It was “Back to Church Sunday” at our church today, and at the end of the service, an invasion of young children poured into the sanctuary, each wearing a backpack. They crowded together on the steps of the chancel for the blessings of the backpacks. A truly wonderful sight. If you feel cynical about our old world, the sight of those bright, hopeful faces would soften your heart.
Jacob, going into eighth grade this week, is of course too old and too sophisticated to get his backpack blessed, but we all went to a Sunday-school hour program to hear about the offerings coming up this year for students from middle school through high school—bell choir, missionary trips, Sunday night snacks, day trips. Someone—children’s minister Jamie Plunkett and his assistants—had worked hard on some complicated programing.
The whole thing took me back to my high school days. I think in part the course of my adult life was determined by my close involvement with a church group. The United Church of Hyde Park, and its neighbor, the Hyde Park YMCA, were the center of my social world. We all went to church together and afterward to hang out at Thomas’ Drugstore across the street—the drugstore owners were not always thrilled but we usually had fries and cokes; sometimes we sang in the choir; we met every Sunday night, though now I’m a little vague about what we did. My first boyfriends and all my close girlfriends came from that group. The group was called something that sounded like “Tuxus”—I never saw it written out and am quite sure I have gotten it wrong. An internet search turns up no such word.
When we weren’t at the church, we were, as a group, at someone’s house. There was usually a chess game going on and lots of pizza ordered. To this day, I avoid pizza with the excuse the I overdosed on it in high school—that includes cold, leftover pizza for breakfast.
This was not my family church. That was in another neighborhood, where I knew no one. A close friend introduced me to the United church when we were young enough to be in a Brownie troop. We graduated not into Girl Scouts (though I was a Scout for a while) but into the high-school church group (there was no middle school in Chicago in those days). My parents, familiar with the opportunities for youngsters to go astray on the South side of Chicago, sanctioned my attending another church, though Dad, son of a Methodist preacher, remained loyal to the Methodist Church. I occasionally went to football games or “hung out’ with kids they deemed inappropriate, and I think they saw the church as a safe haven.
Our dances were at the YMCA— those were the days of the jitterbug, but I was too self-conscious to learn to do it –and my high-school “sorority” was a YMCA group called “Calliope,” probably after the Greek goddess who presides over poetry and eloquence. I’m not sure I can see a connection, but I had the sweatshirt to prove it.
I was in the middle of a group of what today we would call nice young people. They were by no means goody-two-shoes, but they knew where and when to draw the line. And at that age, group acceptance is so important—especially for someone with my shy, wallflower tendencies. I was part of the group, though strangely one of the youngest and shortest, and I was happy. I had no need to look beyond my world for thrills or new experiences.
Jacob has his own group, a bunch of good boys from elementary school. In middle school, he’s branched out a bit in friendship but some of those boys are still the core of his social life. He is not as comfortable with the church kids, because he only knows a few of them, and as I looked at a gaggle of girls and boys today, I realized that I didn’t recognize any of them. A few others, like Jacob, sat quietly with their parents.
I wish for Jacob, and for all my grandchildren, as rich a high school experience as I had. It’s served me in good stead over the years. I’ve been saddened as word came of a death here and there of someone who remained forever young in my mind, and I occasionally wonder the familiar, “Whatever happened to….” But I am still in touch with two of the girls and what they say about old friendships is true—they are gold.
I drove by the church a few years ago when my children and I were in Chicago, and I was surprised at how small it looked. I wonder if the Fellowship Hall still has that wavy floor and the balcony around the edge with Sunday school rooms off it. ah, the memories.