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“On the Wall”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 22, 2014

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.



8 Comments »

  1. And then she would have been standing there in your Stead.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 22, 2014 @ 7:51 am

  2. Yikes, what a horrible thing to do to a child. Ardis, what was your experience at that school like afterwards? Did Mrs. Williams back down? Did you get a reputation of any kind? Did you talk to your friends or parents about this?

    I think we come to expect some bullying from classmates, as wrong as that is. But bullying from a teacher?!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 22, 2014 @ 8:20 am

  3. I was afraid to tell my parents when it first started because I thought I had done something to deserve the punishment. I did tell Mom after Mrs. Williams’ comments, and she went down to the school to tell them they were never again to give me that kind of punishment, even if I broke the rules. They were to give me extra work, and call her to deal with anything serious. So Mr. Williams started giving me lots and lots of extra math. I did it during school hours without blinking — it was fun — and finally, when he didn’t get any satisfaction from causing me grief, he gave up.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 22, 2014 @ 8:26 am

  4. “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.”

    What a story! And a metaphor for dealing with internet trolls and cyber-bullies.

    Comment by David Y. — January 22, 2014 @ 9:59 am

  5. Someone needs to joke about Ardis still being in the business of kicking shins when needed. : )

    (Seriously; a recent example being a rare appearance at T&S due to the bickering over the blog’s (excellent) choice of Mormon of the Year.)

    Comment by Amy T — January 22, 2014 @ 10:15 am

  6. Did you ever mention this to anyone at the time? I’m just curious. I really didn’t run into that in school, especially early on, as not enough people in Virginia knew what Mormons were. But I did have some of the same experiences with quietly putting up with a punishment or a scolding out of a respect for authority, and then eventually finding out that it was not actually my fault. (Actually, this was more likely to happen at church, since I spent so much time there. And adult would give an instruction to the group, then change his or her mind, and neglect to be sure that everyone in the group got the message. And yes, it was usually me carrying out instruction number one.)

    The one time I did have a teacher say something snide about the church was in Junior year American History. He stood right in front of me and said something snippy about the pioneers or Brigham Young. I don’t even remember. I kicked him in the shin. It wasn’t hard, but it might have been considered a serious offense–to kick a teacher. But he acted as if he thought he had deserved it and went on with the class–and we always got along well after that.

    There was one friend who made a point of bringing any negative news about the state of Utah to my attention. He was in the orchestra, so after a concert I casually asked his mother where he had been born. Kansas! Well, it only took one reference to Dorothy and Toto to shut him up. We are also still friends.

    Comment by LauraN — January 22, 2014 @ 10:26 am

  7. Having lived in Reno for a while, and knowing a bit about Stead, bullying was probably one of the few forms of entertainment available for kids or adults. Sorry that you had to go through that, but bravo for reacting in the right way once you knew the reasons for being “on the wall.” Not sure I would have been as brave at that age.

    Comment by kevinf — January 22, 2014 @ 11:36 am

  8. Growing up in Utah and a pioneer settled area of Wyoming, I never had to deal with this type of stuff as a kid, but I’ve had moments as an adult. The most interesting was while I was going to U C Riverside and had very nice 10 to 15 minute conversation with someone passing out Christian pamphlets. Then came the inevitable question about religious affiliation and I suddenly became the devil incarnate. It was a fascinating experience. Nothing about me had changed; I was the same person then as I was when the conversation began, but my being a “Mormon” suddenly made this person defensive, angry and abusive. I told him to have a pleasant day and returned the book I had been reading for one of my English classes.

    I am amazed at the lengths some people feel they need to go in order to tell me I’m no better than a chewed-up wad of gum stuck to the bottom of their shoe because of my religious beliefs. For the most part, I find that the quiet response (or no response) is best, but there are times when a swift kick in the shins is warranted as well. :)

    Comment by Chris M. — January 23, 2014 @ 12:41 am

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