Guest post by ObstacleChick. Previously published in 2017.
During fifth through twelfth grades, I attended a fundamentalist Christian school. Our school had been fairly popular in the 1970s and early 1980s, but by the year I graduated (1988) it was clear that such a strict type of Christian school was on the decline, at least in our area. Other less-strict Christian schools had cropped up and were thriving. Our school was started in 1969 by a Bob Jones University graduate and his wife. Many of the teachers had graduated from Bob Jones, Pensacola Christian College, or some other fundamentalist Christian college. A handful of the other teachers had graduated from secular universities (our high school math teacher, Mrs. C, had graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago). While a large number of teachers had taught there for many years, we experienced an influx of younger teachers who would stay a few months or even just a few years. The pay was very low (most teachers had to work a summer job or occasionally a part-time job to make ends meet), yet each middle school or high school teacher had to teach a minimum of four different classes. Grades kindergarten through five were taught by a single teacher in a classroom (with music classes conducted by the music teacher) as usual. All students were required to take Bible class. Middle school and high school students took Bible class which met three days a week with chapel services on the other two days. Chapel services were like a regular church service, and only male teachers or guests were allowed to preach the sermons.
Students and teachers alike were held to strict rules surrounding gender-based dress codes and conduct codes. While there were no official restrictions on students attending movies, teachers were not allowed to attend movies in a movie theater as it may “damage their witness.” Most of the teachers rented movies at the video store and would freely discuss movies with the students. This hypocrisy was not lost on me. Students could be expelled for being caught smoking, doing drugs, drinking, or having sex, even if any of these activities took place off campus. During my sophomore year, two of my classmates and a senior were expelled because another student overheard them talking about a party they had attended on the weekend that had drinking. Two girls after I graduated were expelled for pregnancy. Students could be suspended for disrespect to teachers. My own brother was expelled in third grade for mouthing off to his teacher and not showing proper remorse during his punishment.
Our school was a member of the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools (TACS) and the American Association of Christian Schools (AACS). Here is the purpose of TACS as appears on its website, and I don’t believe the purpose has changed since the organization’s inception:
The Tennessee Association of Christian Schools (TACS) was formed to provide an organization whereby Christian schools in Tennessee could obtain Christian guidance and educational services which would enhance the academic and spiritual credibility of member schools. A further purpose was to provide an opportunity for Christian schools, who subscribe to TACS’s Statement of Faith, to maintain high standards of spiritual and academic excellence.
Since the primary purpose of a Christian school is academic excellence and conforming young lives to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, TACS was organized accordingly and is committed to complementing the educational and spiritual goals ordained by each school through professional services.
* To establish educational integrity and excellence.
* To establish guidelines and services which are truly Biblical and creationist in philosophy and methodology.
* To maintain and improve the quality of Christian schools through professional services and programs.
* To provide counsel and onsite assistance in establishing and developing Christian schools.
* To promote the development of guidelines for all courses, curriculum, and other educational programs from a Biblical framework and perspective.
* To promote high standards of behavior consistent with the moral and spiritual standards of Biblical Christianity as set forth in the Scripture.
* To provide quality curriculum materials.
* To provide staff development and school improvement opportunities.
* To promote and assist schools in maintaining financial integrity.
* To preserve the freedom of Christian schools to exist as an alternative to public and private schools.
* To monitor state legislation.
* To establish and maintain a nonintrusive relationship with the State Department of Education.
Each year the TACS would put on competitions among member schools at the regional and state levels for academics, music, art, and specific Bible categories such as preaching, verse memorization, and quizzes. Competing age groups were Grades K-6, Grades 7-9, and Grades 10-12. Typically, students competing in academics were at the highest level of the age category, but for other categories ages varied based on interest and ability. Each school was allowed to send two submissions for each category if they wished (for example, a school could send 2 students for Grades 10-12 math, two students for Grades 7-9 classical piano, etc.). Our teachers typically selected the students who would compete. As my grade’s top student through middle school and high school, I would compete in almost every academic category when I was in grades 9 through 12. And as a musical student, I would typically compete in choir, sometimes small group vocals, and in piano. The first day of competition was for test-taking, so I would end up taking a test in each academic area — I was there all day long! The second day of competition was for music and preaching competitions, so I may have competed in choir, maybe a smaller singing group, and piano if I was one of the students selected. The best pianist at our high school was in my grade, my friend Tom* — we had the same piano teacher. So in junior year he competed in classical piano and I competed in sacred piano. But in grade 12, our mutual piano teacher suggested that I switch to classical as well to give Tom some much-needed competition as he was becoming insufferably arrogant about his piano skills. The competitor in me was happy to fulfill my teacher’s request.
In the TACS competition, the top two winners in each category in the regional competition would go to the state competition to compete. For Grades 10-12, the winner of the TACS state competition was eligible to compete at the AACS national competition held at Bob Jones University. When I was a junior in high school, I competed at AACS National competition in sacred keyboard, and as a senior in high school I competed in classical keyboard and in history at BJU. I have no idea how, but the judges gave me higher scores than Tom and I won the state classical piano title. Tom actually came in third place.
As a teenager, I didn’t know much about BJU except that it was a conservative Christian unaccredited university in South Carolina. Many of my teachers had attended, and they made a big deal about Harvard supposedly being unaccredited as well (so BJU must be great academically like Harvard, am I right?). Hearing their stories, it didn’t sound like any type of school I would ever want to attend, with all its rules concerning nearly every aspect of life. Besides, I was determined to attend Vanderbilt University one day. I lived with my grandparents, and my grandfather was obsessed with Vanderbilt (he never was able to attend), and I guess his influence rubbed off on me. As a teenager, I worked at the university during the summer and fell in love with the campus. Despite the fact that my grandfather was a deacon at a fundamentalist Baptist church, he drilled into my head that my education came first, that I needed to have a career, and that I should NEVER be dependent on a man for my support. He lived to see me graduate from his beloved Vanderbilt University, but he never knew that I grew up to become the primary salary earner in my family. I believe he would have been pleased. (And my daughter will be attending Vanderbilt next fall.)
I had the opportunity to visit BJU twice during high school for the AACS competitions (1987 and 1988). I believe that the competitions were legitimate competitions, but they were also recruitment tools for BJU. After we checked into our assigned dorms (all competitors were required to stay in the dorms with current students), we went to a chapel service and then were divided into groups for tours. My first year I stayed in a dorm with Sarah* (a student to whom I was assigned) and another girl whose name I do not remember. Sarah was a senior majoring in elementary education, and she was engaged to Ben* who was preparing to be a pastor. They would be getting married in June as soon as they both graduated. Sarah was looking forward to getting married, teaching in a Christian school, and becoming a pastor’s wife. My second year there I stayed in the dorm with Jane* who was the older sister of the aforementioned Tom. Jane was 2 years older and had spent her freshman year in college at Belmont University – she transferred to BJU because Belmont was “too liberal” and she didn’t like it. Also attending BJU were Josh* and Christy* who had graduated from my high school and were both freshmen. It was interesting to meet with Jane, Josh, and Christy to find out more about their college life at BJU.
There were a lot of rules at BJU, and I don’t think I even scratched the surface of the breadth and depth of rules that a student must know. First, of course, was the dress code. Girls had to wear dresses or skirts of appropriate length at all times. Their neckline must be no more than 4 finger-widths from the collarbone. Girls also had a dress code for gym classes, but I believe girls weren’t allowed to wear pants while traveling from dorm to gym (though I could be mistaken). Boys were supposed to wear pants with shirts tucked in and a belt, and I believe their hair had to be cut to a certain length. I don’t recall seeing any boys with facial hair. Jane said that girls had to wear dress hats to attend Sunday church services on BJU campus, but hats were not required for weekday chapel services.
Boys and girls, of course, were not allowed in each other’s residence halls. Every evening, there was “mail delivery” – boys could send hand-written notes to girls which were delivered in the evenings. (I wonder if they send emails these days – but then again, their emails are probably closely monitored). My second year there, Josh wrote a note to Jane and me inviting us to meet Josh and Christy at the grill for lunch, an on-campus casual restaurant. Underclass boys and girls were not allowed to date at BJU, but a mixed group of four of us meeting for burgers was somehow okay.
My first year there I made a faux pas at the dining hall. We were told to go to the dining hall at set times for our meals, so I went through the cafeteria line, got my tray of food, and sat down at a table to eat. I was promptly informed that protocol dictated that everyone was to remain standing behind their chair until the last person had gone through the line and found a spot at the table. At that point someone was to say a prayer of thanks for the food. After the prayer, everyone was allowed to sit down to eat. By the time I was able to commence with eating my food, it was cold.
Another thing that I found odd was that there was a curfew for the time students must be inside their dorms and also a literal lights-out time. A hall monitor would come by to check each room to make sure all lights were off and no one was up past bedtime reading. I thought, what is this, summer camp? It really felt like 1950s. My mom attended a secular college from in 1961-1963, and even then, things were more open than what was happening at BJU.
As far as I could tell, the entire campus was fenced. Students were only allowed to leave campus for certain reasons, such as to attend an approved off-campus church. Any time a student needed to leave campus, he or she must receive permission, and my friends told me that they were not allowed to leave campus alone.
Bear in mind that the vast majority of the students were age 18 or older. Age 18 is considered a legal adult in the USA. However, these students were NOT treated like legal adults. Practically every action was monitored, from the times they were allowed to eat in the dining hall to what they should wear to when they should go to bed to whether they could come and go from the campus. There was a cumulative demerit system tallied for infractions. I suppose if one received too many demerits, one would be disciplined, possibly expelled.
I couldn’t believe that students who were legal adults would willingly follow these rules. As a student who was counting the days until the end of my restrictive education, there is no way that I would have chosen to attend BJU. You could not have paid me to go there. Contrast that environment to Vanderbilt University where I worked each summer. Students were free to come and go as they pleased. Some lived in co-ed dormitories. Students dressed as they pleased. There was no curfew, either for dormitories themselves or for bedtime. Students were treated as adults – for they were adults, able to make their own decisions (even dumb decisions).
When my grandparents picked me up at the end of my first visit, I told them everything I had learned about the school. Honestly, I think they wouldn’t have minded if I had attended there as I would have been completely sheltered and “safe,” but since my grandfather was obsessed with Vanderbilt, they didn’t suggest that.
I wondered how it was possible for BJU students who were so completely sheltered to be able to function in the real world. Truthfully, many BJU graduates go on to become pastors and Christian school teachers. Many stay in the fundamentalist Christian world where everything is about maintaining one’s testimony and evangelizing for Jesus. Josh transferred to Clemson University and went on to become headmaster of the school we had attended until it closed (his parents had both been teachers there when I was a student); I am not sure what he is doing now. Apparently, our school’s rules were relaxed a lot under his tutelage, but for some reason – probably too much competition – the school did not survive. I haven’t kept in contact with Christy – on social media I see that she is a divorced mom but most of her posts are about Jesus. Jane graduated from BJU and is an art teacher at a Christian school. Jane’s younger brother Tom graduated from BJU, went to medical school, and now markets himself as a Christian pediatrician (not sure how that differs from a regular pediatrician). Many of my former teachers have retired, some still teach in public or private schools, and many moved on to other careers including nursing, human resources, and medical insurance. Many former students and teachers are still entrenched in the fundamentalist world. Many others switched over to a more progressive form of Christianity. A handful of us are “apostates.” A few male students came out as gay after graduation. I suppose if one is really dedicated to staying within the fundamentalist “bubble” without exposure to “the flesh” or “the world,” then BJU is the place to be.
*names have been changed
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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