HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Smith Lingo” is a pseudonym.
My dad found Jesus towards the end of his college education and immediately wanted to quit his music studies and run off to seminary. Or so he tells me. He only had a year left, so he decided to stick it through to graduate. But that initial determination to sacrifice the reality of his own needs and wants for a far-off ideal, some abstract standard, is something he’s never abandoned, and something he’s done his damndest to pass on to the kids.
Soon after graduating and getting married to my Mom he became seized with another defining idea: that they were destined to be parents, and they would parent not just the amount of children that was healthy, sustainable, or economically viable, but that they would conceive, deliver, and raise as many children they physically could.
This was driven by a rhetorical idea of children not defined as individuals, but a collective force.
Children as “arrows in the hands of a warrior”, “blessings from the Lord”, things to be multiplied instead of cherished, raised for gain as political clout or a future care-taking staff instead of for love.
It was in service to this idea then that my father went back to school for Computer Science, working at a gas station in the morning, going to class in the day, and poring over his Calculus textbook at night. He wanted a new career path, one that paid better than music education. He worked the long days in service to his abstract idea of children — the arrows, the blessings — while the same work separated him from his concrete children. It was for all his future children too, the children of the mind, that he labored and studied while the children of his present were fatherless.
I realized from a very early age that my dad cared more about me as an idea than about me as a person, a discrete, tangible being.
The very first thing I was taught in our homeschool of hard mental knocks was to tell him what he wanted to hear, to tell him what the child of his mind would say. If I didn’t, I knew he would try to pry it out of me, convinced he was simply refining an imperfect vessel, burning the dross away from my crude soul with paddles and palms. I can’t remember ever not knowing that my father was disinterested in my truth.
But, abstract as they were, my dad’s ideas had consequences, and one of those consequences was me. As difficult as it is to reconcile, without my parents’ reckless pursuit of their ideological army of children I would not exist. I am the physical manifestation of my parents’ ideas, even if I could never measure up to the mind-mold in their eyes. As I come to disagree with those fundamental ideas, it becomes more of a struggle. I am opposed to the very reason I exist. I must take the position that if what was best had been, I would never have been born. This is the poison of ideology.
A few years ago, my homeschool education came to an end. I graduated in a ceremony with other homeschoolers from the local area, kids I was lucky to have seen a handful of times in the previous years. I remember before the ceremony the parents of the graduating seniors tried to plan social events for the class. Looking back now through the lens of disillusionment it seems like a desperate attempt to make up for decades of conscious desocialization in a few short months. It certainly worked about as well as you’d expect from that viewpoint.
The first event I attended may have been the first time I had faced the prospect of a purely social gathering by myself. I was terrified, and anxious, and awkward, feelings I would come to be intimate with in the following years.
I was facing for the first time a seemingly impassable gulf of experience and knowledge that my parents never taught me in the syllabus of my home education, and I hadn’t been allowed to gather outside. They had prepared me to take tests in Algebra and English, to converse with adults about the Will of God, to make change, and to tell time.
But they had always, actively kept me from independently forming relationships with anyone my own age.
My parents adequately prepared me to score well on academic tests. I received a scholarship to go to college, and since I was born male and had scored well in Math they decided to allow me to attend the local university, my father’s alma mater, in Computer Science. I had become an expert in telling them what their abstract child would say, so I told them I would study Computer Science.
It was, I told them, a good career to support a family with, and I may not have said the words, we both meant a family with as many future, abstract children as my future, abstract wife could possibly deliver. Their abstract child would never tell them he wanted to study film, so they never heard that in my gentle hints and information requests to other schools. The dross of my dreams was burned away.
I was becoming a pure ideological vessel, a well-fletched arrow they could shoot into the world.
The Gulf has returned to haunt me again and again. I’d recognize it anywhere. In every realm except the academic and physical, I am a child, with a child’s experience and knowledge. I am now old enough to legally drink, but we are born knowing how to drink. I am more than old enough now to connect with my peers, but I do not know how to do it; I never learned. And I am slowly learning now, but the Gulf between me and my generation grows larger as I try to build my flimsy bridges over it.
The Gulf paralyzes me, turns every phrase into mumbled gibberish in my mouth. Every situation contains an unknown, a reminder.
Every experience understood as universal that I can’t possibly relate to, every turn of phrase everyone else understands but is foreign to me, every reference that exposes my naivety transforms me from hulking twenty-something to socially floundering toddler.
College has corrupted the pure vessel my parents thought they had refined. The experience of opening my mind to the truth of people besides my father has bent the arrow they fletched so straight to their mark. I only lasted a semester in the Young Republicans. Nowadays I snicker in chatrooms about the spectre haunting Europe and envy the hammer-and-sickle tattoos my friends are getting.
I lingered at the outskirts of college ministry for a semester longer, but today I’m more concerned about the long-neglected physical ailments of my discrete body than the ideological ailments the campus crusaders claim to cure. And I’m more interested in the concrete bodies of the men and women around me in the present more than the form of a single, abstract, future woman. Perhaps someday I’ll raise a child.
If I do, I’ll raise them to be who they are and not to fit the mold of an ideological soldier in a biological army.
My parents have noticed the change. Every time I’m foolish enough to talk to them about what matters to me now, they purse their lips and shake their heads. The model has been spoiled; their beautiful idea is tarnished. They murmur about my professors, the media, my peers, always my peers. Never me. “I” still mean nothing to them; I’m still an arrow to be fletched and strung and released, an empty vessel to refine in fire. I could try to tell them about the Gulf, the daily struggle to belong to a society I’ve been held separate from for decades.
But the struggles of real people have never interested them as much as the ideological battles being waged in their minds, and on that battlefield, I’ve already been lost.