When Jurassic Park hit theaters, it changed my life. I was ten, my brother was seven, and my father took us to see the dinosaur movie. We went to the dollar theater sometimes, but we weren’t huge moviegoers so this was a big deal. As I sat in the theater and watched those creatures resurrected into the zeitgeist, a T. rex kicked down the door to my imagination in a way that’d never happened before. I imagine that’s what young audiences felt like as they watched Star Wars years earlier. Nothing would ever be the same.
Jurassic Park was the epicenter of a million kids’ dinosaur obsessions and as a result, my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Craiger, encouraged us to learn more about them. We liked her; her blonde hair hovered over her shoulders like the starlet of a black and white movie, she didn’t dress like a schoolmarm and on Fridays, if we begged really politely, she’d do a cartwheel by the playground during recess. Her decision to study dinosaurs was only partially because Hollywood had made them popular again. The real reason was in response to a debate within the ranks of her students. Mine was apparently a class of burgeoning writers, and that’s how the Great Jurassic Park Debate began.
To set the stage, The Lost World had been written: to begin with.
Along with collecting the toys and action figures from the film, I’d read both Jurassic Park and The Lost World in a fort I built under my bed by wedging large bean bag chairs in the space between the box spring and the floor. Then, snug inside my dark cave, I read the stories of cage-free dinosaurs by the glow of my flashlight. For the first time in my life, I was living within the pages of a book and subsequently, my imaginative world was as much Cretaceous as it was Coppell, Texas. Without a third book to continue the story, I, along with a few of my classmates, decided to write it.
On notebook paper we kept in a Lisa Frank folder bearing a picture of a technicolored waterfall, we wrote “Jurassic Park 3.” This was long before that movie was made. We each wrote a page or two of the story, passed it to the next person who’d write another page or two and so on, eventually amassing 40 or 50 handwritten pages–a sizable feat for a bunch of capricious fifth graders.
One afternoon, the girl who’d last worked on the story handed me the folder to add my next contribution but upon reading the pages she’d written, I realized she’d begun sacrificing our main characters to the dinosaurs. Well this could not stand. I may have only been in fifth grade, but I had my principles. Killing off a main character is just not something that happens in a Spielberg-inspired, pre-Lost era, Jurassic story of adventure.
I was rational and mature about it when I told her that her writing was ruining the story and as such, I was omitting it. She was equally reasonable when she told me it was our story and she could write what she wanted. Regardless of the fact that she had a point, I was the self-proclaimed Jurassic Park expert in the room and I let her know that her pages would not be considered canon.
Fifth grade wasn’t about art or science; fifth grade was about drive. This film had changed my world and I felt it was my inescapable duty to ensure our story did that fact justice. By the same token, that girl became equally driven to prove her vision was better than mine. As I stood my ground, her move was to abandon our rag-tag group of writers, get into cahoots with some of the girls in our class, and together they chose to write their own sequel ingeniously titled, “Jurassic Park 4.”
Lines were drawn on the playground, secret meetings were held in corner reading nook, and the classroom was torn in two. Our months-long feud was temporarily paused when we, in homemade red tie-dye shirts, had to put aside our differences and band together as a class to win the fifth grade kickball tournament–which we did. We celebrated our victory with fireball jawbreakers.
The next day, we were back to infighting. The fifth grade boys who liked the cliquey fifth grade girls joined their crusade, leaving some of the less popular guys, a girl with no friends, and me with a Lisa Frank folder and of a story that was being disparaged from all corners of Austin Elementary School. The verbal sparring became so pronounced that Ms. Craiger offered to move up the lessons on courtroom policy so we could duke the whole thing out in a faux-fifth-grade-courtroom, something I now understand was a passive-aggressive attempt to shut us up. It worked.
We never did go to fake court and the feud ended resolutionless at the end of the school year. However, it became an example of what it was like to set a goal and fight for it–even if that goal was stupid. Measured goal-setting and keenly focused drive are the necessary combination if you want to make anything happen in life, especially when you’re not an heiress or the subject of a viral video on YouTube.
A few years later in high school, I joined the yearbook staff and made it my goal to become the editor by the time was a senior. I started out as a section editor and worked my way up. However, my climb up the ladder was not easy. Along the way was a power-hungry and self-involved girl who’d made a similar goal for herself. She was the Paris to my Rory. We were friendly if we sat across from each other, but we were constantly at odds because we both had the same finish line in mind. She was as headstrong as she was tall and ambitious to a fault. Her father even petitioned for her to take over for the reigning editor and was told she was too difficult to work with–it would’ve been easier to have a rational and productive relationship with Veruca Salt than with her.
There’d been an unspoken clash between us since middle school. I’d joined the staff in eighth grade when I was the new kid in town, a new rooster in the henhouse where she ruled. At home when I’d complain, my mother would tell me, “There will always be someone like her in your life,” and she was right. I’ve encountered a version of her every time I’ve reached for a goal. My life has been lesson-after-lesson in learning how to deal with people who are as driven as myself. Mostly, I dealt with it by doing something in the South we call “killing them with kindness.” Plaster on a smile, say only kind things and then work like hell to best them; like a duck frantically paddling under tranquil waters. Sometimes I reached my goal, sometimes I didn’t. That year though, I got the position and she left the staff on the broomstick with which she came.
A few years after that, when I was at the Bible School for Super-Christians, a new friend happened to be the editor of the student newspaper. I’d left my drive to climb the journalistic ladder behind after high school but at her behest, I began writing articles again. It was a nice break from my homework and I enjoyed seeing my name on a byline again. Without knowing it, she was training me to be her successor. At the end of the year, she stepped down and informed me I would become the newspaper editor the following semester. It was my first encounter with the wonder of “it’s not what you know but who you know.” That next year, I spent my spare time writing, designing and broadening the scope of what the monthly newspaper covered. I managed the marketing budget, handled distribution, diversified the contributors, designed the spreads and edited the articles, the combination of which I’d never tackled before. For a position I never pursued, it was a lot of work, but it also served as the foundation from which I’d build my digital magazine in New York ten years later.
I really tried to make that paper something people would want to read and after an issue or two, I realized the campus was taking to my newly redesigned, more magazine-esque, newspaper. I began to cover things that were outside “the bubble,” a term universities use to illustrate how insular college can be from the outside world. To me, writing reviews of Phantom of the Opera or a Celine Dion concert weren’t exactly the edgy fair of The Village Voice, but the more traditional folks at the school felt differently. They believed if I wasn’t writing about Jesus, I was writing about something meritless. I wrote them anyway.
Being at a Bible School, much of what was inside the newspaper wasn’t news at all. It was mostly stories from missionaries or messages from pastors and staff. Kinda like Fox News. We also regularly printed editorials from students voicing their opinion on this aspect of faith or that aspect of church-going. One morning during our daily chapel service, I became irritated over some of the public workings of the denomination I’d been raised in and of which the university was affiliated. Within the denomination, churches were grouped by districts, like public schools or the Hunger Games, but it bothered me that there was a divisive line between the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking churches. While they might sit two blocks away from each other, they were segregated in all aspects socially. If every other church was delineated geographically, why should there be a separation on basis of language? Weren’t we all on the same team? I figured I’d write about it.
My editorial evolved from being about that one example into a broader commentary on unity, something I’d been brought up to believe was a good thing. It was also about not disparaging others, something else I figured was a universally accepted concept.
In part, I wrote:
“There isn’t supposed to be division among the church. It’s not just the church you attend. It’s every denomination, nationality and background. It’s the convicted killer who became faith-filled in prison. It’s the Chinese woman who isn’t allowed to proclaim her faith. It’s the televangelist whose actions don’t reflect their preaching. It’s the over-spiritualized professor, the student who never speaks a word in class, the athlete people write off as a dumb jock, and the person whose theology doesn’t match up with yours.
I challenge you, the next time you make a joke that belittles another denomination, the next time a chapel speaker pokes fun at another Christian, the next time another denomination gets a laugh … remember we’re all in this together.”
It seemed fairly rational to me. In a Super-Christian Bible School where chapel was a mandatory five-day-a-week event, I’d heard speaker after speaker make fun of other denominations and belittle people who interpreted the Bible differently than themselves. Naturally, that became a part of my editorial about unity. The newspaper was released on a Friday morning and by the middle of that afternoon, I received a phone call from my bosses informing me it was being pulled from the shelves. I wasn’t to hand out any more of them because the administration was censoring it due to that editorial.
I hadn’t gone rogue. The editorial went to my boss and then to her boss, as did every other article in the paper, and neither of them took issue with it because of the word “Editorial” in bold faced Book Antiqua. The administration didn’t see it that way. They considered the editorial an attack on their infallible form of dogmatic Christianity, so much so that the president of the university went on a tirade about it from the pulpit in chapel the following Monday. Without using my name, which was on the byline so everyone already knew, he spoke of the need for us to respect the leaders God put over us and the decisions they make. My friends chuckled next to me as other less-informed students turned to stare with Christ-centric judgment.
It was my first bout with making a splash in the press and just like in the real world, pulling the paper made an even bigger deal out of it. Students wanted to read it and I gladly handed them out. Whether from the trunk of my car, the hidden stash under my bunk bed or the copies I kept in my backpack, I slipped them to anyone who wanted one, including professors. I hadn’t said anything I wouldn’t say again and again.
The through-line in all of this, I was thrilled to discover through the therapeutic hindsight that time brings, is my stubbornness. This is not a revelatory statement. I know I’m a thick-skulled, hard ass, stubborn human person. I’ve known since I caused the rift in my elementary Jurassic writing group. Had I stepped back and let it go, the chasm within our class would’ve never formed. I might’ve also retained those friendships for when I entered the lonely hallways of junior high. Yet I caused such a stink that it cleanly severed those ties. In high school, it was my female adversary who did something similar. Since she didn’t get her way, she left the staff and severed ties with all of us.
At the Bible School though, something was severed in a different way. My writing and the over-the-top fallout served as the final nail in the coffin about my delusions about patriarchal, my-way-is-God’s-way, sit-there-and-be-quiet Christianity. I’d been wrestling with those notions since I was a young teenager but that morning in chapel, reason finally won out. Their way was not the only way to see this situation and the response on campus from both students and professors proved it. The support I received for speaking out about what I believed—my faith-in-process—also showed me how my stubborn resolve to stand up and speak out could be used productively. The censorship and subsequent chapel service thus served as a definitive fork in my road. I took a sharp left turn away from legalism and sprinted toward the freedom of discovering who God was to me. I found that freedom through writing.
The people who censored the newspaper were afraid of someone voicing an opinion contrary to their prescribed dogmatic experience, but the Bible is full of people asking questions and in that moment, I had a question too. They’d rather an army of like-minded students nod and agree without question, just because they said so from the pulpit. But I was and am too stubborn for that.
In the months that followed the censorship, I released lackluster and completely sterile issues of the paper. Inside was nothing that could be deemed subversive (or interesting for that matter). I considered quitting since most of the fun and freedom of creating the paper had been decimated, but I finished what I started because that’s what my father taught me to do.
My realization about the lack of tolerance for any sort of alternate or dissenting opinion within that school/church structure never left me. That day in chapel, the president may have intended on getting everyone (me) back in line, but instead he freed me from it. The hyper-conservative mean well, I think, but sometimes they forget there’s a real world out there and that “in-and-not-of” doesn’t mean “separate-and-unable-to-relate.”
Writing set me free. Free to ask questions. Free to explore who God is to me. Free to color outside the prescribed lines. Free from the cage where I’d been told not to think for myself. And nothing would ever be the same.