Category Archives: Pensacola Christian College

Intermission: People

From the stories so far one might come away with the impression that every waking moment at PCC is filled with some fresh new horror being foisted upon the students. That isn’t exactly true. Horror is scheduled from 3:30-4:00 on alternating Thursdays. Please wear afternoon class dress for this event.

I do have some good memories from PCC — most of which involve one of two things: friends and music…

I would be remiss if on this 10th anniversary of graduation I didn’t take some time to remember the people at college who made life bearable. Of course there was my wife who for the brief time she was there saw my air general gloom as the perfect challenge for her perpetual cheer. But there were also summer work friends. Computer Science classmates. Roommates who introduced me to the wonders of tie checks, dumpster diving, comic books, Ramen noodles, gummy bear dioramas and Sunday afternoon drives to Alabama “just because.”

One roommate in particular deserves special recognition. Dave Tesone bounded into my life my freshman year of college, a big burly Italian from California who just couldn’t ever seem to take PCC (or anything else) very seriously. His good cheer and general amusement at the uptight machinations of the college helped teach me some very valuable survival skills for the rest of my time there. Sadly, Dave died in a tragic car accident only a few short years after transferring away from PCC. He is missed. May he rest in peace until we meet again in a far better place where there is never a light’s out.

There is another person who helped keep my sanity during my tenure and deserves a mention. Miss Bradford (now Mrs. Cole) graciously allowed a skinny not-quite-tenor who barely read music to join her Symphonic choir and then later (even after a disastrous audition with laryngitis) the Chamber choir. I don’t know how one person managed to have a will and graciousness strong enough to make a classroom a haven from the outside pressures that surrounded us but somehow she managed it. Week after week we would stand in that practice room and sing Ave Verum Corpus and for a few brief moments the stress and cares would simply slip away, dissolved in ancient beauty. It was not church or chapel but a choir director that saved my soul in those dark years.

So many friends. So many laughing faces both of those still loved and those only dimly remembered. I was blessed to meet some of humanity at their very best in that unlikely place. These were never the people in power nor were they good because PCC had mandated that they must be. They were often kind in spite of rules that would have constrained them to be otherwise. Often in such places acts of kindness must necessarily be acts of loving rebellion.

Of course, near the end I also experienced some of the worst of what people have to offer. But that’s a story for tomorrow…

Soliloquy: Another Alumni Recollects

I asked my friend John to share a memory for this week. What he sent me follows…

It was the pinnacle of a preacher boy’s training. No, not New Testament Greek, or even the bizarrely garish spectacle of the yearly “preaching contest.” It was Marriage and Family class – where we finally got to learn how to hold a family together amidst the constant drain of The Ministry. And also, we all secretly hoped, talk a little about sex. So far we had learned that “Men are like microwaves and women are like conventional ovens.” I finished the last scratches of my doodle. It was a three dimensional picture of a slightly rumpled box, its flaps open, with the word “Think” sitting outside of it, also rendered in three dimensions. A few minutes earlier a female student had asked a question that the teacher had apparently considered very stupid. He must have, because his response was, “No, you bimbo…” before launching off into an Approved Narrative regarding the topic. And in that moment, I caught a glimpse of a spirit that infected the entire campus like a spiritual canker, a spirit so contradictory to Galatians five that it shook me to the core. I had seen a ghost – an evil spirit that wore khakis and a blazer and a saccharine smile and called
women created in the image of God bimbos.

My mind drifted back to all the pain and suffering I had seen women go through. There were little things – like dates tearing up after being told to return to their room and change. Not because changing was so difficult, but because of the shame associated and the opportunity for gossip and to be labeled a slut. Or a bimbo. There were the separate elevators, as if two young adults couldn’t possibly ride together in an elevator in the library without spontaneously copulating. I thought about the girls who were forced to surrender their friendship because they were caught sleeping in the same bed – surely a sign of being lesbian, because even two women can’t sleep in the same bed without being filled with irrepressible sexual urge.

But there were bigger things that belied a seriously sick approach to gender and sexuality. I remembered the girl who gave birth in a stairwell at school. I hadn’t known her very well, but my heart ached for a young woman who was so afraid of admitting that she had pre-marital sex that she would risk the health of herself and her baby. I wondered how many times she had been called a bimbo. I wondered how this same fundamentalist culture could scream so loudly about the evils of abortion and then put a girl in a position where the precious gift in her womb would be better off hidden, better off delivered in a dusty, hot stairwell. Maybe better off aborted. I wondered where the love was in a system that called itself Christian and called its women bimbos. And I thought about the double standard.

When I first arrived on campus, I had a secret fear. I feared going to a “Christian” college. I feared that I would be around people who were good. I was afraid that such people would reveal the lie of my superficial morality and polished dress- code. When I met my roommates, I was filled with almost instant relief. They were upper classmen, and while they suffered from the same superiority complex as I did, they were unabashedly pagan. They joked about going out of state to purchase pornography. They joked about clogging the shower drain through frequent masturbation, and argued over whether it was polite to masturbate in the shower or not. We had a newer dorm and didn’t have to share a bathroom with anyone, so it brought a new dynamic to the conversation.

As the teacher droned on about how women were the downfall of many a minister, I thought about how so many of the men I knew in school were just as psychologically screwed up as the women – just as hurt, just as confused, just as sexually stunted and repressed. But, they weren’t called names. I thought about the serial daters on campus being humorously – and a bit adoringly – referred to as “man whores”, usually with a wistful sigh and hint of jealousy. I thought about a double standard that allowed men to think of women as sexual objects and sources of damnation and ruin. I thought about a culture that thought it was ok to call a female student bimbo, or a classmate a slut because she wore a fitted top, but would never use such shaming on men.

I sighed a little too loudly, drawing an irritated glance from the teacher and causing the dozing fellow in front of me to stir and wipe the spittle from his mouth. Then I hastily scratched four words beneath my drawing that would because the mantra for my short time left. “Not in this place.”

Act III: Keeping Up Appearances (No Matter The Cost)

Pensacola Christian College loves to talk about its high standards and the way it strives for excellence. What they don’t highlight so much is that excellence is a blood sport that often puts students at risk. It seems that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some legs.

It was early in my Junior year when the girl who I would later marry collapsed in her dorm room in terrible pain, unable to even stand. Her roommates carried to bed, hopeful that she’d feel better in the morning. The next day they contacted the on-campus clinic and were informed that their only option was  painful trek across campus to be seen by the nurse in order to get permission to stay in her room instead of attending classes. (It only takes missing six unauthorized classes to get expelled at that bastion of education so just staying in her room and hoping for the best wasn’t an option.)

Even though her roommates asked for help, explaining that Cassie was unable to sit up in the wheelchair the clinic told them to use all they were told is “That’s all we have. You’ll just have to manage.”  A slow trip down to the lobby with her propped in the wheelchair revealed even more bad news: there was no wheelchair access to the dorm. The only option was a small wooden ramp still propped up for students who were moving in heavy luggage at the start of the semester that hadn’t yet been removed. As carefully as they could, they attempted to navigate down to the sidewalk but the chair slipped, dumping Cassie onto the ground. Students, these rules are here for your protection.

After several hours of waiting in the clinic under the ever-suspicious eyes of the staff who’s main job is apparently to discourage people from skipping class, an ambulance showed up to take her to the nearby hospital where she was misdiagnosed with a pinched nerve. A representative from the dean’s office went with her and talked to the doctors on her behalf without any kind of written HIPAA authorization. She was then summarily given pain killers and whisked back to campus to her fifth floor room in Dixon tower to recuperate.

The horror didn’t end there. One night during her convalescence there was a fire drill.  Cassie was still on the 5th floor of the dorm, even though the Residence Manager and the Dean’s office knew that she could barely walk let alone descend and re-climb stairs. Her roommates were literally forced to carry her. Of course PCC isn’t known for really caring much about fire safety anyway. For years the rule has remained on the books that all female students must be in “proper” attire before they leave their rooms for a fire drill. If you happen to be sleeping in pajama pants, you must take the time to put on a skirt before you try to escape the flames. If you should perish then at least you’ll know you died for the cause of not tempting the fire fighters to lust after you.

Finally, after trying to tough it out and even trying to go back to class, my future wife had taken all she could bear. She told the dean’s office that she was leaving and they cut up her ID card, the final act of withdrawing from the college. However, since Pensacola airport is far from a major hub, her flight home was to leave at 7:00 a.m., meaning she would need to leave the college by 6:00, well before the gates opened. A good friend of ours petitioned the dean’s office to let him drive Cassie to the airport and help her with her bags. He was twenty-three years old and therefore was allowed to go off-campus with non-student girls — of which my wife was now one.  The dean’s office refused his request to help.

Rather than risk the college’s precious testimony by having a Christian guy help his injured friend to the airport, Cassie was instead forced to take a cab driven by a total stranger who left her on the airport curb without a way to carry her luggage. The college must keep up its appearances no matter what the risk to you. You don’t matter. They do.

After a few weeks of being home my wife received a letter from the college. It should have been a note of apology or a letter expressing regret at how badly they had managed her entire situation. Instead it was a bill for the remaining weeks of the semester since she had crossed the six-week threshold by a few days.  Apparently the only thing even more important than appearances at PCC is getting paid.

Keep the rules. Raise the standard. Strive for excellence. If you’re too broken in body or spirit to manage that then we simply don’t want your kind around here. How can a place that both holds and demonstrates such beliefs be Christian?

Act II: Smile and Smile

Contrary to what some may think, it wasn’t the rules at PCC that started my path away from fundamentalism. Required chapel attendance, lights-out at 11:00, and even white glove may have been cause for some grumbling but in reality they caused no great disquiet in my soul. My whole life I had lived with rules and standards that were often stricter than the ones the college required. I was such a rule follower in those early years my roommates were often amused and annoyed by turns with how conscientious I was. Regarding the righteousness that was in the law I was blameless.

In the end it wasn’t the student handbook that got me, it was the hypocrisy.

Within a few weeks of being a student at PCC there’s a look you learn to spot, a smile of the kind that doesn’t come with teeth. The person in authority with their eyebrows raised painfully high and jaw set in a ferocious caricature of a smile will say the words “Excuse me. Can I get your name and ID number?” This is the PCC equivalent of the Soviet “papers please!?” It’s not a request you can deny.

That smile shows up everywhere. It’s on the faces of most ensemble members who go into the high schools and hedges and invite children as young as six to “come to the school with the water park!.” It’s on display at the front desk of each building where the attendant may just come reprimand you for talking to a girl due to the vagaries of the “chaperoned and unchaperoned” regulations. You’ll also see it on the face of your floor leader as he explains the Tolkien books on your bookshelf (although they’re found in the campus library) don’t “pass check” and will have to be confiscated until the semester ends. I suspect that those who wear that smile too long eventually forget how to really be happy.

The place where the absurdity of this fake cheeriness finally became obvious for me was during the three years that I sang in the Rejoice Choir, the only choir on campus that combined both staff and students to perform on Sunday mornings during the televised service of the Campus Church. It wasn’t the choir itself that was the issue. I actually rather enjoyed Gettys Allen, the choir director and practicing music for two hours on Sunday morning was far preferable to sitting through sophomore Sunday School with some senior preacher boy giving an alliterated lesson on fleeing youthful lusts. That choir would have been a great memory if not for one thing: the ironically named “Rejoice In the Lord” broadcast production team who seemed to think that screaming people into a joyful terror is the best way to make a choir look its best.

The embodiment of this need for manic levels of happiness was an elderly spinster who I’ll refer to only as “Miss W.” would stalk up and down glaring at the choir members as if they personally had stolen away the best years of her life.

“YOU’RE NOT SMILING!!!” she would bellow, completely ignoring that the current verse we were singing was about the crucifixion and probably not an appropriate time to look as if we were having a fit of the giggles.

“YOU’RE ALL TOO PALE!” she would scream (almost always directed at some much younger and prettier female). It wasn’t uncommon to see girls painfully pinching their own cheeks to color them when they spotted her approaching with a rouge brush in hand to “fix” the faces of those deemed unfit for public viewing.

Then, after having been harassed, harangued, and generally howled at, we would tromp out under the bright lights of the Dale Horton Auditorium and sing about how joyful we were to have a God so gracious and loving — although by that point almost none of us were sure that this could be true. If God were anything like Miss W. it was a pretty sure bet that He didn’t even like us unless we smiled and raised our eyebrows until facial cramps set in.

Can you serve a Christ who says “I am the Truth” by perpetuating a fiction of happiness in a place where so many have to fake a joy they cannot honestly claim? I could not seem to find an answer for this or for other even more disturbing questions would soon find me…

Act I: The Prayer Group Proclamation

Let’s start at the very beginning because, to invoke the shade of Oscar Hammerstein, it’s “a very good place to start.”

I arrived on the campus of Pensacola Christian College in the summer of 1999 to begin the work-assistance program that ultimately paid for my college tuition. Due to the fact that my missionary parents were alumni supported by the Campus Church it wasn’t my first time on campus. I had been there in 1991 and 1996, participated in a missions conference and visited classes. However, as any Fundy U student can tell you, take off the guest button (known affectionately as a “sin pin” by students) the campus turns into a very different place.

It was during this summer that I was first introduced to the concept of “prayer group,” the nightly mandatory sit-talk-and-pray sessions that the administration believed were essential to our spiritual health. We’d sing a song or two, rattle off the usually litany of prayer requests about needing 1) more money 2) better grades, 3) a date, or 4) fewer demerits and then somebody would pray. This particular evening the guy leading the group decided to switch things up and asked for praises instead of prayer requests. I wasn’t even officially a freshman yet but I was primed and ready to go.

“I’m thankful for this college,” I said proudly, “and how easy it is to be godly here.”

Blank faced stares answered from the upperclassmen around me but I soldiered on.

“Out in the world we have…uh…a lot of tough choices.” (Note: I was a missionary’s kid and generally a pretty straight arrow. My idea of being “out in the world” mostly consisted of sneaking over to the neighbor’s house to watch Xena, Warrior Princess.) “But here they’ve given us rules to help us. In order to know we’re right with God all we need to do is keep the rules. That makes it simple.”

There was a general shifting and muttering which I would remember later with no small sense of chagrin. I knew exactly nothing of what I was talking about — and yet it my guileless freshman way I had just summed up the general philosophy of sanctification at PCC.

“Personal holiness is determined by how closely you follow the rules that are written, those that are unwritten, and those that we just made up on the spot because we don’t like you.”

I tell this story because I want to make it clear at the outset that I arrived at PCC as a true believer. I was there to be the perfect student both in academics and institutional policy and for a while I actually made it work. My first semester I had a 4.0 GPA and so few demerits that my parents got a letter praising my performance.

It took a few years for things to go awry…