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.
I'd raise my hand and say things like, "That's not doctrine," or "That's not what the scripture says." Though it was never my plan, I often left their lessons in tatters.
I certainly wasn't doing it for approval — the other kids eye-rolled and sighed whenever I was called on. But to me the gospel mattered, and getting it right was important. I actually thought a teacher should care about making sure only true doctrines were taught in class.
I didn't enjoy Sunday School, and the teachers certainly didn't enjoy me. One day, the bishop called me into his office and, after explaining to me how disruptive my comments could be to the teacher's lesson, he asked me to stop correcting my Sunday School teacher's statements and instead be supportive.
"How can I support incorrect statements?" I asked.
"Try saying nothing," he replied.
When I told my parents they were outraged. They had encouraged me to read those books in the first place, and I think they took it personally. But I begged them not to discuss it with the bishop; no doubt he meant well, and I didn't want to make waves. I'd go to meetings, I'd do my duty, and I'd study the gospel on my own.
The thing that baffled me in the years since that event was: If I was really such a problem, why didn't they just call my mom or my dad to teach my Sunday School class? My questions and arguments never flustered them. And in that Orem ward full of BYU professors; they really couldn't find anybody who would welcome my questions and take me seriously?
I think I just annoyed them. I'm sure I sounded like an arrogant know-it-all. There have always been people in authority who regarded it as their sacred duty to take me down a peg, to teach me humility. What they never understood was that I wasn't vain or proud — in fact, I was a mess of depression and self-doubt. I merely thought I was right about issues that mattered.
When I saw "Social Network" and saw Jesse Eisenberg's performance of the words Aaron Sorkin wrote for him, I thought: Finally, somebody understands how impatient you can get with all the nonsense.
Nothing they did was going to shake my belief in the gospel. I already knew that the more I studied the gospel and the world's teachings, the better the gospel held up and the more inadequate the world's ideas appeared.
In my teens, I thought there was no place for me at church. I was not welcome there. Kids who broke commandments were reached out to — lost sheep who needed to be ministered to. But I, who avoided committing most of the more popular sins, who studied and thought about the gospel, felt pushed away with both hands.
I served a mission; I did my callings; but it wasn't until I'd been married for several years that I began to gain a testimony, not just of the gospel, but of the church organization itself.
I have always kept my eye out for kids like I had been, the ones who don't like sports, who don't thrive in Scouting; the ones who have challenging questions or look bored out of their minds in classes.
It's strange that so much of LDS culture has borrowed from the world its disdain for those who aren't cool.
The kids who slide into drugs or sex or drinking or petty crime — we do a good job of keeping doors open for them because all these sins have consequences and sooner or later they realize their mistake and want to repent and return.
But you can't repent of being studious and smart and skeptical and questioning and unconcerned with style because these are all strengths. It's no surprise that middle- and high-school culture usually treats young people with these virtues as if there is something wrong with them for not being like the "normal" kids — but LDS culture should be a haven for them.
Instead, it's at college where many of them are first treated as if being studious and thoughtful is actually cool. When they finally have peers who respect them and the eye-rolling is replaced with rapt attention, it's so flattering that too many are seduced into abandoning the gospel in favor of the contradictory and unfounded ideas that pass for "intellectual opinion" in the world today.
I remember that when, at 19, I read Chaim Potok's "The Chosen," I was stunned to learn from it that Jewish culture respects people with intellectual gifts, with a scholarly temperament. I remember setting the book down in the midst of an early chapter and closing my eyes and trying not to cry.
Because I couldn't help but think: What would my life have been like, if I had grown up in a culture, and not just a family, that valued the things that I was good at? That actually thought a kid like me was cool?4 comments on this story
As the author of "Ender's Game," I hear from a lot of kids (or former kids) who talk to me about the sheer loneliness of their lives at school age, and how often adults were just as likely to push them away as the other kids were.
These kids may seem odd or off-putting to others, but they are not odd to themselves, and they are not offputting to God.
There's more than one way to lose sheep. If adults or peers make it clear that bookish or artistic kids are not really part of the flock, they'll get the message. They'll go away. And too many of them will fall prey to the pack of flatterers that is always waiting in the nearby woods.