Sparing me from the apple revealed to my peers the knowledge of unearned favoritism, further poisoning my stay amongst fellow Christians. My seventh day was far from restful, filled with the anxiety of Monday. I bore the mark of a Catholic. Regardless of my inability to choose my affiliation, it was clear to these children that I was a child of Babylon.
Although I grew up in Catholicism, my early childhood was spent in the midst of Seventh Day Adventists, a Protestant sect often belittled as “cult like” by competing mainstream Protestantism. Some of their beliefs were non-canonical, but the adults I remember being loving, quiet people. My mother, a devout Catholic, thought that the NY Archdiocese was lazy and that the schools were unregimented. Being American institution, she found it less structured when it came to teaching scripture. I needed to know my Bible, cover to cover to save me. The SDA community she knew was God fearing, straight laced, and though a little odd, lived a clean lifestyle. They understood indoctrination. And as a child of immigrant parents, it was important that I resist matriculation into the surrounding African American community, which was filled with moral depravity. Hence, when a friend suggested my enrollment in the local bilingual Seventh Day Adventist school, it must’ve seemed ideal.
Nestled in Crown Heights, only minutes from the place that spawned my love of exploration, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the school dished out an equal amount of corporal punishment and religious dogma. It was in this place I’d learn that Biblical justice was arbitrarily assigned and subject to those in control. Its also where I learned to hate apples.
The uniforms were standard blue, which distinctly contrasted the color of their batons, or beat sticks, which came in several vibrant colors. They ranged from neon to red, in boxes like pencils, yet significantly thicker. If one broke during the administration of punishment, there was ample supply. The blue ones were ribbed and the red and black ones smooth and polished. I tried never to look too closely, avoiding them altogether. Hands were the usual targets, the tops of which were warranted for more egregious sins such as lying, and the palms were used for disobedience, missing homework, or the inexcusable inability to learn. Bottoms were fair game, but leather belts were needed to cut through the padding. I also recall the eventual adoption of a general consent form, after one of the few American students brought his mother in to complain. I don’t think she knew this was a disciplinary option when she signed him up. He went years in fear without telling her this was happening. I could hear the yelling from the office. However, for the families of Caribbean descent, the form was mere formality. It was part of our culture.
One day at lunch I recall one of my teachers, Mrs. Fish, finding a half bitten apple in the trash. I’m not exactly sure how she found it being covered with so much additional refuse thrown atop. Wasting was sinful, so it required correction. Our parents worked hard to pay our tuitions, but the natural bounty that sustained the earth was a gift from God. Healthy food is part of the SDA tenets, with many Adventists adhering to a vegetarian lifestyle rejecting both caffeine and alcohol outright. Mrs. Fish was incensed. In retrospect, I’m not sure if it was more cultural, since many Haitians are sensitive to poverty and waste, or whether it was solely her religious convictions, but she made it clear that she was empowered by God to seek justice. The Principal, a balding man with a terrible comb over, was summoned to the cafeteria and assist in the inquisition. One by one we were asked if we disposed of the fruit. And one by one, we denied. I remember standing my entire lunch period, surrounded by what I knew were other innocent children. It wasn’t my apple, but that was irrelevant. This was group punishment and for it to be effective, the group suffered.
After failing to find the guilty party, we were told to line up and be prepared to take a bite. It was a big apple and a small class. No child would admit to this truth in this environment. And one by one, that’s exactly what was done. This browning, dirty apple would be our spoils. Until it was my turn. Holding back the tears that come with unfair punishment, I stepped up to take my bite. It was only fair. But, to my surprise, I was dismissed. “I know your mother. She raised you better and you wouldn’t do this,” was Mrs. Fish’s response. All that talk of equality and righteous indignation and I was saved because of someone she knew. Favoritism based on their childhood friendship. There was a unanimous sigh of disgust from my classmates and every other student present. I knew I’d not heard the end of this. And my timid protest of solidarity was quickly shrugged off with a smile as I was escorted back to my seat.
The bullying I’d dealt with for so long for being the shy one, the Catholic one, only got worse. Sitting alone was normal and whispers behind my back, expected. I also loved music of all sorts, which was sinful. Although the Seventh-Day Adventists agree with many Catholic doctrines, including the Trinity, Christ’s divinity, the virgin birth, and Christ’s Second Coming, they also refer to the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon. I couldn’t escape that. The school bully intensified his attacks. Every bump and trip, came with a more diabolical laugh. As one of the most righteous, he was entitled. I was marked. I just wanted to fit in.
My insularity drove me to incredible bouts of loneliness. I didn’t wish for death, I just wished for an end.
And what of the god fearing children who witnessed this, would they help? No. That’s what Catholics deserved. Others were too afraid. Power is equated with authority, and they were taught to comply, even when faced with morally dubious behavior. My bully’s name was Muller. You never forget your bully’s name. However, on a recent trip back home to New York, my mother reminded me of the name I referred to him to my cousins, the Son of Satan. And I was pretty convinced he was put on earth to test me. Then one day when I snapped. The bus driver stepped out of our tiny banana bus. Muller pushed me. Hard. Years of rage came through in retaliation. The torture went on for years, building on itself. Until one day, I’d been pushed too far and too hard. Every tear I’d ever shed in my mother’s lap, sobbing about not going back to that school, must’ve erupted in streams as I mustered everything that I had to push him back. Hard. I wasn’t proud of it, I wasn’t in control. I could’ve hurt him. This was the kind of snap that results in school lockdowns. My shyness made me gay, I’d never grow up to be a man because I was so little, the black eyes, the welts, tripping up and falling down stairs, the actual scars, etc. All reported and all dismissed. If I couldn’t take a little bullying, how’d I be God’s soldier? How’d I survive the perils of an ungodly land? I remember jumping on Muller, and when the bus driver pulled me off, I knew I’d be disciplined for fighting on the school bus. And I was. Lashes all around.
That’s when I realized that there was no rhyme or reason to this system of religious justice. Self-defense didn’t exist, compliance was absolute, and the mere avoidance of punishment came about from whom you knew, cronyism. I stayed there until the fourth grade, when a visiting substitute math and science teacher saw my interest go ignored. Convincing my mother to withdraw me from my ongoing nightmare, she recommended an even smaller American Lutheran school in the heart of Bedford Stuyvesant.
I traded one form of indoctrination for another and the bullying just evolved. I didn’t stop being the quiet kid, and I was still a Catholic on Protestant soil. My mother let me down, allowing the bullying to continue. School administration let me down, by turning a blind eye. And even with that, my faith never once wavered. Consequently, it just helped me write my own religious persecution story. When I hear family and friends talk about Christian oppression, I understand it. It is a personal experience we share, but it’s not at the hands of secular minority. No, it is often at the hands of a Christian nation.
That’s not why I’m an Atheist, but it is why I really still hate apples.