Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you the story of Kindly Old Mrs. Watkins and how she unwittingly and unknowingly led me to my firm conviction that there is no Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky.
It’s a long one; go grab a beer.
But first, some background, because all of this might not have happened if I hadn’t screwed up third grade, when Mean Old Mrs. Murphy sent me straight on my path to hell, or wherever those of us who don’t believe in the Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky go when this life is over.
I had mastered the fine art of silent reading long before I entered third grade, and I reckon that was very inconvenient for Mean Old Mrs. Murphy, who more than anything liked order in her classroom. If it was reading-aloud time and the class was on Page 9 of the latest Alice & Jerry book, then Mrs. Murphy was going to make damned sure that every kid in the class had his or her page turned to Page 9 and was ready to read out loud when called upon.
And everybody meant everybody.
Well . . . everybody but me. Because I thought Alice & Jerry were supercool, and I just couldn’t wait to find out how their latest adventure was going to turn out. And did I mention that I had mastered the art of silent reading?
There was the rest of the class, their books dutifully opened to Page 9, and there I’d be, inevitably, tooling merrily along on Page 30 or somewhere when Mrs. Murphy, inevitably, would call on me to read out loud.
And every time, inevitably, I would have to ask Mrs. Murphy, in front of all my classmates, “What page are we on?”
And Mean Old Mrs. Murphy, inevitably, knew exactly how to handle an upstart 8-year-old. This situation called for public humiliation!
“I see Stephen isn’t paying attention again,” she’d tell the class, inevitably.
And so I knew well before Columbus Day that third grade was gonna be one tough slog, because there would be just too many inevitablies before summer vacation came along.
And then there was the issue of that poem we had to recite out loud, in unison, at an assembly, the one for which we prepared for months. It started out like this . . .
“The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”
Listen real close and you’ll hear 8-year-old Stevie, his nose buried in Page 30 of an Alice & Jerry book, whispering the third-grade equivalent of . . .
I knew very little about shepherds and wanting. And this being Brooklyn, N.Y., there were very few green pastures that some shepherd could maketh me to lie down in. And even if we could find a green pasture, where the hell were we going to find a shepherd?
And then we got to the “anointing my head with oil” part. That just sounded weird.
Now, I could memorize stuff OK. I knew, for example, that Crest had been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care. I could relate to that. But there was no way in hell I was going to learn that twenty-third psalm. I mean, seriously, what’s a psalm? And why’s it got a “p” in front?
And how come we didn’t have to memorize the first twenty-two before we got to it? How come I can’t skip to Page 30 but Mean Old Mrs. Murphy can skip right to Psalm 23?
Clearly, I was doomed.
And so it was that my parents got me the hell out of P.S. 197 and sent me to Brooklyn Friends School when it was time to be a fourth-grader.
BFS was a cool school. I quickly made friends and I became quite fond of my new teacher, Kindly Old Mrs. Watkins.
You remember Mrs. Watkins? This is all about Mrs. Watkins. (Literary device courtesy of Arlo Guthrie.)
Aside: Mrs. Watkins is the teacher in the picture at the top. I’m there, too. Bet you can’t pick me out, unless you went to BFS.
Flash forward a few weeks and we’re in class one day when Mrs. Watkins, for some reason, decided we would discuss everyone’s religion. (This was OK, by the way, because BFS was a Quaker school. Reciting the 23rd Psalm in a public school one year earlier was definitely NOT OK, but we digress.)
Mrs. Watkins went around the class, and each kid had to say what his or her religion was. Just about everyone was Jewish or some variety of Protestant. This being Brooklyn, there were a lot of Catholic kids around, but they went either to public school or to parochial school. We had a smattering of Quakers in the class, too, this being a Quaker school and all.
So we were going through the class, and Howard said he was Jewish, and Ryan was Protestant, and Michael was Jewish, and Raye was Protestant, and Stephen was Jewish, and Laurel was Protestant.
And then Mrs. Watkins called on Robert, who over the past few weeks had quickly become one of my best friends in the whole world, which means an awful lot to a New Kid in School. And Robert stood up and said:
“I’m an atheist.”
More than two dozen 9-year-olds listened very intently, because this was a new word. What the hell is an atheist?
An atheist doesn’t believe in god, Robert told the class.
WHOA!!! WHAT???? How can that be possible? EVERYBODY believes in god. Haven’t met him, haven’t seen him, never heard a word from him, but . . . he’s there, right? I mean . . . Who doesn’t believe in god? I’ll bet even Eddie Haskell believes in god.
But Robert didn’t believe in god. Which, of course, meant that his parents didn’t believe in god, because really . . . where do you get your religion from when you’re a 9-year-old? If your mom and dad are Klingons, then you’re a Klingon, and Klingons hadn’t even been invented yet.
And that’s when Kindly Old Mrs. Watkins set the wheels in motion. It’s been more than half a century, but I still remember the exact words she said to the class after Robert shocked the world.
“Let’s continue,” she said, “and see if we can find a religion for Robert.”
I was barely 9-years-old but I already knew this much:
Robert was my friend, and if he didn’t have a religion, he certainly did not need one. Robert was doing just fine.
And this got me to thinking, and once you start thinking about your religion, I reckon all hell breaks loose. If Robert was doing just fine without a god, I thought, I could do just fine without one, too. There was room in this classroom for TWO atheists!
So let’s move ahead four more years, and I’m studying for my bar mitzvah. And since I attend a Quaker school a long subway ride from home, I can’t go to Hebrew School at the end of the day with the rest of the Jewish kids in my neighborhood. And besides, my father’s mother is very, very orthodox, and so I am going to be bar mitzvahed in an Orthodox synagogue.
So my parents hired an Orthodox rabbi to come to our home twice a week and tutor me so that I could read my Haftorah with style and class, surrounded by about six guys wearing black suits who would be speaking no English. This part was actually pretty easy, because Hebrew is a phonetic language. Lean the letters, learn the vowels, and you can speak it even if you don’t have a clue what you’re saying.
So all was going fine and well until the day Rabbi Aronoff (I think that was his name) showed up with these black straps and a black cube and told me they were tefillin — also known as phylacteries. Two more new words. They didn’t look any prophylactic I had ever heard of, but hey, you learn something new every day.
Rabbi Aronoff showed me how to put the black cube on my head like a miner’s flashlight, and how to wrap the black straps around my arm, and he told me I was supposed to pray every morning with these things on. But he didn’t say what would happen if I didn’t.
I don’t have time, I told him.
Find the time, he told me.
Yeah, like that’s gonna happen, I said to myself.
So for a few months, Rabbi Aronoff would show up twice a week to tutor me, and every time he’d start out by asking me if I’d been putting on my tefillin and praying.
And remember . . . this whole atheist thing is still nagging at me.
Now Rabbi Aronoff was a decent guy, so when it came to answering the tefillin question, I most definitely did not want to hurt his feelings. So I told him, sure, I’m putting on my tefillin. You betcha.
I waited a bit, and, remarkably, no lightning bolt crashed through the window. It turned out you could lie to the rabbi and nothing would happen.
A couple of months later, I stood among a bunch of old men, all wearing black suits, facing a large congregation — men downstairs, women upstairs — and recited my haftorah. I didn’t have a clue what I was saying, but I said it just fine. And, again, amazingly, no lightning bolt crashed through the window.
Half a century later, I’m still standing.
Robert had it right all along. There is no Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky.
So here’s a tip of the hat to Mrs. Watkins, who set all the wheels in motion.
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