Some years ago, we were notified that our child was receiving an academic honor, so there we were at the middle school awards assembly. One sports team after another gave out its awards, with emotional speeches from the coaches about the marvelous achievements and team spirit and leadership and what-not that this or that child had displayed.
Since the assembly was during the last period of the day, it had to end on time — kids had to catch their buses; parents would be waiting in their minivans out front.
So with only minutes to go, the principal went to the podium and read off the names of the academic awards recipients. He asked them to stand in place in the bleachers and they got a round of applause.
None of that emotional praise that the athletes got. No individual attention.
But why was I surprised? This is the era when kids who actually excel at school are called by sickening epithets like "nerd" or "geek"; intellectual or artistic students are usually treated as pariahs by their peers, unless they are also either rich, rebellious or athletic.
I couldn't resist asking a vice principal, after the assembly, when the decision had been made to de-emphasize academics at the school. "We were running short on time," he explained. "Then why didn't you rush the athletic awards? Why didn't you read off their names and have them stand in place, and give full time to the students who actually did well at academics?"
He looked at me like I was insane. But he thought about it and said, "We should have." And then he smiled. "But the kids who get good grades, they're going to do great in high school anyway."
"Why are you so sure of that?" I asked. "They need honor and encouragement as much as anybody."
When I was growing up in the LDS Church, every type of kid had something to take part in. Wards had drama directors, speech directors, dance directors whose job was to provide opportunities for kids with many talents to shine. But by the time I was 14, those callings — and those programs — were gone.
I didn't shine at the only remaining youth program in our ward — basketball — though there were perfunctory efforts to include me. But I was quite aware of the eye-rolling, the groans, the sighs when I didn't defend aggressively enough (see, I actually believed basketball was a non-contact sport) or pass to the right person.
But I didn't begrudge the other guys a game they loved. I didn't think the church existed to entertain me; I just did what I later did on my mission on preparation days. I read a book while the other guys played. Everybody was happy.
Gradually, though, I began to feel as if, even in Sunday School and priesthood meeting, LDS culture was not particularly welcoming to the kind of kid I was.
Even before I reached my teens, I had read the scriptures and explored my parents' library of church-related books. I had read the collected speeches of Heber J. Grant, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow. I'd read Parley P. Pratt's "Key to the Science of Theology" and James Talmage's "Jesus the Christ" and John A. Widtsoe's "Evidences and Reconciliations" and LeGrand Richards' "A Marvelous Work and a Wonder."
By my mid-teens, I'd read every book that existed on Book of Mormon archaeology, and also popular archaeology books by Thor Heyerdahl and Yagael Yadin. I'd read "The Screwtape Letters" and "Prophecy, Key to the Future" and Cleon Skousen's "Thousands and Thousands of Years," and I was beginning to sort through what was firm doctrine and what was merely fascinating speculation or utter nonsense.
And then on Sunday I'd sit in class and the teacher would say something that was simply wrong. At that age, I had no concept of being supportive or tactful.
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