“I do not want to do this.”

When I was a kid, I was a smart little goody-two-shoes. I was a teacher’s dream: I learned quickly, did my work willingly, and was quiet both in and out of class, following all the rules. (Years later I would realize this resulted in part because my guilt-and-shame meter seems to have been congenitally set in overdrive.) I also always got heaping truckloads of positive feedback on my writing. Talent? The effects of the gargantuan vocabulary that impressed the pants off of every teacher I ever had? I don’t know any more, and I doubt it matters.

No surprise, then, that when I was about seven and my Vacation Bible School teacher asked us to write the story of Daniel in the lions’ den in our own words, I thought, “Easy peasy (and a little boring),” and whipped out a paragraph or so. Unfortunately, after reading over the class’s works, she asked me to read my work aloud. Not to the class, which would have been bad enough, but at the front of the auditorium on Parents’ Night. With a microphone and everything. I demurred, she persisted, I caved. “All right, I guess,” were my approximate words after she told me she really, really wanted me to read my page at Parents’ Night.

So, the big day (or night) came. And the whole class trooped onto stage when it was our turn, and a handful of students came forward to read various things they had written in class. I was the last up, or close to it. My handwritten piece of paper was clutched in my hand. My turn.

I stepped forward from the line and approached the microphone — the same one our preacher stood at every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I looked at all the people, watching expectantly, waiting for me to begin to speak. The room seemed to swirl a bit, then righted itself; and with that sense of the room settling back onto its foundation came a confidence in what I had to do that I had never felt before.

“I do not want to do this,” I said into the microphone, enunciating each word clearly. And suddenly, the whole world seemed a little brighter. I stepped back into line, just a spear carrier again, while my friend said with glee, “I’ll read it!” and proceeded to the microphone with the paper she had snatched out of my hand. I’m sure it was painful for our audience to listen to her — she wasn’t good at reading aloud under the best of circumstances, stumbling over words and reading without the inflections we need to make sense of a sentence — but she was delighted to get the chance; and I for one didn’t hear her at all. The intensity of the relief I felt was too great for that.

“I do not want to do this.”

It was my first truly independent action, one that was not only not coached by an adult but was actively opposed by an authority figure.  My mother told me, years after the fact, that she could have killed me at that moment; but she added, as we laughed about it in those later years, that my grandmother had been relieved, because until then she had worried for me, worried that I would do whatever a grown-up said simply because they were a grown-up.