CREATIVE NONFICTION: Philistines, by Whittier Strong

 

Philistines

Whittier Strong

 

T-shirts bearing offensive slogans are strictly forbidden.
Shorts, hats, and jeans with holes in the knees may not be worn to class or chapel.
For women, the hem of the skirt must fall below the knee at all times.

The list of prohibitions went on and on. But nowhere in the Guide to Student Life was there any mention of how I must wear my hair. Throughout my high-school years, my mother didn’t allow my siblings and me to present ourselves in any way that might reflect poorly on her parenting skills. It didn’t keep me from dreaming, though. I had thought, perhaps, a streak of blue through my bangs, until a classmate talked me out of it. She was mindful of my tenuous place in the high-school food chain, and worried that such a style would appear too feminine. I could not appear feminine.

But now, as a Bible-college freshman—an adult—I was at last granted follicular freedom. My school allowed its students the right to don mohawks, dreadlocks, and rainbow dye jobs on the premise that those of us who exercised this right were best equipped to evangelize those who dressed their tresses in similar fashion. And, though only a handful of the student body took up this charge, I looked forward to following suit, even if my quest for self-expression wasn’t as noble as my classmates’ hopes of converting the city of St. Louis to Christianity.

As I continued perusing the Guide to Student Life, only one rule stood out as a cause for concern: Homosexual behavior is cause for immediate expulsion. But, I brushed such worries aside because I had a plan. Per the recommendation of the church-camp counselor to whom I had confided my attractions the summer prior, my first action upon arriving on campus was to inform the school’s leadership of my issue.

These were the reactions I received as I climbed the ladder of authority:

–My resident assistant, a kind but quirky senior: “You have your sin problem, I have mine. I think about women probably too much. But we look out for each other, that’s what Christians do.”

–The grandmotherly resident director of the men’s dorm, who was referred to as the “dorm mom”: “Be very careful. You have to do anything possible to avoid temptation.”

–The dean of men (who insisted that we students call him by his first name, Dennis): “I’d strongly recommend seeing a counselor to help you overcome your problem. But don’t worry, brother; I’ll keep a close eye on you.”

–The dean of students, who had held the position since shortly after her own graduation from the school twenty years before: “Don’t tell the other students about your problem. They won’t be mature enough to understand.”

Four days a week, promptly at 7:15 a.m., the school’s thirty freshmen filed into Room 105 for Introduction to the Bible with Professor Albert McGee. As was expected of all (male) faculty, Professor McGee spent his weekends preaching to a small rural congregation an hour’s drive away, as he had for decades. For his class lectures, he simply regurgitated the sermons he had memorized over the years. Intro to the Bible was supposed to cover the entire book, beginning to end, over the course of the semester. However, Professor McGee so luxuriated in preaching from the Old Testament that he ended up having to teach the entire New Testament in the final two days of class. We reached the book of Judges in early October, at which point he offered us his sermon on Samson and Delilah.

A quick recap: When Samson was born, his mother dedicated him to God by means of a special vow that entailed, amongst other things, a stipulation that his hair must never be cut or anointed. In addition, God endowed him with great physical might, which was attributed to his hair. In adulthood Samson was called to lead the nation of Israel. The Philistines, an enemy nation, asked an Israelite named Delilah to seduce Samson in order to learn the secret of his strength. When at last he succumbed to her wiles, she cut his hair in his sleep. The Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and hauled him away in chains. During his imprisonment, his hair grew back, thus renewing his strength. He knocked down the pillars of his prison, killing himself and a great many Philistines. Professor McGee informed us of the true source of Samson’s strength: never his hair, but rather his dedication to God. By dropping his guard, he broke his vow.

I struggled through that first semester. For the most part, my courseload was even easier than what I’d taken in high school, leaving me unchallenged, unmotivated, and unwilling to do my homework. Even so, easy courses weren’t necessarily easy to pass. The final exam for Introduction to the Bible included the question, “Did you read the entire Bible from beginning to end this semester?” and if you answered “no”, you earned an automatic F for the course. (The fact that many students lied in order to pass the class didn’t occurred to me at the time, and astonished me years later when I learned the truth.)

 

Living in a communal setting—with communal showers, no less—posed its own challenges. One glance towards the wrong man at the wrong time, and I could be put out of college. The fear so gripped me that some mornings, I stayed in bed and skipped Intro to the Bible altogether, just so I could shower alone. But a lower grade was a noble sacrifice for my personal purity.

My other four-day-a-week class was Gateway Singers. This choir accepted all students, regardless of major, background, or talent. The director was none other than Dennis, the charming and charismatic dean of men. At Christmas time we toured the St. Louis suburbs, performing at churches within our denomination, while at Easter we took our show on the road, traveling throughout the Midwest and South.

Never mind the pressure of performing with singers who couldn’t sing, or Dennis’s questionable musicianship. (He was hired, after all, not for his musical prowess, but for his commitment to ministry.) The implications of his promise to “keep a close eye on me” were more fully brought to bear, and my response shifted from gratitude to dread. Come Christmas tour, each time we changed into our tuxedos, I could feel his eyes bore into me as I stared straight at the wall. My gaze could not slip over to my fellow choristers in various states of undress, lest I risk, not only my education, but my very soul.

Is it any wonder that, mere days before finals week, I collapsed and was hauled away in an ambulance? The ER doctor diagnosed exhaustion and insisted that I rest up and postpone my finals. Reluctantly, I complied. While my classmates toiled away at their tests, I was in the dorm, alone, napping or watching Animaniacs. I went back to Indiana for Christmas break. My finals had been shipped off to my old church, where the secretary had agreed to proctor them for me.
“Did you read the Bible this semester beginning to end?”
“No.” An F. I would have to retake the class..

 

Despite my fatigued state, my hair looked fantastic. Thick, smooth, chocolate-brown locks that fell to my chin. My bangs doing this cute flip at the part and in the back, shaved underneath, per the fashion of the time.
One evening, a week before the Easter tour, I stood in the bathroom brushing my hair. Dave and Tim popped up behind me. They were both graduating seniors, which accorded them a degree of spiritual authority on campus. They had, after all, toughed out the four years and were on the verge of enjoying a lifetime in ministry. Moreover, Dave and I had grown up in the same congregation in Indiana, and both he and Tim were basses in Gateway Singers.
“We need to talk,” Tim said.
“Oh? What about?” I asked.
“You’re getting your hair cut,” said Dave.
“But I don’t want to get my hair cut. I like it like this.”
“Your hair looks terrible,” Tim retorted. “You’re so skinny, you look like Shaggy.” He then launched into one of his famous Hanna-Barbera impressions.
Dave glowered at me. “You are not looking like that on Easter tour.”
“There aren’t any rules about my hair, I can wear it however I want.”
“This is tour,” said Dave. “We must make a good impression. We’re representing Jesus.” Exactly what Dennis had told us all year long. Almost as if he was in the bathroom with us.
“But—but—”
“And you’re not using the excuse that you don’t have any money,” Dave said. “We’re paying for it. Come on.”
My shoulders fell. I knew that, no matter how I tried to defend myself, no matter how persuasive and factual my arguments were for preserving my hairstyle, there was no way I could win.
I followed the pair to Tim’s car. They drove me to the SuperCuts a mile away. My hair—eight months of care and grooming—fell snip by snip to the floor.
The Easter tour took us as far as Nashville. My pitch was slightly off. Upon my return to St. Louis, I picked up my disastrous spring semester where it left off. My GPA had fallen below 2.0, the worst grades I’d ever had. But who cared about passing a test just because you could remember whether a parable appeared in Matthew or Mark, when no one bothered to obey the lesson of the parable in the first place? Why should I take my professors seriously, as they rhapsodized about the equality of all Christians and “the priesthood of all believers,” when I was held to a double standard, my classmates forever regaling us with tales of pre-conversion debauchery, while I was to remain mute about the simple fact that I found the male form attractive? Why did anything matter if the inexorable drift of my gaze to the masculine—as natural to me as breathing—led only to damnation for eternity, not just for me, but for anyone who might pay heed to my example?
If hell was my fate, why tarry?
In my room one evening, I experimented. Plastic shopping bags over my head, neckties tied tight round my throat. After an hour of half-hearted attempts, the instinct to survive won out. I penned a note and taped it outside my dorm room:

Please help me. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I want to die but I know I can’t kill myself because that will send me to hell. Please someone drive me to the hospital.

A rap at the door. My salvation!
Dennis charged into the room with Dave and Tim in tow. “Where’s your luggage?” Dennis demanded.
“What?”
“You haven’t packed any bags? Then obviously you’re lying about wanting to go to the hospital.”
“What? I—”
“Quit acting like a spoiled brat. Grow up.” A pause, and then, “Where’s your mom?”
“Um—Indiana.”
“Right, Indiana—not here! She’s not going to look after you and fulfill your every little whim. So quit begging for attention and grow up.”
With that the trio stormed out. The last remark stung the most. My roommate Shane had told me early on that Dave had “warned” the other students that I was always “looking for attention” and that the best thing to do was to ignore me.
Dennis hadn’t looked at the floor the entire time he was in my room, didn’t care that the instruments of my demise were strewn all about. The only thing that mattered to him was that I had become a pathetic reprobate who feigned suicidal ideation so that I wouldn’t have to take responsibility for my emotional well-being. I hadn’t handed myself over to God by becoming perfectly heterosexual.. I had betrayed Dennis, who had put his full faith in me that I would change my orientation.
I crumbled to the floor—alive, but shorn of my strength.

 

If I had pursued the path of my follicular forebear, Samson, I would have stayed on that floor, dead even while alive. I would have spent the rest of my days sucked dry of my very essence, a shell mindless shuffling behind whoever called himself a godly leader.
But I was not Samson. I was me.
Not to say that I came to my senses straightaway. My ascent actually took a full decade as I meandered from one charlatan to the next, each promising he could convert me to heterosexuality as long as I tried hard enough.
But, eventually, I came alive.
And I quit listening to Philistines.

 

WHITTIER STRONG is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he also serves as nonfiction editor for Permafrost. His work appears in The Rumpus, Cooper Street, Jonathan, and the upcoming QDA: The Queer Disability Anthology. A native of Indiana, he holds a BA in creative writing from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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