Hot For Teacher

Jonah

“You can’t understand the story of Jonah without understanding the culture of the times.” I picked up the dishcloth I had brought from home to use as a sweat rag and dabbed it against my forehead. “Here is what most people know about Jonah, much like the one you might read in the Children’s Bible: Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh but he refused, so God humbled him by having him swallowed by a whale, and the whale then delivered Jonah to Nineveh to preach. Can anyone think of other any individual details?”

I dabbed the cloth along my neck line and looked out at the crowd over the 100 or so members of my Mormon ward. The bright pancake lights above hit me brightly as I looked over the faces of the crowd. There were young mothers with newborn babies, elderly couples who had been been attending weekly Sunday School Services for seven decades, and every shade of person in between. Most Mormons, even those who actively read their scriptures and lived their religion, didn’t take much time to study the Old Testament, so sharing content from these stories always brought me joy. With enough research, I felt like I could truly enlighten those in the room and leave them feeling inspired. Sunday School teacher was my very favorite church calling.

I would spend hours researching my Sunday School lessons during the week, reading the content and taking pages of notes, looking into supplemental articles, cross-referencing pieces of history. I would often prepare a lecture that could last for 2 hours, and then I’d pull out the most fascinating content, enough to fill about 40 minutes, which would then leave 10 minutes for discussion. Even paring things down that much, I tended to get overly enthusiastic, rushing my words to fit as much as I could before the bell rang for the next class to begin. I had to learn, slowly over time, that it was best to teach just a few things effectively rather than a bulk of things in a huge rush. It was much better to have people leave the class inspired, with a new sense of understanding, rather than a wealth of new information that was rushed. (This approach would later help me to become an effective college teacher).

My wife, Maggie, came in an out of the room a few times, taking care of our infant son, J, who was now getting more mobile and difficult to contain as he crawled rapidly, exploring every corner of the room. He wouldn’t be old enough to attend the nursery program for a few more months yet, and sometimes it was easier to just let him roam the halls rather than expect him to sit still.

I fanned my suit jacket open a few times, able to tell the white shirt I wore beneath it was already soaked through with sweat. I had taken to wearing baggier clothing lately, now that I was 255 lbs. My pants were now at a 39, where just a few years ago I had worn a size 32. If I wore layers, others couldn’t see how think my sweat was, except along my forehead and neck line. My face glistened in the bright lights. I hated how much effort just standing here and talking took out of me. It made me thirsty. And hungry. I always felt hungry. I woke up in the night to eat sometimes, and I ate between meals, always feeling full yet always wanting more. Sometimes I wondered what had become of myself. How had I sunk this far?

The clock ticked by as I discussed theories about the whale in the Jonah story being metaphorical versus theories that it was literal. We discussed the wickedness of Nineveh and what made the city unique, and why Jonah had been reluctant to go there. And then I tried to make Jonah real, illuminating for the class how much effort it would take to face an impossible task given to us by God, one that had to be taken on faith. I asked some of the class to share the difficult things they faced in their lives, and what made them a bit more like Jonah, weathering through illnesses, family struggles, or crises of faith. And somewhere deep inside, I faced my own Nineveh task, unable to reconcile being gay with Mormon.

Soon, the bell rang, and people began filing out the door, significantly lowering the temperature of the room as the doors opened and the air circulated. I stepped off the side, leaning against a wall slightly, out of the hot lights and somehow sweating more as my body seemed to realize class was over. Several people stood up at the front of the class, making comments from the lesson, asking questions, some reminding me how much they looked forward to my lessons.

With the room nearly empty now, Maggie made her way up to the front of the class. My son J patted at my calves, and I bent down to scoop him up careful to hold him out on my arm so he wouldn’t be pressed against my sweaty face. He grinned at me, silly and happy with a full tummy, and I squeezed him in close. As Maggie asked me how I felt about the lesson, I noticed Brother and Sister Markel, a couple in their late 70s, casually waiting behind her, and I beckoned them forward.

“Brother Anderson, thank you as always for your wonderful lessons.”

“Thank you!” I exclaimed back.

Sister Markel opened her shoulder bag. “Brother Markel and I have noticed you seem a bit… uncomfortable lately. We got you a small gift that might help.”

Using my third grade sense of humor, I took the present from their hands, immediately quipping, “Why Sister Markel, does this gift mean you’re hot for teacher?”

Maggie rolled her eyes as Brother Markel laughed heartily. Sister Markel looked surprised, then smiled gently. “I… I guess you could say that. Open it up.”

I opened the gift and found a small battery-operated fan inside.

“You seem to get very warm up here. We thought a small fan on the table might help keep you cool. So it is a ‘hot for teacher’ present, I suppose.”

I thanked the Markels, turning bright red, not wanting to even talk about the noticeable sweat. Instead of staying for the third block of church, I took J and went home early. There, I poured myself a bowl of cereal, a snack before the later lunch, and, noticing the small fan on the counter, thought that one of these days I needed to do something about my weight problem.

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the Origin of My Species

MA48727

“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.