll – not just secular bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers or U2, but contemporary Christian music artists like Amy Grant. After all, she’d had an affair – proof, in this preacher’s mind, that rock drumbeats reveal poor character and lead to sex.
After one of these sermons, my funny, lighthearted brother Marco – then 12 years old – went forward to “get saved” and “dedicate his life to Christ.” In fundamentalist lingo, these were two different events: one kept you out of hell, and the other changed your life here on earth. Marco didn’t see any reason to waste time between the two. Later that night, he came to my room and told me what he’d done.
“Do you think I need to give up my music?” he asked. “Dad’s music” was implied.
Friends at public school had turned him onto the Spin Doctors and Boys II Men. We staff members didn’t have any bed frames, so I sat on my mattress in the middle of the floor like some kind of spiritual guru.
“I don’t see any other way,” I said.
That was my job, you know, as a past Mountain View Bible Camp Camper of the Week, assistant counselor and ascendant “spiritual leader.”
Well, both Dad and Marco have birthdays this month, and we’ve come a long way since then; we’ve played rock music in smoky bars – all three of us together for awhile a few years back. I figure if God didn’t like rock ’n’ roll, he wouldn’t have created guys like Adolph Rickenbacker or Les Paul.
So Marco, I’m sorry about that night at camp. The Spin Doctors weren’t really that great, but a good big brother would have told you about U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People” or Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” Kurt Cobain, God rest his soul; I like to think he and St. Paul and Martin Luther are together with the Lord, commiserating over their angst. Back then, I just didn’t know any better.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. This post is adapted from his spiritual memoir, “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World,” due out this winter on Cascade Books.