When I approached Pastor Griebel and asked if I could come back to the Church of the Good Shepherd as a volunteer, I wasn't looking for a spiritual reawakening or a defining personal experience. I was padding my college admissions package, burnishing my extracurricular-slash-community service credentials. Truth be told, I was more than a bit nervous about the whole prospect of college, but in those days I deferred to my parents and teachers and their judgment of what was good and proper, and so there I stood, doing my best to look enthusiastic and capable, while Pastor Griebel smiled, clicked open a binder, and handed me the job description for Children's Bible Quizzing Coach.
"We'd be thrilled to have you back." He winked, dismissing the years that had elapsed since my own quizzing days. "Our kids are perfect angels," he said, "but they need someone who can relate to them while keeping a few lines of Scripture straight in his head."
He handed over the coming year's curriculum, a glossy packet whose cover featured the biblical patriarchs in cartoon form—Noah loading up the arky-arky, Joseph in his prismatic coat, and Jacob, pink as a mole rat, standing beside his hairy twin.
"You'll be doing Genesis," Pastor Griebel said. "How appropriate for a new beginning."
The pastor called the team's performance in recent years "lower than a snake's belly," and so although we wouldn't compete until the middle of November, I held a study session during the Sunday school hour that very week. To prepare, I reviewed the first three chapters of Genesis, finding reassurance in the ease with which the passages returned to me.
The first children to arrive that morning were Lizzie and Lacey Davidson, fraternal twins (Lizzie a brunette, Lacey a dirty blonde). As she sat, Lacey crossed her legs and smiled in a way that unnerved me. In their white taffeta dresses, the twins gleamed, in direct contrast to Dorothea Crump, who arrived next and exhibited a stolid drabness: brown loafers, denim jumper, a yellow gingham headband that accentuated the pallor and breadth of her face. Then Albert Blass sauntered in, sporting a grin so wide you would never have thought him capable of even the slightest iniquity.
The children waited, looking up at me with their pimple-free faces.
"Hello, kids," I said. "My name is Tommy Cupp—"
Lacey rose and extended her hand. "Peace be with you, Mr. Cupp." She was smirking in the practiced manner of any eleven-year-old who'd never been humbled, but her voice carried a poised quality, as if she'd skipped over the remainder of childhood and adolescence, settling right into small town, upper-crust ladyhood with its overdone and insincere niceties.
The church secretary peeked in. "One more for you." She nudged a smaller boy through the doorway.
"Why are you here, C.J.?" Lacey asked. "Aren't you a little young for quizzing?"
I gestured for him to take a seat. "C.J.'s on my roster."
Lacey puckered her lips. "C.J.'s a baby."
The boy sat staring at the table, hunched over in resignation, hands tucked under his knees.
I fixed Lacey with what I hoped would pass for a stern look. Paraphrasing the "Dear Quiz Coach" letter in the packet from Pastor Griebel, I reminded her that Bible Quiz was supposed to promote fellowship. In Bible Quiz, I said, we compete as a team. Anyone who didn't wish to cooperate was welcome to rejoin the Sunday school program.
Lacey sighed. "Okay, Mr. Cupp. I'm sorry."
C.J.'s eyes remained cast down, which I interpreted as a kind of acceptance. "You're forgiven," I said to Lacey.
"Of course I am." Her expression turned haughty. "I've invited Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal savior. All of my sins are forgiven."
I wasn't entirely sure, but as I understood it, grace was a gift that was, however freely given, not to be taken for granted.
"I don't think that's how it works," I said. "In all honesty."
Lacey frowned. "Really? How do you know? Are you a Christian, Mr. Cupp?"
"Let's get started."
"If you're not a Christian, why are you coaching Bible Quiz?"
I wasn't a Holy Roller by any stretch of the imagination—willing to be persuaded was more like it—but I didn't need a lecture on salvation from Lacey Davidson. What did a sixth grader know about theology, anyway? World Religions was a tenth grade elective at Chesterton High.
"Open your Bibles," I said. "Genesis, Chapter One."
Lizzie's hand sprang up. "Mr. Cupp," she called out. "Mr. Cupp, shouldn't we start with a prayer?"
Lacey nodded vigorously. "Our last coach always started and ended Bible study with a prayer."
As quiz coach, I was the one in charge—the "adult"—an ironic although unhumorous position given my own lack of maturity. An only child, naïve and coddled, in my sixteen years I'd made only the most casual acquaintance with responsibility. Not exactly Holden Caulfield or Peter Pan, but I could identify. Most of the high school juniors I knew had developed early-onset senioritis and were eager to get more independence, to get away, to get on with quote-unquote living. The idea of more freedom didn't appeal to me, however; I suspected the more rope I was given, the more likely I would be to hang myself. I wasn't interested in "moving on" to college life in the dorms or fraternities (the very idea of hazing terrified me), or to anything beyond. A job and a house? A family? I couldn't handle my own peers, let alone anybody younger than me—the closest I'd ever come to babysitting was the egg-parenting project in Ms. Lantern's eighth-grade health class.
Now, however, I'd assumed the role of a grown-up. I was Teacher: a substitute teacher, an ineffective substitute teacher, unable to keep the children from challenging my authority or ridiculing poor C.J.
"You stink," Lacey said one morning. She scraped her chair as she moved away from him. "Like a rotten banana."
"Gross," Albert said. "Mr. Cupp? Can you ask Banana Boy to sit in the corner? We're suffocating here."
They disparaged C.J. because he was a grade behind them, and two years younger. They disparaged him for his parents, twice-a-year churchgoers who harbored just enough guilt to load him onto COGS' evangelism bus, which swung through Chesterton every Sunday to rescue kids from their heathen households. Are you even baptized? they asked him.
They disparaged him because he excelled, and they—who habitually forgot their Bibles, who balked at reading aloud, who never completed my take-home practice quizzes—did not.
"It's so easy for him," Dorothea complained. "He's too smart."
Lacey sneered. "Too smart for his own good."
"He's book smart," Albert said. "That's why he wears those glasses. He reads so much he needs four eyes instead of two."
Not that C.J. called attention to his book smarts. He never answered out of turn, never corrected the girls when they misquoted a passage, never boasted about what he knew. Albert, on the other hand, after nailing his first memory verse (Genesis 1:1), spiked his Bible, pumped his fist at C.J., and shouted, "I'm the king around here, Banana Boy!"
C.J.'s other cheek remained turned, although perhaps it was neither humility nor selflessness nor any other virtue on his part so much as a defense strategy: ruffle no feathers, and you'll receive no peck. But the kids continued to tail him like a brood of territorial chickens.
"Brown-noser," Lizzie said one Sunday, after he recited Chapter 18, Verse 23 at my request.
Lacey scowled at him. "What? Have you memorized the whole Bible? Get a life."
I put up my hand. It was November, and we had just one week before our competition at Lebanon Valley, the first of two invitational meets before the official quiz season started.
"Who cares?" Lizzie said. "We're just going to come in last, anyway."
"That's because C.J.'s the only one who's made an effort."
Lizzie flushed. "Why do you like C.J. so much?"
"He works hard and pays attention," I said.
"He's just showing off."
"Pride," Lacey said. "It's the original of the seven deadly sins."
Albert's hand flew up. "I know. Pride goeth before a fall."
Lizzie pointed at C.J. "He thinks he's better than the rest of us."
I looked at the boy. He was just so good. I wished that I could bottle it, inoculate the others with it, and though I didn't intend anything hurtful (even then I understood the truth is sometimes better left unsaid), my next words were sly and quick, and they slipped free of my better judgment.
"C.J. is better than the rest of you."
Lizzie stared at me. The others stared, too, but it was Lizzie's gaze that held me. Her face, usually so smooth and white and perfect, looked cracked, like a broken egg. The thought returned me to my eighth-grade health class and the way I'd fumbled the egg-parenting project.
My partner for the project, Sylvia Richman, was a crafty girl. On the first day, she decorated our blown egg with felt-tip markers, giving the egg a grave expression, glued on googly eyes and a helmet of yarn hair, and fashioned a waistcoat from gray felt. We named our egg Benedict and worked out a custody schedule.
We were to care for the egg for an entire week, keeping him safe and attending to him as if he were a human infant. Tentative and grade-conscious, I started the week by keeping Benedict in a shoebox padded with layers of bubble wrap. Sylvia, on the other hand, would nonchalantly scoop him out to show him off, her friends surrounding her and cooing as she cradled him and pretended to play with him. In class, Ms. Lantern held Sylvia up as the model of an involved parent.
By the weekend, I not only had adopted Sylvia's relaxed parenting style, but I'd taken it to a sadistic extreme. I brought Benedict along to Sunday brunch with my parents, propping him up between the salt and pepper. I ordered an omelet and wondered aloud whether the restaurant served eggnog at this time of year. I told jokes in an effort, I said, to crack him up. Given this behavior, I suppose it was only fitting when at the end of the meal, as I stood to follow my parents out, the corner of my jacket swept Benedict from the table, and he tumbled to the floor.
These children were like that, I thought, as I looked at Lizzie and the teardrops rimming her eyes, as regret swelled within me.
"I didn't mean it," I said to her. "Each one of you is unique and special."
"Whatever," Lizzie said, and I didn't know how to respond. In the moment of silence that followed, however, I understood that I did value each of the children, and I didn't wish for any of them to fall, for while they might seem solid and cold, they hadn't yet hardened to the blows the world would deal them—one mistake, one jab, one swipe, and how easily they shattered.
In Bible Quiz, quizzers work alone. They earn points for every question they answer correctly, and the team's score is the simple sum of the individual scores. A Quizmaster reads each question and the four possible answers, and the children respond by holding up large numbered placards: there's no hiding one's ignorance in Bible Quiz.
At the Lebanon Valley invitational, as my quizzers flashed one incorrect answer after another, I squirmed as if I were putting my own glaring inadequacies on display. Dorothea inexplicably avoided every answer that included the words flesh, naked, lay, or pregnant. And she was doing well in comparison to Lizzie, who missed nearly every other question, and to Lacey and Albert, who were correct less than a quarter of the time, who missed even the question covering Genesis 1:1.
Thank goodness for C.J. He knew that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and what God had done on each subsequent day. He knew the four rivers that flowed from Eden. He knew the meaning of Eve. He knew that Adam's third son was Seth, and that Seth was the father of Enosh, and that Enosh was the father of Kenan, and so on down the line to Methusaleh who was the father of Lamech who was the father of Noah. He knew the length of Noah's ark in cubits. He knew about Cain and Abel, and Abraham and Sarah, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and the other seven kings who fought in the Valley of Siddim. He knew more about the first twenty chapters of Genesis than I did.
I wanted to cheer. What I felt was the pride—and yes, the affection—that brims inside a teacher when his favorite students make their mark. As C.J. finished the quiz with an incredible run, it occurred to me that for a young child to come to know the Word on such intimate terms was in itself testimony to a supernatural power. In the end, C.J. had scored as many points as Lizzie, Lacey, and Albert combined and finished as the invitational's top quizzer.
And then the Quizmaster announced the team rankings.
"Sixth place?" Lizzie said. "We came in sixth out of fifteen?"
Albert whooped, and Lacey's sneer vanished. Even Dorothea was smiling. I didn't point out that C.J. had made the difference—they could add it up for themselves. What mattered was that we'd placed among the upper half, a more than respectable outcome for COGS. Reveling in our shared success, we gathered in close, grinning at one another as if we'd just sneaked our first taste of champagne.
The following Sunday, Pastor Griebel stopped by with a pie left over from a church bake sale. "I think you all deserve a little reward," he said.
Lacey shook her head. "Thanks, Pastor Griebel. But my reward will be in Heaven."
When Albert reached for her slice, she slapped his hand away. "I was kidding, you dope."
Pastor Griebel beamed. "Keep at it, everyone. You're sowing the seeds of faith in here."
Certainly something had taken root inside me—not faith exactly, but perhaps a related species, and in an attempt to nurture those hopeful shoots, I'd devised a new strategy for our team. For the next eight weeks, as we covered the remainder of the material, I would focus my attention on Dorothea and the sisters—C.J. evidently needed no assistance, and I viewed Albert as a lost cause. If the girls set forth an honest effort, we could make an even better showing at the winter invitational, engendering confidence and enthusiasm as we moved into the review phase of the curriculum and the opening of the official quiz season. The team could, conceivably, prove contenders at the March zone-wide meet.
"Let's split up," I said, as the kids finished their snack. I handed C.J. a study guide and asked him to go through Chapters 21 and 22 with Albert.
"Why are they getting free time?" Lacey wanted to know.
Ignoring her, I asked Lizzie to read the first seven verses of Chapter 21 out loud.
It wasn't fair, Lacey protested. She didn't need extra help if Albert didn't. It was an insult. It was sexist. When I told her to cut it out, she reverted to mocking me.
"What are we, six years old again?" I asked.
She snickered. "What are we, six years old again?"
In the end, I told Lacey to join C.J. and Albert in their corner.
I consented to the arrangement again the following Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and soon we'd established two separate study circles. I recognized the mischief Lacey and Albert were making (once, they convinced C.J. to read the memory verses in Pig Latin: Iyay eardhay ouyay inyay ethay ardengay), but the team was treating C.J. more kindly now, and I didn't want to disturb that.
The children's previous bullying of C.J., I realized, reflected instinct more than intent. There was a world of difference between the quizzers' taunts and, for instance, the transgressions of my adolescent peers outside of the church. At parties, those almost-adults with whom I was associating—or, more accurately, not associating—were getting drunk and getting laid and getting high. My quizzers may have misbehaved, but they were innocent of such wickedness, and their making up with C.J. seemed ample penitence to me.
Absent of Lacey's corrupting influence, Lizzie and Dorothea were progressing well.
"How could he do that?" Lizzie asked during one review session. "How could he sacrifice Isaac just like that?"
When I explained that Abraham hadn't, in fact, sacrificed his son, Lizzie shot me a steady, spare-me-the-fairy-tales look. "He would have. In a heartbeat."
"God told him to," Dorothea said. "He trusted God."
"But it was just a voice in Abraham's head. Nobody else heard it. How did he know he wasn't crazy? We'd lock somebody up if he murdered his kid because of a voice in his head."
Dorothea pointed out that it wasn't just a voice. "He saw an angel, too."
"We're talking about his child. You don't just give up your kid like that."
They turned to me. Perhaps, given enough time, I could have plucked from somewhere deep inside my head or my chest the thought that the divide between good and evil spans, at certain junctures, only the narrowest distance, but this notion was circulating amid a stream of platitudes, rationalizations, and half-formed hypotheses. "It's complicated," was all I could manage, and I smiled at them, purporting a confidence I didn't own in even one-tenth the measure.
In February, at our second scrimmage, Dorothea and Lizzie both received honorable mentions. They pinned their ribbons on each other and squealed. C.J. won a gold medal, and the team placed third in the field of twenty.
After that, Pastor Griebel inserted special blurbs about us in the church bulletin and monthly newsletter. He plugged us in his sermon and paraded us in front of the congregation. Visitors began to stop by—parents hoping their kids could join the team the next year, church council members planning the children's programming budget, elderly congregants delighted to see the Spirit moving among the youth.
The Spirit. Those Sunday school lessons from long ago about the tongues of flame and the great wind, mythic stories both wondrous and implausible, now shimmered with possibility. Christianity offered a tremendous comfort—the idea of "Father," a being who dictated commandments like rules of the house, who justly dispensed punishment and reward, who would care for us without end, who asked only that we believe and trust and love. And now, it seemed, I might have a reason to.
At the March zone-wide meet, the first official level of competition, we took second place, qualifying us for the district meet.
Albert said, "I think we're getting half-decent."
"No, we're getting half-decent," Lizzie said. "You still stink." Even Lacey had outscored Albert that day, even though I'd privately tutored him the previous two Sundays. Apparently, C.J. was not only a better quizzer than I, but also a better teacher.
"I'm trying," Albert said. "I'm just not that smart."
"You're smart," I said, with feigned conviction. "You're just not book smart." Albert grinned, and I added, "We're all doing the best we can."
I switched on the stereo, a new sound system the church had recently purchased for us.
"Attendance and offerings are both up," Pastor Griebel had said when I gave him the announcement about the upcoming district meet. He promised to fly us to Orlando for the national competition if and when it came to that. "I'll make a special appeal this spring. Packed your bathing suit yet?"
I didn't quite share his optimism. I knew that just one team from Districts would advance to Regionals, and just one team from Regionals would be invited to the national competition. We had yet to place first in a meet. I knew that other churches groomed their quizzers from kindergarten age. I knew that in spite of my efforts, Albert was an abysmal student and Lacey mediocre at best, that even C.J. was human.
This would probably end soon, I thought, dialing up the volume on the stereo.
The local pop station, airing an 80's flashback hour, was playing an old Madonna hit. The children danced, their moves uninhibited and surprisingly competent. They all giggled when Dorothea kicked off her shoe, sending it clattering across the room. Albert scampered after it and presented it to Dorothea, kneeling. She pointed her toes and let him slide it into place. As she straightened, she appeared suddenly altered, the withdrawn nub of a girl spread radiantly open to reveal a shapely and self-possessed young woman—but then the song gave way to a techno piece with a rapid, heavy beat, and Dorothea skipped away from Albert, and the girls and the boys moved to opposite sides of the room.
Against my every expectation, we took first place at Districts, handily beating Ephrata, our closest competitor and a church with three times the membership of COGS. It was nothing short of miraculous, I thought, as the children strode to the podium and bowed their heads to receive their medals, as they raised the district trophy in triumph.
Later, I struggled to explain our improbable finish. What set our team apart? Diligence and motivation? The excellent coaching? Good old-fashioned guesswork? Did our win merely represent a statistical aberration?
A countervailing part of me scoffed. This was the voice that spoke for faith and the belief in the omnipotence and beneficence of a higher being, the understanding that some experiences are beyond understanding. Educated guessing, celestial alignment, dumb luck—no matter what you labeled it, our success was divinely ordained, plotted out by the pen of our Creator.
Nonsense, Logic argued. Our Creator, if there were indeed such a being, was not confined to such foolishly human concerns. He/She/It did not orchestrate our lowly lives like pawns on a chess board. But even then my faithful half whispered a prayer, begged forgiveness for my skepticism, and beseeched Him to grant us continued blessings as He saw fit.
Other quiz teams, all wearing coordinated T-shirts and determined expressions, surrounded us as we trooped into the host church for the Regional competition. We registered and then joined the throng in the gathering room. From a snack table, I picked up a bottle of water with a custom label: Green Hills Church: Quenching Your Spiritual Thirst. This church's evangelism program, I thought, put COGS' to shame.
I looked over the other groups. Many huddled together on the floor, praying. Others flipped through Bible flash cards. Nearby, a child sat in a meditative pose, his eyes closed as he chanted lines of Genesis in an unaccented tone, his words as indecipherable as Hebrew or Greek or some other ancient tongue.
My quizzers were more relaxed. Lacey had acquired her own spiritual thirst quencher and was dipping her fingers into the bottle and flicking water at the others. They shrieked, danced away, and scrambled back.
"Not appropriate, Lacey." I rushed over. Their faces were wet, their clothes spattered. C.J.'s hair was soaked through. "What did you do to C.J.?" I asked Lacey.
She was unrepentant. "He wanted me to."
As C.J. shuffled away, sheepish and guilty, I said to Lacey, "Act. Your. Age."
A bell chimed, beckoning us to the Quiz Hall, where the tables and chairs were set in neat rows, a place ready for everybody. The quizzers faced the scorekeeper—Dorothea on the far left, then Albert, Lacey, C.J., and Lizzie. I would sit in front of them on Lizzie's side, well apart from the team, relegated to the role of an observer.
The quiz started with a question concerning the circumstances under which Joseph was sold into slavery. I glanced at the quizzers. C.J. and Lacey sat leaning forward, their hands flat on the table, as if bracing themselves. 20 shekels of silver, I nearly whispered aloud. The Midianites. In our study sessions, I'd belabored Reuben's role, and I hadn't emphasized Judah enough. I'd referred to the merchants as Ishmaelites. If this was the opening question, I thought, the day could prove demoralizing.
The entire team answered correctly.
The second question, a comparatively simple one, revolved around Jacob's deception of Isaac, and the third question asked about Abram fooling the Pharaoh. In choosing his heroes, I'd told the children, God often showed his sense of humor.
The Quizmaster then asked about Laban, and followed that with a question about Reuben. I hid my delight. After five questions, the team had a perfect score.
"Genesis Chapter 3, Verse 22," the Quizmaster said, "begins: And the Lord God said, 'The man has now become like one of us, knowing (blank).' Complete the sentence."
In the pause before the Quizmaster read off the four choices, I caught Lacey's gaze flicker in C.J.'s direction. It was just a swivel of the eyes, but there had been a meeting there, an exchange. I peeked at our scorekeeper, but he gave no indication that anything was amiss. I leaned forward, keeping my eyes on Lacey and C.J. The Quizmaster read the answers.
Utter astonishment befell me, a shock delivered by the horrific obviousness of my revelation, when I then observed the index finger of C.J.'s left hand, the hand only partially hidden between his answer box and Lacey's, lift ever so slightly, and then fall again.
An instant later, Lacey signaled to Albert with her own forefinger.
After brunch on the day that I smashed poor Benedict, I'd gone to Sylvia Richman's house. Abashed and contrite, I showed his remains to Sylvia.
She laughed. "Don't worry about it, Thomas. C'est la vie." She took Benedict from me and bounded up the staircase, calling for me to follow.
Sylvia took me into her bedroom. The walls were postered with head shots of teen idols whom I recognized but couldn't name, a giant plush bear sprawled across her bed, clothes tumbled from the closet. Slithering out from beneath the bed skirt was a slender white strap that I surmised belonged to a brassiere. I realized it was probably Sylvia's. I felt at once too large for the room and too young.
"I've got a surprise for you," Sylvia said. She squatted near her desk and gestured for me.
I knelt beside her. She opened a cabinet in the desk and took out a large wooden keepsake box. She lifted the lid and let me look inside.
In the box sat six eggs. Each egg wore a waistcoat and Benedict's austere countenance. Each brandished that crop of carefully styled hair and stared up at us with the same flat, unblinking eyes.
"I made extras." Sylvia set our egg—the egg I'd taken to brunch that morning and broken—beside the others.
She handed me the egg at the end of the row. I turned him over and around. It was Benedict, fully intact. "Better be careful with this one," Sylvia said. "He's our last."
The remaining eggs, I now noticed, all showed signs of damage—a smashed-up nose, a blow to the temple, severe chin trauma.
"You know, I'm kind of glad you fucked up, too." Sylvia's tone was both menacing and conspiratorial. "We're in this together now."
At that I hesitated, discomfited by her words and by the knowledge that they would discomfit me for a long time afterward. But I nodded and brought the last egg home.
The quizzers pulled out their answer cards in unison, all five of them proudly showing the number one. The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. While the scorekeeper marked their scores, I began to understand what C.J. had already come to terms with. I realized that as we all learned to navigate this world, we were to take into account not only our own imperfections but those of everyone else as well; that God might provide a compass, but he wouldn't take the helm; that our forward progress was inexorable. Whether we cheated or tattled, whether we prayed for forgiveness or worried our sins alone or blithely forgot them, we would move on. I would move on.
Through the rest of the quiz, I watched C.J. signal answers to Lacey, and Lacey relay them to Albert. I considered Dorothea, noting that her dress was really rather becoming, and then shifted my gaze to Lizzie, wondering when and how she would fall. And even though I might have mourned for those who'd been broken, for those who were breaking, for those who would break, although I might have tried to repair them, catch them, protect them—I didn't.
Title graphic: "What You Don't Know" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.