“When I was your age, my parents wouldn’t send me to college,” my mother was telling me. “I had to work my way through on my own. I don’t want you to have to stop. I will do everything I can to help you keep going to school. Your education is the most important thing to me.”
We stood in the kitchen, a printed letter lying on the counter between us. It was not good news.
I glanced up at my mother with a strained smile. I knew that if wishes could be cashed at the bank, I’d be writing my admissions essay to an ivy-coated castle. Instead, I was trying to find a way to pay the bill from my last semester of community college in time to register for fall classes. It was already August.
My work at Wal-Mart paid eight-fifty an hour: better than all the other work options for teenagers in the area. My schedule was already as close to full-time as it could be without requiring the company to offer me benefits. My hands were tied: I could take another part-time job, but when would I go to school? It was all I could do to keep our car paid for and insured while my mother handled the rent and utilities. College tuition had slipped between more pressing matters like food and transportation, and dragging it back to current status again would not be easy.
Still, I was grateful to have a mother who dared to disagree with the life track laid out before me. A Catholic turned evangelical, my mother was a radical believer in forging new paths. She had, after all, followed her heart out of her family’s religion when I was still a toddler. Going to college was my chance to discover what God had in store for me as an individual, she thought. I knew already that beliefs like these made my mother an outsider, a liberal and a radical in my church of stay-at-home daughters and unremitting parental supervision. What I did not yet know was how short and how tight the bonds were that held my friends.
“Why don’t you fill out your FAFSA?” my mother suggested. “Maybe you can get grants or student loans. They might offer you more if you apply to a four-year school. Let’s drive around and look for a college where you can transfer your credits.
I loved Rowling College on sight. The sprawling green lawn, ancient shady oaks and dark grey stone of its oldest building washed over me in a wave of color and charm. “It looks like a little Harvard,” I told my mother breathlessly. A more culturally adept young woman might have said it looked like Hogwarts.
The admissions counselor radiated warmth and hope. She beamed at my community college transcripts. No, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have SATs, she said. My grades proved that I could handle introductory classes. I felt a bubble of excitement rising in my throat, and firmly swallowed it. I would assume that this all was beyond my grasp, I decided. If it proved true, I would be pleasantly surprised. If it didn’t, I would not allow myself to feel the disappointment. I can go back to college later, I reasoned. There is a manager position opening at my store.
I was only half fooling myself. As I sipped the coffee and marveled at the expensive upholstery in the admissions office, I imagined myself striding up the long path to the college’s double doors, each step declaring, “I belong here.”
“What are your career goals?” the admissions counselor asked me.
“I want to go to graduate school and become a writer,” I said. Then, daringly, “I want to go to Harvard.” Saying it aloud sounded absurd, but there it was. The story of the homeless girl who had walked through its gates gave me not only the dream, but the audacity to name it.
The counselor smiled. “We’ll get you to Harvard.” Rowling had sent students there before. Other students had sat in this chair and then gone on to great things. Why indeed couldn’t I?
The next two weeks were spent working and trying not to think about whether or not my application would be approved. My retired friend Jim, the store greeter, welcomed my news and bolstered my hopes. “That’s good,” he told me. “You should go to college. You’re smart. Get the hell out of here while you’re young.” I grinned, and told him I intended to do so. I could still hear my community college teacher’s words in the back of my mind. You could be a writer. You could go to grad school. Graduate school seemed like the most glamorous place in the world.
Meanwhile, my friends at a sister church were catching the education fever. I learned of their ambitions in a phone call with their ambassador: Jennifer. A tall, active, tomboyish young woman, Jennifer had gone out of her way to befriend me on the basis of our shared connection with my best friend Sven. Despite the fact that her church was in Connecticut and mine in Pennsylvania, she kept in touch via the internet and periodically came to visit. Demographically, our churches seemed destined to be a match: her youth group was comprised mainly of girls, whereas mine was overwhelmingly slanted toward the boys. That spring, I’d been invited to spend a week at Jennifer’s house, where I’d met her circle of friends and found myself in the strange position of what felt like the ambassador from Land of Raining Men. It appeared that my church had been sighted as a hunting ground for husbands. Knowing that we were expected not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, I suppressed my disgust with the contrivance of it all and dutifully related the names and ages of the potential suitors that I knew, possessively avoiding Sven’s. A decade had taught me that he was safe: passive and uncontrolling. A girl who had no intentions of obedience had first to ensure that she’d never be ordered to do anything.
As I told Jennifer about my nascent college plans, she burst out in excitement: “We’re going too! A bunch of us are applying to Bob Jones University.”
Bob Jones? I’d heard that name before. Other homeschooling families in my church used Bob Jones textbooks. My mother had discarded them as dull and political, opting for the more flexible and artistic Sonlight curriculum instead. I had no idea that Bob Jones had founded a university, nor (as I was just realizing) did I have any idea who Bob Jones really was.
“I told my dad that it would be okay since we won’t be going alone,” Jennifer continued. “We’ll watch out for each other. It’s a Christian college. We won’t have to worry about drinking or partying or any of that. You should come with us!”
I froze. Rowling College’s wrought-iron lampposts and immaculate lawn flashed in front of my eyes. I want to go to a real school, came the unstoppable silent protest. I was immediately wracked with guilt. What do you have against Bob Jones? I asked myself furiously. How do you know it’s not a “real” school? But the steely voice in my head would not be silenced. I don’t care if this makes me a terrible, judgmental person. I want to go to a real school, and that does not include Bob Jones.
I slept fitfully that night. I pictured myself bursting through the chains that had held me in one place for too long, only to find myself swept away into a dreary black-and-white encampment. I saw the dull stone halls filled with good Christian husbands, all grey and lifeless. I saw the parade of unthreatening ideas, the inevitable fight against the Trinity but the ultimate surety of everything else. A silent scream welled up inside me. Away in the distance there stood the gates of Rowling, vibrant with promise, a dark channel separating me from them. I wanted to jump, to take the greatest risk, to grapple with the edges of the chasm and yank myself up. I feared the abyss not because I would be striking something unknown, but because I was afraid that I’d never know anything else. Bob Jones University, that good Christian college, in its very safety and certainty struck me with terror. I could not go where Jennifer went, even if it meant giving up everything.
Later that week, as I finished a shift at Wal-Mart and returned my tray to the manager, I heard my mother call my name. I turned to see her striding rapidly toward me, waving an envelope.
She couldn’t hold it in. “You were accepted!” she cried.
I scrambled for the letter and held it up before my eyes in shock. My frantic eyes struggled to focus. Rowling had taken me in. I was in! I was a real college student. With scholarships. The store spun and danced around me. I was dimly aware of my Wal-Mart managers grinning and patting me on the back. All I could see was the small black print: “Congratulations!”
As I studied my admissions package that night, I learned that I would be starting classes in a week. My first semester was paid for. I would only have to cover my books. I would even be moving onto campus! Since my room and board were covered under my scholarship package, it would cost more to commute. Apprehensively, I filled out my roommate survey. “Likes to read,” I wrote. “Very quiet. Early riser.” The excitement outweighed my nervousness. I would get to live on campus! I would get to eat in the cafeteria and study in the library. It was all so overwhelmingly new.
I was giddy as I called Jennifer to tell her the good news. When she answered, however, I knew that mine was a solitary joy. The tide had shifted. The sisterhood of Bob Jones would never be.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The elders of my church had a special meeting,” she sighed. “They decided that it wasn’t right for young women to go away together and live on their own. They said we would be too far away from our fathers’ headship.”
I hung up the phone with tears of rage stinging my eyes. Just like that, my friends’ futures had been sealed, their hopes crushed, their homes transformed into prisons. The doors of opportunity had slammed shut, and I stood alone on the outside. A cold fear settled on my shoulders, Frantically, I began packing my belongings, looking ahead to my move-in date with trepidation. If I could just move onto campus, I would be safe then. I would never come back, never be caught, never be caged. I thanked God for my faithless father, knowing now that only the “headless” state of my family permitted my escape. As I stuffed t-shirt after modest t-shirt into my luggage, I wept for my friends. There was nothing godly about this, nothing loving, nothing just. The girls had done everything right, but it was not enough. No amount of prayer or planning would be enough to let mere women follow their dreams, unsupervised.
If I make it to college, I promised God, I will work with all my might. I will take every opportunity in sight. I will not squander this gift.
For the next six days, I waited for the hammer to fall.
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.
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce