You might not guess this if you know me now, but when I was a teenager, I was a BYU Education Week junkie. (If you’re unfamiliar with Ed Week, see here.)
My sister Kiskilili and I weren’t just casual attenders—we were fanatics. When we got the schedule every year, we excitedly opened it and started planning, treating the various options as weighty questions to be pondered. To some extent, every year had the same speakers, even giving the same talks. That did not deter us from attending them yet again, especially if they were speakers that we liked.
When Education Week finally rolled around, some years we got up before dawn to go to campus and stake our place in line. We sat on the concrete outside the Joseph Smith building, and played Pig Mania, a game in which you shake pigs like dice, and get points based on how they land.
Once we’d made it into the building, and if we were really lucky, claimed a coveted seat near the front, we stayed there for hours and hours. We smuggled in food, despite the reminder before every session that this wasn’t allowed. We played games during the breaks. Finally, around 4:00 or 5:00, we would stagger out into in the sunlight. We went to the Twilight Zone (a kind of convenience store attached to the BYU Bookstore, for those of you non-BYU-ites) for snacks, and sat outside the library eating Ding Dongs for dinner. Then we would go to one or two more classes, before heading home to collapse.
By the end of the week we were high on sugar and sleep-deprivation, and laughed hysterically at everything. Amalthea, who came with us for a couple of years, still teases me about a particular instance in which I kept on making decisions about what to eat and where to go, and then changing my mind thirty seconds later. Kiskilili once started a memorable discussion about the possibility of a globe full of French flash cards. I also have a vague memory of a long conversation about gorillas. We were even more nonsensical than usual (and given my family, that’s saying something).
After the week was over, Kiskilili and I spent hours typing up our notes, endlessly formatting them to get them to look just right. (This, by the way, was not something we only did for Education Week). I made charts of all the talks I’d ever attended. We reminisced about the highlights of the week, and looked forward to next year.
Part of the fun, obviously, involved things like Pig Mania and random silliness. But my devotion to Education Week encompassed much more than that. On the one hand, a lot of things were difficult. The female speakers tended to be thin and glamorous. I was neither, and I felt self-conscious and awkward about it. From a feminist angle, there were numerous problems—the fact that the women tended to talk about lighter subjects, such as how to coordinate your wardrobe or raise your self-esteem, while weighty scriptural talks were left to the men. And every year there seemed to be a class about what it meant to be a woman—taught by a man. Sexist jokes were not out of bounds.
I also disliked the extent to which many of the speakers seemed to focus on the popular kids. I heard a lot of stories about how popular kids got excited about learning the gospel, setting an important example for their less popular peers. Teenagers on the other end of the spectrum were mentioned, too, often in the context of how other students had attempted to rehabilitate them. I sometimes felt that unless you fell into one of those categories, you didn’t really matter.
At times I found myself disagreeing with some of the theology. I simply couldn’t swallow it, for example, when one speaker explained the atonement in terms of God punishing Christ. I also disliked the theory I heard that God knows what we’ll do in the future because he knows us so well. (Evidently I was a theological critic at a young age.) But that was okay; in going to classes all day, of course you’re going to encounter ideas with which you disagree. More troubling was that there was enough prophet-worship going on that I think outsiders would have readily seen us as a cult. And I heard enough space doctrine (that is, really strange doctrine with not much basis) to fill a spaceship.
And yet. This is a lot of complaining about something which I made sure never to miss. I loved the charismatic youth speakers, especially the ones who didn’t seem quite as slick. At the time, I wasn’t aware that it’s common for churches to have youth ministries, so I saw their abilities as uniquely Mormon, and a testament to the power of the church. I felt more inspired to read my scriptures, to be a better person. I was a fairly cynical and skeptical teenager, but Education Week always left me wanting to believe, wanting to hope.
Additionally, I was desperate for something. I spent much of my adolescence depressed, and wanting to be, in some sense, rescued. I wanted to be a part of the bright world that so many of the classes portrayed. I so badly wanted religion to be a solution to my problems, and Education Week made me think that was possible. Above all, it connected me with the possibility that God was good, and not scary. And I think that, more than anything, kept me coming back, despite all my objections to various things.
When I look back at my years of Education Week fanaticism, I have a lot of mixed feelings. Over the years, I got more frustrated with the things that bothered me, including things I mentioned above, as well as a strong dose of conservative politics, and a rather black and white view of the church vs. the evil world. One year Kiskilili and I played with the idea of having a “Mad Thursday,” and attending classes with which we knew we would disagree, just to see how bad they were. At some point, I realized that I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.
Taking this back to some of the issues raised in my last post, I notice an impulse to make some definitive sense of how this fits in my life. It would be easy to put it into a narrative of an early and immature faith, a superficial magic with no lasting substance, something that I got over as I got older. Or, on the other hand, to think of my trajectory in terms of a problematic moving away from acceptance of simple truths, and a loss of something important. But I find that don’t want to collapse it into either narrative, because my connection to it was the kind of ambivalent connection I continue to have with the church. I do think my faith has become more complex, in a variety of ways. But I can’t easily sum up my years of Education Week fanaticism. For me, it was an intense combination of belief and doubt, of despair and hope—and above all, a yearning for something I never could quite articulate.