The private-school league’s middle-school basketball playoffs were home games for Prep. Prep is the town’s most expensive private school, and their gym is beautiful: spacious, air conditioned, the wall by the entrance made of plastic so the new, impressive weight room is visible on the other side of a hall. We met them in the girls’ finals. We’re Westminster, the evangelicals, where in fifth grade our daughter had to memorize a Bible verse every week, and for graduation from day school, the fifth graders recited 1 Corinthians 13 together from memory.
Westminster is tiny—my high-school graduating class was 20 percent bigger than the 12 grades at Westminster combined—but academically it’s as demanding as Prep. At Awards Day, two or three of our high-school graduating seniors had perfect scores on the national Latin exam, and it seemed that every other kid who had taken Latin was in the top 100 in the country. We don’t have as many doctors as Prep, or as many kids whose parents are from other countries. More of our parents are bankers, businessmen, or pastors, and many families have a relative on a Christian mission in another country. At the playoffs, our side of the big gym was nearly full, with parents, aunts, friends, and a few recent grads. Maybe if more of their relatives had been there, the Prep cheerleaders wouldn’t have chanted, at the end of one of our girls’ cheers, “Is that all? Is that all?”
After the cheerleaders’ halftime show, the Westminster kids migrated to the far left end of the stands. All three middle-school classes were packed together into a single mass, shoulder to shoulder. After a while, the whole group started a complex cheer, clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and chanting in rhythm. No one led them from the front of the group; it started somewhere in the middle. Why did all of them know it? Why did they all decide to join in?
A couple of months later, at the end-of-the-year swimming party, the rising seventh graders got together at another family’s house. When we went to pick up our daughter, all of the kids were in the pool, involved in a quiet, intense game. One kid was seated on the diving board, the others all focused on him, talking among themselves and tossing guesses at him. After a while he slipped into the water and another took his place. No adult had organized them; they had started the game themselves.
The First Presbyterian pastor is the chairman of Westminster’s board of directors. His three kids go to the school, but most of the First Pres kids do. On Sunday nights the Westminster kids do the same thing they did at Prep, what they do in pools, at school plays, at every home basketball game: The middle-school and high-school kids sit packed together, front left in the sanctuary, shoulder to shoulder.
Above the entry to the church there are two markers—one from 1904, commemorating the first century of First Pres; the second, from 2004. That makes the church young by the standards of Europe or even New England, but impressive for us in the South. The grounds are covered by tall trees, and catty-corner from the church is the house where Woodrow Wilson lived as a boy when his father was the First Pres pastor. Wilson seems alien to the church I know. His belief in his own righteousness contrasts with the current pastors, who in their sermons wryly acknowledge their own sinful natures.
The church and school form a powerful net, all of it interconnected and holding the kids tight. Many of the Westminster teachers go to First Pres, and the church’s representatives show up at odd times. I encountered one of my daughter’s summer-camp counselors—an assistant youth minister at First Pres, fresh out of college—at a dinner party at the lake just outside of town. After we ate he razzed the three teenaged boys at the table and gossiped with them about the other boys who had gone to camp with them. Referring to the perpetrator of a notorious camp escapade, he said, “I’m all for adventure. But he thinks rules don’t apply to him. That’s his pride speaking. I love him, but he needs to work on that pride.”
Like the rest of the system, he was on message: We love you; now behave.
Six weeks later the 13-year-old younger brother of the scofflaw discussed at the dinner party ran and jumped into the same assistant minister’s arms as the latter walked into a party at our house. I didn’t know my daughter had invited the minister to her birthday party. He fit right in, one of the first to get tossed into the pool with his clothes on.
Sometimes I look at the First Pres/Westminster parents and kids and think, “The officer corps of the Confederacy.” At Gettysburg, products of this same culture walked in the line that Pickett sent up the slope and into the cannon on Cemetery Ridge. Half of them fell before the survivors returned to the line of trees where they had started. They took flanking artillery fire from the right and left, walking up that hill, and as their numbers thinned they shortened their line, drawing close together. Historians say this bunching up was a natural reaction to the cannon fire on both sides. Maybe, but I think they were used to being shoulder to shoulder, and if they were likely to die, as they knew they were, it was natural to move in tight.
Some believe that the problem with loving the people to whom you belong is that you are too ready to go to war or to oppress others because you can’t love people who aren’t like you. Even if that were true, the problem is that the alternative is much worse. We see it around us: drugs and crime, the death of learning, millions of children with no father, a culture that slides into barbarism. There is no solution to human life; there is only better or worse management of our savagery.
In 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter the Westminster fifth grade memorized, Saint Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Much of what he wrote in that letter is said with great beauty, but we do not put childish ways behind us completely. I hope my daughter does not, for what she has is more than a happy childhood, more than being placed in social circles where some day she will find a loyal, family-centered husband. This is sitting next to Christ, shoulder to shoulder, until she dies. This is how to have a happy life.