Putting Life Back Together After Accelerated Christian Education

Last week my PhD thesis passed 1000 downloads (which makes me about 0.005% as popular as Stephen Hawking). I asked former ACE students for their reactions for my thesis, and Alexis Record has responded spectacularly with her own Accelerated Christian Education survivor story, inspired by sections from the thesis. It’s a long read, so I’ve split into three pages which you can bookmark and read separately.. It’s a powerful story if you’ve read my thesis already. If you don’t have time to power through an 80,000 word thesis, Alexis covers a lot of the big points here.

In part 1, she describes her own ACE school days

In part 2, she describes her life after ACE and her struggle to get her education back on track

In part 3, she describes how has ACE affected her marriage and her life now.

A Student of Accelerated Christian Education responds to Jonny Scaramanga’s PhD Thesis on ACE Experiences

By Alexis Record

Part 1: school days

“I realised that my experience of ACE was not just something I had personally disliked, but something that relevant experts generally consider bad education.” (Page 15)

[Systems of Indoctrination by Jonny Scaramanga found in full here.]

I had a dream last night that I was myself—grown, married, with kids—living in my childhood home. That house doesn’t feel like mine today, not since moving several hundred miles away over a decade ago, yet my subconscious always places me back there to process those things I’ve left behind.

At some point in my dreams, maybe triggered by the familiar surroundings, I will realize with dread that I am still attending my Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) school. During these dreams all my adult agency slips away like suds down a drain. My skin will feel heavy as if I am being pressed against the inside of a vacuum bag, and a hyper awareness will once again consume me. My perfectionism was born in this head space. My idiosyncratic self-flagellation developed here.

“Most research to date neglects to consider the experiences of students in the schools. Even in ethnographies of ACE schools, students’ voices are rarely heard. I do not think any fair evaluation of the system can ignore the views of those who have experienced it first-hand.” (Page 48)

Then I will wake up in my real home sweating, surrounded by curled up kitties and the sounds of my husband’s deep breathing. I’ll start to make breakfast as my kids rub tired eyes and talk excitedly about what they’ll do at school that day. I marvel that they have a better basic understanding of how the world works than I was given, and I’m thankful they have kept that inner light I lost as a child. My daughter is ten and already knows how to question to a teacher, advocate for her own needs, and slip into a peer group seamlessly. When I was her age, my skill set included how to be absolutely still and quiet while pretending to understand something I had read so as not to bother my supervisor.

All our work was self-taught in silence. ACE didn’t have teachers but instead employed supervisors who were not required to have a single degree or credential under their belt before guiding our education. One particular supervisor, Mrs P, always sighed loudly when she approached my tiny boxed-in desk we called an office. “Yes Lexi?” she’d say in an almost pained voice no matter if I had needed her only once or a dozen times that day. I was her bête noire and her dislike rolled into me like a rolling pin over lumped dough.

Sometimes I would welcome this exhausting person over, conjuring her with a Christian flag placed into a small slot above me (silently and without looking around as I was trained), just to break up the monotony of the day with the interaction of another human being. Calling her was one of the few little things—including bathroom breaks, sharpening pencils, and scoring my self-taught work at a scoring station—that made up the stimulus that got me through the long stretches between recesses. These were my tiny islands in a vast sea of nothing. Yet I could not rely on any one of these things overmuch. If I had called for a supervisor too often that morning to help with a math concept, then I risked being ignored in response when I raised the flag later to use the bathroom.

Accelerated Christian Education might make you do this to a pencil. [image: broken pencil]
Image: Frustration by Eric. Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0.
I had tried to keep myself sane without my supervisor’s assistance. I had named all of my pencils, one fat eraser, and a six-inch ruler who held the titular role in the pencil box kingdom. I’d given each one elaborate backstories, and watched them evolve into distinct characters.

I don’t know when it happened, but over time they had gone tribal.

The tough, monochrome pencils had started punishing the flowery feminine ones under the watchful eye of the (six-inch) ruler by twisting them inside the chain links that held my desk to the wall. This created beautiful damage in their fine wood and added a small mound of dust in the corners of my minuscule office. The bigger pencils would also press their sharpened tips into the eraser ends of the smaller ones, leaving deep, dirty holes. This left the smaller ones ruined forever, their purity and value gone.

The smaller pencils would cry when I took them to the sharpener at my supervisor’s desk. I would imagine them being told the pain was good for them, and they needed to submit to being cut into shape. One cried too much to the annoyance of the entire pencil box. So the others surrounded the still-whimpering little pencil, and, after waiting for a nod from the ruler, broke it in half.

“And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus, Matthew 25:30

On either side of our offices were high dividers inserted between students which added to the isolation I felt deep in my body. These dividers hid my tribe of unruly desk supplies, but did not hide me from the weight of the supervisor’s heavy gaze that drilled into my back as she waited to pounce on the slightest noise.

“Because of the nature of the education, Accelerated Christian Education students are unlikely to challenge the kind of education they are receiving or to question whether or not they have been ‘educated.’ Given their isolation in work stations, they are much less able to produce patterns of ‘resistance.’” from Susan Rose’s Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan.

So many days I would simply sit at my office with a Bible or PACE opened in front of me, staring into the middle distance.

“Can I have more milk?” I’m lost in thought and my daughter jerks me out of my childhood memories, away from the pencils, ruler, and fat eraser.

When my kids ask about what it was like when I was in their grades, I talk about my couple of close friends who owned horses, the tetherball at recess, the sartorial nightmare that was my school uniform, and the magic of combined imaginations when several of us, despite wildly different ages, would create worlds out of the space between the picnic table bench, wheelchair ramp to the fellowship hall, and square patches of grass leading to the sanctuary. When my supervisor had run out of valid criticisms of me, she once wrote in a student evaluation that I “lacked imagination.” I believed her despite the evidence otherwise until I heard my mother laugh at the idea. Those melodic waves of maternal confidence worked to dispel the powerful grip of the lie over me. If only I could have bottled that laugh like a vaccine against the poison dripped into my mind over the years: I was inferior to men, a horrible sinner deserving of pain, and an unintelligent fraud. Drip drip drip.

Eventually Mrs P became hungry for a higher position—a cardinal sin for a woman in this conservative coterie. She butted heads with the male authorities at the school, and eventually left for another Christian school a mere two-minute drive down the road. I hugged her and joined other students in shedding tears over her departure, even as she took advantage of our final moments together to harangue me for stepping too close to the grate when walking across the room. This was the woman who had taught me to sew a button on a shirt in her living room. This was also the woman who advocated beating me with a wooden board that left me unable to sit or walk correctly as deep purple and black welts covered my thighs.

Beatings happened when I was careless. Many times I earned them for not finishing homework on time, being too loud, and once for touching the pink material that came out of the side of the building because I believed it was cotton candy when it was actually insulation that had fallen out of the wall. These constituted capital offenses when combined together. (Three demerits equaled a detention, and three detentions equaled a beating from a male faculty member.) She hugged me as I cried in fear before the worst beating delivered by one of the school’s men in charge.

“A 1980s staff training PACE includes activities about spanking on 12 of its 17 pages.” (Page 61)

My supervisor’s absence left me filled with conflicting feelings of both loss and extreme relief that I didn’t understand. The capricious nature of her behavior towards me left me believing I had earned the surfeit of demerits that added up to my beatings. Without her influence, and with my own mother taking her place as supervisor, the net result was that my life got markedly better. Just like that I went from ungodly to godly.

“It is not surprising that supervisor-parents might view their own children as more godly… Through its privilege system, ACE is designed to give better treatment to ‘godly’ children. This can cause problems for children who gain a reputation as ‘ungodly’.” (Page 239)

When I look at my children’s faces, I sometimes imagine them in that supervisor’s arms about to be beaten with me powerless to protect them. It makes me shudder. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I faked a smile this morning as my young ones got on the school bus. Their days will be filled with talking, questioning, playing, experimenting, building their learning base, squirming in their seats, and smiling.

Their teachers will be real teachers and their pencils will just be pencils.

In part 2, Alexis reflects how Accelerated Christian Education has affected her life since leaving school.

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