Sunday, April 17, 2011
There was only one high school in the county where I grew up, and there was only one counselor in that high school to help all 400 or so of us figure out who we were and where we were headed after graduation. A lot of us weren't headed to college, and I don't think our counselor thought it was his job to change anyone's mind about that in the four years we walked those three halls. One thing he did do for every student, however, was administer a test in the sophomore year that told us what our interests and talents were, and what jobs we might be suited for based on those interests and talents.
Of course, a lot of us were going to end up doing what our own parents did, regardless of what the test said. When I was growing up in that mountain valley, there were still a lot of mink ranchers who sold to furriers, alfalfa farmers who ran cattle, and manual laborers who got hired on at the cement plant. Unless you commuted down through the narrow canyon to the larger towns below, there weren't many other local options. A decent number of my male classmates did end up settling "down below" (as we called the larger towns), and they've become salesmen and office workers and civilian employees of the government. My female classmates have largely ended up as stay-at-home moms and – if they do work – part-time cashiers, and you didn't need a test to predict that. My own mom stayed at home once she had children, and three of my sisters have as well. When my fifteenth high school reunion came around, I noted just how many of my female classmates listed "working in the home" or "homemaker" as their profession in the space on the questionnaire that we sent in to be shared. Rural Utah is a hard place to be childless, and an even harder place to be a mom who holds down a full-time, professional job outside the home. As we were often told at church, "The most important work you will ever do is within the walls of your own home." But based on the paths we followed as adults, what that prophetic aphorism really must have meant was, "The most important work you women will ever do is within the walls of your own home."
At that time in my life I had a few vague ideas about what I might like to do as a profession, and I had a firm sense that I'd go to college, as my dad had. But I didn't yet have a specific career in mind – or at least one I could admit to. I loved film and theatre, and I harbored a secret desire to act professionally. But even though I participated in the high school plays and musicals, I told no one about this desire. Mormons like musicals, but in my rural valley and in my father's house in particular there was a general perception that professional actors didn't lead lives that lent themselves to upholding church standards. Worse, there were a lot of "fruitcakes" among actors, who, according to my dad, played "let's pretend" so much that they would forget that right is right. So it was risky to be too closely associated with that dream. And since I couldn't pursue that dream (or, naturally, that "lifestyle"), I was genuinely curious to see what the career aptitude test might point me towards.
A few weeks after we took the test, the counselor met with each one of us individually in my class of just over 100 to tell us our results. It must have been a considerable undertaking for him. Like nearly every person in the county, he was a member of the church, and I've wondered whether it troubled him that the test didn't ask questions that might determine a women's interest in and aptitude for sniffing out poopy diapers or packing the perfect snack pack to keep a baby interested through all three hours of Sunday's church meetings. Actually, it was probably better that the test didn't contemplate such an ending, because those poor girls who weren't identified as promising future stay-at-home moms would probably have suffered a lot of discomfort in their post-test conversation with the counselor. I myself can attest to the intensely awkward discomfort a student could feel when the aptitude test results were not in line with normal expectations. In my particular case, the results were of the type that dare not speak its name. And I don't mean that they were inconclusive.
When I was called in for my individual meeting with the counselor to go over the results, I could tell that something was wrong. He was normally a mild and pleasant man, soft-spoken but direct. He was chubby and moved a bit slowly, but as was expected of any man there he had a firm handshake. He also always looked a person in the eye, which meant he sometimes caught his students looking up at his hair to confirm the rumor that he wore a toupee. He knew my older siblings, who had all gone to the same high school, and he and I had had a brief meeting in my freshman year to go over my results from one of those achievement tests that schools were required to administer from time to time. He had been friendly then and had seemed genuinely pleased with my results. He knew from that meeting that I was planning on college. But when he opened his office door to let me in for our discussion of the career aptitude test, he looked a little nervous – and a little confused. After giving me a quick and surprisingly loose handshake, he motioned hurriedly (for him) to the chair that sat across from his desk, and he shuffled back to his own big, worn chair behind the desk. He opened my file, paused for a moment and took a deep breath, then took out a copy of the results, looking off to the side of my head and baring his teeth in a tight, uncomfortable smile. As he looked over the print-out, he said, quietly, to some spot at least two feet to the left of my face, "You'll, ummm, you'll notice when I give you your copy that on the top it lists the kinds of activities you seem to do well and the kinds of activities you seem to enjoy. And then, uh, on the bottom it lists three possible career choices for you to consider. You know, based on your talents and your, uh, your interests. The thing about this test is it can reveal interests that you yourself haven't necessarily thought of. And, ummm, so, then, it looks like you might want to consider the following three, uh, professions." He paused for what seemed like an eternity, and cleared his throat. "The first one is, uh, actor. You might want to consider being an actor." There was a pause. "You know, you, uh, you were very good in 'Carousel.' My wife and I just loved that production last term."
I could feel my heart start to pound and my face start to flush. Part of me felt pleased that this test had picked up on my innermost desire and said I should consider it - and that the counselor remembered me from "Carousel." But I didn't want him to think I actually wanted to become a professional actor, because by knowing that he might know so much more. "Oh," I said, "Well, that's very unlikely. I'm not really interested in that as a life. What are the other two?" I asked.
He now looked even more uncomfortable, and I could see small sweat beads forming below his strangely perfect hairline. I was getting more nervous by the second. His eyes moved down to the print-out for confirmation, then back to that spot somewhere to the left of my face. "Hairdresser, and, uh, interior designer," he answered quietly.
I'm sure I gasped, and I must have closed my eyes, because I remember the room going dark and muttering into that darkness in my head the word "frig" over and over. (Good Mormon youths never, ever said the "f" word; our substitutes were usually "frig," "flip," or "frick," and even these substitues were not to be used in polite company.) The other two possible professions that were listed had exposed me even more! No wonder the counselor seemed so weird. Both he and I had thought the test was going to identify my interests in order to guide me in the classroom, but what the test really did was identify my interests in order to guide me in the bedroom. I had been outed by a friggin' career aptitude test!
I opened my eyes. He looked back at the paper, then down at his desk as he handed me my results. I mumbled something about college and other plans, grabbed the paper, and hurried out of that office. As I remember, I went straight to the bathroom and tore the results up into little shreds, which I flushed down the toilet. Needless to say, I didn't share the actual results with my classmates or my parents. Instead, I said that the test indicated that I should consider becoming a lawyer or a writer or a professor. And, indeed, those were the paths I explored once I got into a college classroom. As far as my bedroom is concerned, of course, the test was very accurate in its implications. But it was wrong on at least one count: playing "let's pretend" in the bedroom ultimately just wasn't in me.
Saturday, April 2, 2011
While I was living in the Boston area, I dated a man who was a reporter at the Boston Globe. One evening he took me to a party where there were a lot of young reporters from the newspaper. At one point during the evening the people I was speaking with brought up Mitt Romney (who had been governor of Massachusetts and was at that point assumed to be the front runner for the Republican nomination for U.S. President in the 2008 race). The conversation turned to his religion and whether America would elect a Mormon, when suddenly a young woman from across the small, crowded room turned towards us with wide eyes and a knowing smile and said, “Oh my god, aren’t Mormons such weird people? What a f**ked up religion!”
Upon hearing this young woman’s brief but forceful summation of Mormonism, I immediately thought of a talk I heard as a teenager by Gordon B. Hinckley, late "prophet, seer, and revelator" (or, to put it in layman's terms, late president of the church - Mormons call their leader by the the title "president" if they are using his last name, but they generally speak about him in the third person simply as "the prophet"). In this talk, President Hinckley said, “Profanity is the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully.” I don’t think the line was his originally, but I associate it with him because that's where I heard it - and because I liked it when I heard it. So with words of the prophet in my head, and with – I must admit – some enjoyment in my soul at the awkwardness I was about to make this young woman feel, I smiled and said, “I grew up Mormon.” And then I laughed.
The young woman apologized profusely, and in subsequent conversation I found her to be a warm, funny, and insightful person who had a lot of good questions about the church. Her mind certainly wasn't feeble, but her knowledge of Mormonism was. No doubt the fact that I’m not a practicing Mormon (I was there as the date of a gay man she worked with, after all) helped us get around her first greeting. My date was less forgiving than I was, however. Such sentiments are never good party conversation when you don’t know the other guests well, but what made him even angrier was that this young journalist at a major newspaper would say such things (no doubt thinking them was less of a problem). It's probably also worth mentioning that my date's beat was religion.
This type of situation happens a lot, and potentially offensive first remarks don't always spring from total strangers who don't know my background. Last summer my partner and I joined his old college friends for a few days up in the Adirondacks, where we stayed at a cabin owned by the parents of my partner's college roommate. These parents were there the first night of our stay, and over dinner the father, who knew my background, turned to me and asked, "So are Mormons really as creepy as they seem?" Honest to God, that's what he asked. There was a moment of silence while I processed the question - and while everyone else looked down at their plates, as if whatever dish we were eating was the most interesting thing they had ever seen. After a few seconds, I replied, "That's probably a hard question for me to answer, since I grew up Mormon and all my family is Mormon." Someone then tried to change the topic of conversation, but there were more questions about Mormonism, my family, and their relationship with me. The rest of the questions, by the way, were much kinder.
There are almost always a lot of questions about my background from people I meet at parties, or on vacations, or in other social settings where one's guard and the stakes are lowered. It's very predictable, and my partner always laughs now when it happens. He knows that as soon as someone in a social setting realizes I'm Mormon or feels comfortable enough to bring it up, we won't be talking about much else - and he sometimes says as much to inquisitive new acquaintances. If they ask whether I'm offended by the questions, or whether I'd prefer not to talk about it, his reply is that I don't mind, and that in fact I like talking about it. And that's true.
For the first 23 years of my life, I was surrounded by Mormons. The church or aspects of it were constantly present, wherever I was or whatever I was doing. And now in my regular life I think and talk about the church only when someone asks me about it in unguarded conversation. I suppose in a way growing up in a religion and in a religious community and then choosing to move out and move on is an experience that's a bit like choosing to move to another country where a different language is spoken. It's not that you want to go back, and it just isn't practical to speak your old language in your new country. But when someone wants to hear about your homeland or to try speaking your first language with you, it feels nice to go to that home you carry within you for just a few minutes. Short, controlled visits are fine; a permanent return is impossible.