Turning eighteen was magical. Suddenly, all the job applications I seemed to be throwing down an empty chute were bounced back with interest. Sven had already landed a job at Wal-Mart in his town. Now it was my turn. I nervously sat through my job interview, not daring to hope that I might actually be on my way to earning money. When they called back with an offer, I could hardly contain my excitement.
Not only did I have a job, I had a real driver’s license. No longer did I need the supervision of an adult driver. I could take myself anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted. The freedom was intoxicating, and I found myself driving everywhere at the slightest excuse.
Now that I was mobile, my mother decided it was time to do something about the sorry state of my academic life. Homeschooling had ceased somewhere around age 15. I had been completely off the record in New Jersey, where strict homeschooling regulations would have required testing and proof of progress. Now, we were ready to move back to Pennsylvania, where the lax state laws meant I technically only needed one more year of credits. My mother decided that the best way to accomplish this would be to enroll me in community college classes, a strategy pursued by some of the boys in my church. They had used it to get a jump-start on college; at the very least, I could get a diploma out of it.
My first classroom experience since kindergarten was a twice-weekly evening class in one of the trailers behind the community college. It was a remedial math course, intended to catch me up on the untouched two-thirds of my Algebra II book, which had been only a guilt-emitting paperweight in my bedroom for the past year. I was nervous, but I also felt a sudden rush of power as I studied that remedial algebra. Although I was at a severe disadvantage, I knew that, with enough work, I could probably pass this class. I would never be like our church’s star students, both male, one working on his MBA at the esteemed Delaware Valley College. The latter’s mother lost no opportunity to remind me of that fact. And yet, the math was comfortingly rational. If I practiced enough, it came out right.
To my amazement, my tests began to come back with positive results. Not just positive results, in fact, but straight As! What is this? My mind reeled. I quickly rationalized it. This must be easy math. Anyone can do this. My whole class must be doing this well. I still might not make it in real college courses. Then I learned that the class average was something resembling a B-. I hid my starred exams under my notebooks, afraid that the other students would hate me as I quietly pondered what this meant.
Until that moment, I’d never had an opportunity to measure my own intelligence. I was terrified to learn: where were the limits of my powers? Could I make it in community college? In four-year school? In the workplace? After a lifetime of hearing that I was smart only from my parents, of getting meaningless As in a classroom of one, I threw myself into community college work with the fear ever lurking in the back of my mind, “What if I work as hard as I can and find out I’m not that smart? What then?” I resolved to work so hard that I didn’t have to find out just yet. I would tackle the challenge of this class, but not look beyond. One thing at a time.
I knew my future hinged on this. If I could make it in school, if I could make it in work, I wouldn’t be trapped in the Message of the Hour, doomed to a lifetime of incessant childbearing and submission. As I pulled into the parking lot of my community college for the last time, I noticed a promotional billboard hanging above the trailer where my class was held. Its message stunned me. I stopped the car and stared up through the windshield.
“From Homeless to Harvard,” the sign read, with a picture of a well-dressed woman beaming beside the bright red letters. It was a graduation photo. It was a picture of success, of triumph. As I got out of my mother’s car and stood gaping at the sign, an unfamiliar hope lodged in my throat like a piece of grit, nearly choking me. I, too, had lost my home – lodging, unwanted, in my grandparents’ cellar. I, too, was not expected to amount to anything – indeed, I was forbidden. William Branham saw working women as a threat to God’s order for the world. And yet, that smiling girl… she had gone to Harvard! Could I not, then, go somewhere? Could I not be something, too?
I turned in my final math exam with the lightest heart I’d felt since I was a little child, since before I’d ever heard of the Message or William Branham. I felt like a little girl again, with a whole future spread out before me for the taking. “I want to be an astronaut and an archaeologist,” the small child in my head whispered. “I want to write a book, travel the world and swim with dolphins. I want to do everything when I grow up.”
Weeks later, the final grade came in. I’d passed the math course with an A.
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.