From the Front Row to the Back

I was born into the church the way Prince William was born into the royal family; I had no choice in the matter. The level of involvement and understanding of Pentecostal decorum I had from a young age isn’t normal to most children, but I never knew any different. It wasn’t that I was expected to be in the pew Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, I was just there. It was so much a part of my weekly life that when I was ill and forced to stay home, I was plagued with holy guilt for being absent and spent the evening feeling wholly left out.

As a kid, the first stop when I arrived at church was my Sunday School class. There, I learned about the heroes and villains in the Bible and how I could apply their lessons to my young life. When the hour ended, my class’ contingent of misfit boys and I hurried upstairs, slipping and sliding on overstuffed carpeted steps. Our grade-school-sized feet stomped up each padded stair, sounding more like wildebeests on the move than a small band of donut-fueled kids. Once inside Children’s Church, we sang songs about loving Jesus, played games to win candy and listened to puppets encourage us to not be delinquents. And I loved it.

That small band of brothers of which I found myself a part sat together in the back row of our Sunday School classroom. It was our version of sitting at the back of the school bus and in same unspoken adolescent social contract, only the coolest kids were allowed to sit on the back row.

At school, I was not one of those kids. Usually, I sat a row or two from the front of the bus, against the window, where I would sing to myself—most often just repeating the chorus of “As I Lay Me Down” by Sophie B. Hawkins—as my small suburb whizzed by. Our junior high selves are so full of dizziness and hormonal caffeination that there’s a never-ending list of things to make sense of. Staring out of a moving vehicle and singing to yourself brings clarity, no matter what age you are, and I liked the afternoon bus ride for that reason.

But the real reason I liked the afternoon commute was a giant hill the bus had to drive up as we left one of the neighborhoods. My route had stops in all the sloppy-second neighborhoods on our side of town; the closed off places none of the other buses were interested in going. At the top of a fairly steep hill in one such tagalong cul-de-sac was a burp in the concrete road—an unintentional speed bump of sorts. The bus had to accelerate aggressively to make it up the hill and by doing so, the heavy tires hit that speed bump with sizable force. The initial jolt and the ricochet that followed would bounce the kids in the back of the bus into the air with enough oomph to cause their butts leave the seats. It was a free rollercoaster ride at the end of each day and the further back you sat, the better the thrill.

If this happened today, helicopter-parents would file a lawsuit against the driver, the bus company and the speed bump. They’d claim their child could be irreversibly maimed by the few inches of air between them and the seat. These are the same parents who’re calling their children’s college professors and begging them to give their baby a passing grade. They don’t factor in that their kid may have spent the entire semester hung over, asleep, or just might be an educational invalid who’s never had to fend-for or apply themselves because of their parents who make those phone calls.

I never made much of an effort to get to the back of the bus except on days when there was a substitute driver. When that was the case, the bus turned into a Black Friday Sale stampede, each of us trying to get as far back as we could. Kids would sit three to a seat, knowing the substitute drivers weren’t clued in to the need for pumping the breaks at the top of that hill. On one such substitute day, I scrambled to get to the back, nabbing a seat in the second to last row. I and the rest of my back-of-the-bus mates waited stop-after-stop for the moment we knew was coming. Sure enough, as the substitute driver accelerated to compensate for the hill’s steep incline, she didn’t notice the speed bump and hit it going much too fast. The impact of the heavy tires crossing over the top of that bump caused the tail end of the bus to act as a sort of catapult, vaulting those of us seated at the back into the air. We were thrust upward with such force that our backs hit the orange bus ceiling. I can still feel the elation of floating in the air, suspended for milliseconds that felt like minutes above the brown vinyl bus seats. But what goes up must come down and so we fell back down to our seats—most of us landing head first onto the cushions—our feet sticking up into the air. As the substitute driver slammed on the breaks, horrified that she’d possibly maimed an 11-year-old, we cheered and clapped like we’d been told we were all going to Disney World. It stands as the most awesome day of seventh grade.

As cool as it was to be at the back of the bus or the back row of our Sunday School class, it was not cool to sit on the back row of Children’s Church. The kids who refused to listen to the puppets—the delinquents—sat there. As such, the fellas and I sat on the front row, a beacon of maturity to the rest of the “kids” in the room. Our front row status let us show off our beyond-our-years Teen Study Bibles, our Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts and our Birkenstocks that hugged our white socks. We were like the Thunderbirds; the ones who not only navigated the social politics of the room, but who also defined them. All of this was also entirely in our heads.

But in my head or not, thank God I had a place where I felt I belonged because if I’d only had my school life to account for, I’d have been a lost sheep. I was the kid who stayed after the bell rang to help my teacher grade papers. I was the kid who was hand-picked to sing in a special choir (which was an honor but appeared like special geek treatment to the fifth graders who weren’t chosen. Singing a choral song about cheese probably didn’t help). I was also the kid who spent recess running around the playground with a girl named Cassandra pretending to be Mario and the Princess, the Green and Pink Power Rangers or Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler running from invisible Velociraptors. There was nothing cool about me there.

But at church, I was so cool. I routinely had the lead in the children’s musicals and I was who they turned to when they needed a kid in the adult musicals at Christmas and Easter. I was a star—again, if only in my mind—to that audience of however many. Looking out from center stage, it felt as if every Christian in the Dallas/Fort Worth area was in that room. I played a cat who lived near the manger, a shortstop in a Christ-centric game of baseball, Tiny Tim in a southern gospel version of A Christmas Carol, and in my most acclaimed role, an angel dressed as Sherlock Holmes in The Mall and the Night Visitor. There, I was happy and challenged and I felt like I mattered. School mostly felt like a way to pass time between church services.

Re-reading that, I hear how strange it surely sounds to anyone who wasn’t raised in the same way. Some folks never went to church and some who did only went on Easter Sunday as a way to keep their toes clear of the fire. But for me, church was a part of my weekly routine, an unmovable event on my calendar around which everything else had to be scheduled, and I was happy to be there.

One of the boys in my church group was Alan and he was everything I wanted to be as a fifth grader. He was the best player in every sport he played, he was popular at school, and he had lived somewhere other than Texas so his stories seemed more exotic than mine. He would tell us about spending time in Nebraska for Christmas and not having hot water for showers. To a kid whose entire extended family lived basically within an hour’s reach of our house, cold showers at Christmas in an icy tundra sounded like an adventure. As an adult, this sounds like hell, but back then, I hung on every word.

Alan and I stuck together at all our church activities and even though we had different interests, we got along great. His being good at sports and my being good at music was a dynamic with which I was comfortable. Yes, I’ve always wished I was sportier but hey, the chips fall where they fall. He was good at the thing I sucked at and vice versa. Fine by me. Then came the December in which he was cast as the Watson to my Sherlock in The Mall and the Night Visitor. He struggled throughout the process and even at dress rehearsal, he still couldn’t remember his lines. But on the Sunday night of the actual performance, he nailed it. Cheers all around. He apparently was good at my thing too.

Each summer, he and I claimed top bunks next to each other during Kid’s Camp. Without fail, around the midpoint of that balmy summer week away from our parents, he found a girl to claim as his camp-girlfriend. They’d hold hands near the tetherball pole and throw water balloons at each other during the end-of-the-week water fight. Our last summer at Kid’s Camp, I finally found a camp-girlfriend of my own and was quick to tout her existence to my entire group of guys, especially Alan. Never mind that she told me she couldn’t be my girlfriend because she had a boyfriend in Africa whose parents were missionaries. I told her what happened at Kid’s Camp stayed at Kid’s Camp. So as far as my guys were concerned, I had a camp girlfriend who liked Sour Patch Straws at the Snack Shack and who was crazy about me. Come on, her “boyfriend” he was off in Africa cuddling with lions and riding giraffes to school. That’s what missionary kids do, right? Whatever.

Everything seemed to pan out for Alan, no matter what it was. We all have those people in our lives—people who intrigue and irritate us with equal measure—and I find that type of friendly adversary intoxicating, like Vanilla Fields perfume or 59th Street after it rains. It’s nice but after a while, it stales and overwhelms you.

Occasionally on Sundays after church, I’d go over to Alan’s house because he had an Atari. Even though I had a much newer Nintendo, he had an old school Atari—already vintage in the gaming world—and that made his toys cooler than mine. We’d go out to eat with his family and I listened to them talk about their lives and their friends, mentally taking notes if I heard anyone’s name I knew. Even as a kid, I knew eavesdropping was one of my spiritual gifts. We were at a brunch restaurant and I watched how his family cut their sunny-side-up eggs with a knife and fork as opposed to the way I saw my family eat them which was by smushing them up. I tried eating eggs their way but they didn’t taste the same as my family’s smushed eggs. Our way was better.

One Sunday while we were playing video games in Alan’s room, his older sister got into a screaming argument with his dad about something insignificant across the hall. She was a teenager, which to me meant she was a hipper version of an adult, but the shouting match between her and her father scared and embarrassed me. That sort of thing didn’t happen at my house. They screamed at each other, she called him names, threw pillows across the room and slammed her door as she retreated. I was petrified. Alan shrugged it off and continued besting me on the Atari. Turns out, the bubble of perfection I’d fabricated for him was just that, imaginary.

It was an important realization. Not because I wanted him to be fallible but because it shattered my delusion that someone being different than me made them superior. We’re all scrambling to keep the puzzle pieces together and if not together, at least on the table in front of us. I was doing just fine without endlessly comparing myself to someone whose life and interests were different than mine. Plus, my eggs were better.

Alan’s interests and mine remained different and as time went on, we veered onto two diverging paths. In high school, he dove headfirst into sports and I dove into the arts. After high school, he joined the military and I joined the student-loan-afflicted masses. Our lives were never going to look the same and our connection frayed over time.

I returned to Children’s Church when I was older, this time to help lead the service with my discipleship group. Standing on the stage, I noticed the “cool guys” in the room sat wherever they wanted. The odd infatuation with being seen on the front row didn’t exist anymore. That morning, I voiced a parrot puppet named Regina who encouraged the kids to not be delinquents. Regina told a story about trying to fit in by playing Playstation like the other birds. Everyone else was doing it so she thought she had to as well or she wouldn’t be as cool as them. With the pastor’s help, she learned that being herself was more important than trying to be like the toucans or the finches. She told the kids she was better at singing anyway. The pastor then asked Regina to sing something and I, intentionally off-key but loudly and full of heft, squawked the lyrics to “Jesus Loves Me.”

The kids laughed from the front row to the back.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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