October 3rd, 2006


A Hellish Experience

I remember going to church school on Sundays (classes for the kids so they wouldn't have to sit through the unbearably boring sermons) and learning about the devil. And I remember secretly thinking that there wasn't a devil, but not wanting to raise my hand to say that because Mr. Mason seemed to think there most certainly was a devil and Mr. Mason talked with a drawn-out non-intensity found only in prosaic Ben Stein movies. Mr. Mason thought a lot of things that I didn't particularly care for or understand and felt that a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible was suitable entertainment for eight and nine year-olds at a time when they would all rather be watching cartoons or pulling the legs off spiders.

"How many times do I have to sin before I go to hell?" I asked.

I wanted to make sure I knew so that I didn't accidentally exceed my limit. "What's my cutoff?" I asked, hoping for a concise, definitive answer..."Two hundred sins!" or "A million sins!" Maybe a differentiation in degree-- 20 big sins, and 2,000 little indiscretions-- things like stealing a candy corn off my sister's cupcake or telling my mother I'd brushed my teeth when all I'd really done was swish water around in my mouth and eaten some toothpaste.

"There's no number of sins," he said, in his lifeless monotone. "You have to blaaaaahhhhblahblahblahblahblahblah blah blah blahblahblah. Blah blah blahblahblahblah blah."

I had timed Mr. Mason once with an orange stopwatch I had won for 300 tickets at Mr. Arcade. He had talked for 45 consecutive minutes about something remotely biblical without either coming up for air or interspersing the speech with an activity like the other teachers would do. ("Make a diorama of the nativity!" or "Name all the books of the bible as fast as you can IN ORDER...GO!")

Mr. Mason looked at me as if he had answered my questions sufficiently as I politely rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. He used the word "repenting" several times, drawing it out, (reeee-penting) and I remember wondering how on earth I could "repent" (whatever that was supposed to mean) when I had never "pented" in the first place. I looked at the other children in class, most of whom were either semi-conscious or eagerly playing their newly released "Game Boy" consoles under the table. Alex, who sat next to me, was passing a note under the table to somebody. Alex was probably going to hell, I thought. And Michael Ovin from my class in school with Mrs. Breidenbach. I really did not want to have to sit next to them in hell, if it existed.

And it was a big "If." I had my doubts that there was a hell at all. I had read the ten commandments-- a clearly defined list of rules, like every birthday party venue I had ever visited in my life. No running, no screaming, thou shalt not kill, no climbing the climbing wall without a harness and an adult present, do not dive-- shallow water, no eating inside the fence, honor thy mother and father, you must be "this tall" to go to hell. Hell seemed like it was created by whoever it was who ran Germonds Pool or Rye Playland and was becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously.

"So am I going to hell?" I asked him, just on the off chance that it existed and I met the majority of the requirements.

Mr. Mason looked at me, tired. "Not as long as you repent," he said slowly.

"What if I don't repent?" I asked, just curious, and Mr. Mason paused, slowly, unsure he wanted to answer a nine year-old girl's questions with, "Well, then you're going to hell."

He bit his lip awkwardly, holding it with his bottom teeth while nodding his head in thought. He glanced upward briefly before focusing his gaze on mine.

"I'm sure we can work something out," he said.