I started school in 1965, in a subdivision in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. It was pretty much a “Leave It to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best” kind of world – children of the Baby Boom spilled out of every house on the street, so many that our ward comprised three or four blocks, and the elementary school a block away served, I think, only two wards. The kids I went to school with were the kids I went to Primary with; I had tap and ballet lessons with the same girls, and the boys were in my brothers’ Cub Scout den, with my mother as Den Mother. I can think of only two “cases” of diversity in the years I went to school there – one girl (one – count ‘em – one) was a Catholic, and when a Mexican family moved onto our block, my mother told us we were not to call them “dirty Mexicans” the way some of the other kids did, because they were as clean as we were.
When I was 10, my father’s work took us to Stead, a former air force base near Reno, Nevada. Stead was a different world. To begin with, it was divided into two distinct housing areas separated by a wide strip of sagebrush desert. Lower Stead was where the enlisted men had lived, and the streets there were named after mountain ranges; I had a friend who lived on Andes. Upper Stead, where we rented a house, was where the officers had lived, and the streets there were named after mountain peaks like Mt. Shasta and Mt. Logan. Can you guess the name of the street where the commanding officers had once lived? Yup. Mt. Olympus.
But that was just part of the difference. I got to ride a school bus for the first time, down to Lower Stead where the elementary school was. I had three sixth grade teachers: Mrs. Momerak for most of the day, English with Mrs. Williams, and math with Mr. Williams, her husband. Our vice principal was Mr. Singh, and he wore a turban. My class included George, the first black child I had ever gone to school with, possibly the first black I had ever seen up close. One of the first questions kids asked to get to know each other was “What religion are you?” and very few of us were LDS. Even those who were LDS were not necessarily ones I saw at Primary, because not everybody drove all the way into Reno to go to Primary in the afternoon after school.
The school had novel ways of discipline: If you had done something meriting punishment, you spent your recess “on the wall” – standing next to the building, facing the wall, able to hear kids playing all around you but forbidden to speak. One of the teachers patrolled behind kids who were “on the wall,” enforcing silence. You had to stand “on the wall” for one or two recesses, depending on the severity of your misbehavior.
I don’t remember now how it became known that I was a Mormon. It probably was just through one of those “What religion are you?” exchanges that all the kids asked each other. I also don’t remember what I said or did to be sentenced to stand “on the wall”; I generally was pretty well behaved, but may have spoken without raising my hand or something like that. So I stood “on the wall” for morning recess.
But in the afternoon, Mrs. Williams pointed me toward the wall again. I stood there for a second recess. The next morning, she put me “on the wall” again. And again that afternoon. And again the next morning … and I began to realize that this was going to be an indefinite punishment. Whatever I had done was not so bad as to merit this. But then, as well as now, I tend to blame myself for others’ poor treatment of me – I must have done something, even if I didn’t understand what. So I stood “on the wall” all that week. And again the next week.
Finally, one day when Mrs. Williams was patrolling behind us delinquents “on the wall,” I asked her how long I was going to have to stand there. She told me to shut up, and turned me roughly back to face the wall. Then she leaned in close behind me and hissed in my ear, and for the first time I understood what my offense was.
“You Mormons are so wrapped up in your blasted religion, you can’t see the forest for the trees.”
I didn’t know what “blasted” meant. I didn’t know what she meant by forests and trees or what they had to do with me. But I knew, confronted for the first time in my life with anti-Mormon hatred, that this was her problem, not mine. I whipped around, my right heel accidentally-on-purpose kicking up behind me so that I kicked her smartly on the shin, and I walked away from the wall without a word. I ignored her demands to come back. She didn’t follow me, and I realized that she knew she was in the wrong, and all I had to do was tell someone what she had said and she, not I, would be the one standing “on the wall,” or whatever adults did to punish each other.
A great many things intimidate me, unfortunately. Anti-Mormon bullies have never been among them.