Female Students Were Always Treated Graciously: Esau’s Story

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Esau” is a pseudonym.

I heard that you are calling for contributions from graduates of Patrick Henry College, and I think you need to hear a balance of different perspectives, so I am writing. Please do not identify me by name–I wish to remain anonymous (you may identify me as a male student who was a member of the class of 2010). Please be very careful if you feel compelled to edit my comments… I will be very angry if my words are twisted or misquoted in any way!

Here are some of my observations about life at Patrick Henry, based on my personal observation, during the time I was there (2006-2010):

–Campus culture tended to divide into narrow, insular “cliques” or circles. A particular student might circulate through multiple cliques, but the cliques themselves seldom overlapped.  Acceptable behavior varied widely between these different cliques. This, I believe, is a source of much confusion: observers tend to generalize about the entire school based on what happened in a single clique, without realizing that other students behaved very differently. Some cliques or circles engaged in risky behavior, or liked to go off campus and break rules just to see what they could get away with. Other circles were exactly the opposite, not only in obedience to but also in support of and agreement with the rules that governed life on campus. Students who never found at least one circle or clique to become a part of generally did not last long.

–Much has been made of the way male students treated female students. I never personally perceived a culture of “rape” or chauvinist male dominance at Patrick Henry. Throughout my time on campus, in the circles I was a part of, female students were always treated graciously, courteously, and with respect. Behind closed doors, the men I associated with always spoke about female students wholesomely and respectfully. That is not an exaggeration or a generalization–it is the literal truth. Not only that, but some male students even took it upon themselves to play the role of vigilantes in protecting the honor of female students against any perceived inappropriate behavior, confronting alleged “creeps” and firmly warning them to mend their ways (this is not a generalization or based on hearsay). Some male PHC students, especially freshmen, were so awkward and uncomfortable dealing with members of the opposite sex that they did their best to avoid them altogether, sitting only with other male students in the dining hall and seldom, if ever, setting foot in the common areas of female dorms. For some, the awkwardness eased after a few years; for others, it remained intact even through graduation day.

–Patrick Henry students loved to argue. Oh, how they loved to argue. It was absolutely vital to always have something to argue about. Among freshmen, many arguments revolved around finer points of theology, particularly Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Thankfully, many older students eventually tired of arguing theology and moved on to other subjects. During much of my time on campus, a perennial topic of argument was proposed revisions to the student honor code. The need to argue about something was such a deep-seated urge, in fact, that if there were no genuine controversy to argue about, a controversy would sometimes be manufactured, seemingly just so people would have something to argue about in the dining hall.

–There were a relatively small number of students who were consumed with hatred and bitterness toward the administration, because of things the administration had allegedly done to them and their friends. Students who felt persecuted by the administration sometimes took out their wrath and frustration on students who did not share their hatred of the administration. In particular, some members of the outgoing class of 2007 greeted the incoming class of 2010 with a great deal of anger and bitterness, stirred up to apoplectic frenzy by the very thought that incoming freshmen could dare to be happy and enthusiastic about the school after the Great Schism of 2006.  While I was a student these kinds of controversies sometimes played out as “ASE wars,” epic e-mail battles which clogged the inboxes of the entire student body (Explanation: while I was there, students had the ability to send mass e-mails, known as ASEs (All Student E-mails) to the entire student body. Students lost this privilege during my senior year.)

–I personally did not share the hostility that many students felt toward the administration. I never had any reason to believe that the administration was my enemy, or was persecuting me, or had anything other than the best interests of the students at heart. The only instance in which I was ever unfairly treated by any member of the staff or administration was one time when my privileges to drive school vans were summarily revoked without explanation. Upon inquiry I discovered that they had been revoked because another student had complained and said things about my driving that were not true. I was sternly lectured on the need to improve without ever being given a chance to tell my side of the story or defend myself; my driving privileges were grudgingly restored after I humbly promised to do better, even though I was not really guilty of the fault in question. Even so, though, I felt no real hostility to the administration over the incident, since it was such a minor issue in the whole scheme of things.

–Most of the professors I had were excellent teachers who genuinely cared about their students. The few teachers who did not like their students typically did not last very long. Professors often went out of their way to spend time with students, eating meals with them in the dining hall, inviting them into their homes, organizing trips and events, and attending student affairs such as the famous Liberty Ball.

–Because the school was so small, it functioned as an incredibly tightly-knit community. There were disadvantages to this kind of closeness: rumors and gossip, once started, could spread like wildfire and destroy someone’s reputation, and students who disliked each other found it difficult to avoid one another on the small campus. There were also major advantages as well: many students genuinely loved and cared for one another; students worshiped and sang together, prayed for each other, helped each other out when they could, and occasionally even took up community monetary offerings to help those in need.

Silenced Voices, Unspeakable Questions: Lena Baird’s Story, Part Two

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Lena Baird” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part One

Women’s voices weren’t the only ones silenced.

LGBT students were condemned, or presumed to be nonexistent.

In a class called “Principles of Biblical Reasoning,” we read a book on natural law by J. Budzizewski. The author argued that all physical acts have inherent, universal meaning, and that a specific sex act between men was literally equivalent to valuing death instead of life. We discussed it in the abstract, without any acknowledgement that we might know gay men. Lesbians were not even mentioned. I cannot imagine how painful that classs must have been for gay or lesbian students. As a straight cis-woman, my voice was often silenced, but at least my existence was acknowledged and (selectively) validated.

Even straight male voices were sometimes silenced. I think it was my junior year when a male student wrote an op-ed for the student newspaper. It was called “Is Bono a better Christian than you?” He argued that concern for the poor might be an essential part of Christianity. While Bono was trying to help the poor, many evangelical Americans focused on less important things.

Apparently, this was a radical statement. The following week, Michael Farris (then-President of PHC) delivered a chapel message in response to the op-ed. He informed the entire student body that Bono was definitely not “a mature Christian.” Mature Christians, according to Farris, do not drink, smoke, or swear. Bono (again, according to Farris) does all of these things. Therefore, he’s not an a mature Christian, and no one should view him as role model.

Even at the time, I thought this was heavy-handed and misguided. What’s the point of a student paper, if students can’t express their opinions? Was this opinion really so shocking that it had to be refuted, publicly, without any opportunity for discussion? Was it really the college president’s job to tell us what to think?

*****

This episode was a harbinger of things to come.

Disagreeing with Farris was dangerous—not just for students, but also for professors.

I was a senior the year of the Great Schism, when several professors who disagreed with Farris left the school (one was fired, several others resigned in solidarity). That story is well documented elsewhere, but it was a dramatic upheaval for the college. When I was a student, I had classes with almost every professor on the faculty, and the few whose classes I didn’t take still knew my name. Eight years later, there are only three professors at the school who would recognize me, including Farris.

I was upset by the professors’ departure. I liked and respected them. Many of us had come to PHC thinking we had all the answers. These professors challenged us, pointing out that we weren’t asking the right questions yet. They encouraged us to respect other points of view—to really understand and engage with other ways of looking at the world, instead of just quoting Bible verses. I didn’t feel like all my questions were addressed, but in their classes, I did not feel dismissed or silenced.

Farris responded to their resignations with personal attacks. He immediately went on the defensive, informing the student body that these professors did not have “a high view of Scripture.” He repeatedly attacked their faith and their character, essentially calling them bad Christians. He did everything in his power to silence them, and to tell the student body that there was only one right side, only one valid opinion: his.

*****

My first two years at Patrick Henry, I had more freedom and more friends than I’d had since I was ten. My high school years had been lonely and isolating, and I was starving for friendship. While some classes were frustrating, others were led by excellent teachers, and I enjoyed the readings the class discussions. I even enjoyed the challenge of final exams, once I realized they weren’t going to kill me.

But by my senior year, I felt lonely and isolated again. Through a summer internship, I’d glimpsed an exciting world outside the small bubble of PHC. When I returned to campus, I felt trapped, like I was returning to a place I’d outgrown. I was also clinically depressed, and didn’t know it. I was processing trauma.

I was asking questions no one wanted to hear.

When things went wrong, my friends said: “God is in control.” They seemed to find it comforting. I didn’t know how to tell them that the idea of a sovereign God made everything worse. If God not only didn’t stop traumatic events, but actively caused them to happen, God was a monster. I couldn’t say that to them. So, once again, I was silent.

I think there were other students I could have talked to; but by senior year, I felt locked into my particular clique on campus. I was one of the good kids—one of the studious, rule-following lit majors. The “rebellious” kids had their own clique, and I’m sure they regarded me with suspicion. I thought some of them seemed cool, but I didn’t know how to reach out, and didn’t want to be disloyal to my friends. I’d broken a few rules, in my quiet way. I drank at my summer internship. I watched French art films on my college-issued laptop (nudity and sex scenes were against the rules). I’d started swearing, mostly in my head, but occasionally out loud. Once, in the dining hall, I almost dropped my tray, and a quiet damn slipped out. I looked around in terror, afraid that someone had heard me and that I would be called to the Dean’s office for a reprimand. Fortunately, no one was listening.

*****

After graduating, I kept trying to be the good Christian girl. It was the only role I knew how to play, but it chafed, like an outgrown pair of shoes. One evening, in a worship service, the pastor preached about David and Bathsheba. He got to the part where the prophet rebukes David, and I realized the prophet—speaking on behalf of God—was rebuking David for stealing another man’s property. Bathsheba was property. She was like a pet lamb.

In a quiet moment of de-conversion, I decided the prophet was wrong, and the God of that story was wrong, too. I was no one’s property. And I was sick to death of silence.

I entered that room thinking that I was still an evangelical Christian. I left it knowing that I was a feminist, and that I would rather have my own story—with all its doubts and questions—than the stories I’d grown up with, where the Bible was infallible, and women’s voices were devalued, and answers preceded and superseded questions.

Life hasn’t been easy since then, but I am finally free. In becoming myself, I became everything a PHC alumna is not supposed to be. I’m single. I’m not a virgin. I’m a feminist. I support marriage equality. I’m pro-choice. I voted for Obama (though I preferred Jill Stein). I don’t smoke, but I enjoy wine (red) and beer (stout), and tequila makes me believe that, while God may not be in control of much, she does love us.

And yes: I still believe in God—just not the patriarchal, sovereign, infallible God of the homeschool world.

I believe in God because I believe in love, and I believe in love because I’ve experienced it. Because I know people, gay and straight, agnostic and atheist, Buddhist and Lutheran, female and genderqueer and male—who live their lives with love, with freedom, with honesty. People who tell their stories, and accept the stories of others, without judgment. People who have given me the freedom, at last, to tell my own story with my own voice—and to be heard.

End of series.