“Read your Bible or go to hell.” I was certain that every first grader must have had such wise words written on their chalkboards to start their mornings with. Easy enough for me. Read my Bible or go to hell. Check. There was no way in hell I, Rebecca Dawn Bohannon, was gonna risk burning in eternal hellfire and damnation. What was I, crazy?
I matriculated through the private Pentecostal (ultra-religious) school system beginning 1977. Kindergarten through eighth grade, my world consisted of memorizing Bible verses, singing songs to Jesus, going to chapel on Wednesdays, wearing skirts and never cutting my hair, no TV, no sinning, and our school curriculum was about two years ahead of the public school system – ummm, all I can say is… what a glorious life.
Sister Mary Pigeon is one of my greatest literary sponsors. It was in her first grade classroom that I would watch this beautiful, gray-haired, long skirt-wearing silhouette walk through the aisles and peek over each student’s desk to make sure we were reading our Bibles. Sister Pigeon found it unacceptable to hear us stumble on words. Even words like “Methuselah” and “atonement”. Certainly first graders could handle this. I knew I sure could. Sister Pigeon had me at the book of Genesis, honey. It overjoyed me to read that Eve was made out of Adam’s rib. What? How could that even be? And sweet Jesus, have you read about this little boy named Daniel being stuck in a lion’s den? Seriously? A lion? Don’t even get me started on the ark – two of every kind of animal. I could barely contain my excitement when I’d get home from school each day. Thinking back, I really put my parents through a lot of crap, making them sit for hours listening to me tell them stories of a man named Jonah that got swallowed up by a great fish (not a whale, by the way). Sister Pigeon would not allow us to make mistakes pronouncing, spelling or defining words. As I said, six years old is old enough to begin memorizing the King James Version of the Bible. We used words like “thou” and “brethren” and “rapture” – and I, for one, was smitten. (Rapture is not in the Bible, by the way).
A strange thing happened one day in first grade, Sister Mary Pigeon had an opportunity to see the visiting Queen of England as she passed through Stockton, California. Sister Pigeon was from England; I loved the way she pronounced the word “garage”. It’s pronounced “GAIR-edge” over yonder. I hadn’t considered a day without Sister Pigeon, I wasn’t sure I liked this Queen that was keeping our favorite teacher from us. What Queen? Like Queen Esther from the Bible? What is a substitute teacher? These were the questions we shouted out when we arrived to class only to find some other lady sitting in our beloved’s chair.
The substitute smiled and told us to “Be quiet and sit down.” My fellow first graders and I did not care for this crazy intruder. But we did as we were told; no way did we want Sister Pigeon to make us write a hundred sentences or clean erasers outside. “I’m going to read a chapter to you from this book called ‘Nancy Drew Mysteries: The Secret in the Old Attic’. I know it’s not like the Bible you’re used to, but I thought we’d give it a try since you all like to read so much.” What the hell did she just say? We were perplexed and ne’er a one of us wanted anything to do with any book that was not our precious King James Version Bible. The sub had us gather on the floor in a semi-circle and she sat in front of us, holding the book up so we could see the pictures as she took us on an incredible journey. Did she say the super sleuth was a girl? Did Nancy Drew really solve this mystery without a grown-up’s help? Was there any chance that I, Rebecca Dawn Bohannon, could be like this… this… “worldly” 16-year-old girl? Am I as smart as she is? These questions ran through all of our minds. This wasn’t a story about anything we’d worked on before, yet we loved it just as much as our biblical stories. I had usually imagined I was Mary Magdalene from the Bible (she was not a prostitute, by the way), but now things were different. I didn’t have to imagine I was a dead relic that possibly married Jesus. I could imagine that I was a modern-day crime solver extraordinaire. We all hugged our substitute teacher at the end of class, and she told us that Sister Pigeon was going to be so proud of the work we’d accomplished.
I hesitated to tell Sister Pigeon how much I really enjoyed our sub the day before. I didn’t want to tell her that I hadn’t touched my Bible all night or that I went to the library and checked out four Nancy Drew Mysteries books. I got through two of them in one night by taking one into the bathtub with me and the other, my dad let me stay and read in our Datsun 280Z while he was grocery shopping inside Lucky’s.
I sat at my desk and stared at our chalkboard. “Read your Bible or go to hell.” Some find Sister Pigeon’s methods antiquated and strange, but I love my Bible more than any other book in the world. Was she right to post such harsh words on her chalkboard? We won’t know. What we do know is that she was one of my greatest literary sponsors. Without her, I’d never had the love I have for books other than the Bible. Nancy Drew was easy for me, thanks to all the training we’d been given reciting scripture. Today, when reading my Bible, I have the same enthusiasm I did when I was six years old. Thank you, Sister Mary Pigeon.