The community would black out the books that we used in school with markers. Sometimes, if it was a number of pages, the section would simply be removed. We made a game out of comparing books while walking home to see if anyone’s books hadn’t been marked out all the way. The most we ever found was one full chapter of a Roman history book that wasn’t ripped out of one of our books — I still remember the few weeks of summer that we spent reading to one-another in secret, each of us having a few pages from the chapter. I’m still not sure why that particular chapter was marked; it was about pottery.
There was an certain uneasiness when it came to education in the community — something that felt almost shameful. On one hand, it was necessary for us, the children, to be educated. It was a constant topic of conversation between the community leaders: How can we expect our children to replace us if they’re not educated enough to do so? How can we expect to have our own doctors, our own lawyers, our own scientists, writers, recorders, politicians, and so forth, to make good decisions and help the community, if they do not learn as others learn?
On the other hand, learning was dangerous. It was, at all costs, necessary to insulate us from those who were outside the community and to mention them only if it was to insult, degrade, or criticize them. Our view of the outside world was warped: each time we saw a stranger in the community, which was not often, we would instinctively call one of our parents who would, more often than not, call other parents, and there would be nine or ten leaders who would come and try to hassle the stranger out. One notable incident happened at a diner that was square in the middle of the community. This wasn’t even a community-owned diner yet; it was a Greek woman who unknowingly set up in a small lot here and was eventually driven out when the community decided it was not in the best interest of the community to have a diner which was not community-run. Once while we were eating there after school we noticed a man who couldn’t have been older than his late twenties sitting alone at a table reading a book. We knew he wasn’t part of the community but no one said anything until a few minutes had passed. Someone — I’m not even sure I remember who it was — excused themselves from the table and not fifteen minutes later there were around ten community leaders who came in and got tables on all sides of the man, despite there being virtually no one else in the diner. After a few minutes, the man asked for the check and left — and so did the community leaders. We knew there would be a confrontation outside but we knew better than to try to watch through the window.
Most of our education was adapted from the private school system that was in place before we came to the area and created our own school system which better suited the community’s needs. As far as I could tell, there was no censorship in mathematics — in fact, comparing it to others that I’ve talked to now, I’d say that there was significantly more mathematics than was usual for a school. The religion class had no reason for censorship, since it was taught by community leaders who brought their own material. History, English, and Science were heavily censored. It was not uncommon to see only one or two chapters from a particular book with summary notes written by community leaders summarizing what events had taken place before and after those chapters. Often, these had nothing to do with what actually took place. This became troubling later when I could not communicate with anyone about any books I had read — I had thought that To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, was about a group of kids who were targeted by a Catholic group but saved by a community member. It’s ridiculous to say this now but at the time we had no idea how novels were actually written. To us, they read almost like parables.
I don’t remember much of the science classes. There was biology, which was deemed extremely important, and chemistry, which was also deemed important, but no physics course and no items that would contradict the teaching of the community. The closest we got was the atomic theory which, at that point, was considered acceptable to teach as long as it was taught in a way that emphasized how it could be thought of in terms of the teachings of the community. Even so, we did not tell our parents when atomic theory was taught; it seemed to be a sore spot among many and none of us wanted to test our parents to see if they felt particularly strong about it.
When I was fifteen, I was getting ready to become a community leader. Usually they would wait until sixteen to start preparations but I had shown aptitude and maturity which propelled me forward and Dr. N— requested that I study under him. After school, I would dutifully go over the house of Dr. and Mrs. N — and he would instruct me and, often, allow me to stay for dinner. Dr. N — was a mathematician by trade and so was given the task of leading the accounting for the community. He had a number of good men working under him. He said that it was time that I started to work under him, and that it would be necessary to not only learn the mathematics necessary, which I had already done, but to learn the methods of accounting that were employed by him and those under him. I learned this relatively quickly and was put to work in a small office, the existence of which was to help the community members with anything from taxes to personal finance to actual community accounting. I was set up as an assistant to a Mr. D — who, despite being a community leader, was, in secret, interested in the outside world as well. He later left the community — not on great terms, I’ve heard — which speaks to this.
A few days after my sixteenth birthday, I learned that my friend Maurice had acquired a treasure. His father had passed away the month before and his mother was being pressured to marry again; a family should have a strong mother and father, they note. She was a quiet woman by nature and this pressure caused her to spend significant amounts of time alone in her bedroom, which, in turn, allowed the children to have a bit more freedom than they were used to. Maurice made one, and only one, excursion to the outside world on his bike and picked up a book titled On The Road by Jack Kerouac. He picked me and two other boys (he never told me who they were) who he knew he could trust and cut the book in four. We each were given a piece of it. He told me never to tell anyone else: if I did, he would tell the community leaders that I had bought the book and he would tell the other two boys to tell them the same. It would be three against one.
It was hard to find time to read. We had the cover ripped off, but the fact that the book had no marks on it would arouse suspicion. I thought to mark it myself but I wouldn’t want to ruin Maurice’s book, especially if we were ever to trade our parts. I never noticed how little privacy there was in the community until I needed it.
After a month, I’d only read part of one page of the approximately 50 pages in total. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’d never encountered writing like that before and I didn’t have time to process it. It was always quick glances. I was always second-guessing: did he say this or that? Either way, not much of it made sense to me. But the fact that the words were on the page, unmarked, spoke more to me than the actual text did.
While I was in the work bathroom one day, Mr. D — rummaged through my bag to, as he claims, look for a pencil. He pulled me into the back room and told me what he’d saw. I don’t think I’d ever been as scared as I was at that moment: What would he do? Where would I go? What would happen to me? There were tales about boys — boys no longer in the community — that made mistakes like this; many were barred from the community for offenses much more minor than this one. But he was quick to tell me that he wouldn’t be telling anyone else. I asked him why not. He wasn’t able to answer but he told me that he was also interested in reading it. He told me that he also had one book, whose title he never revealed, hidden behind the cover of another book to hide from his wife, children, and community members who went into his home. He said he understood the curiosity but I had to be careful. He said that we could read the part of the book together so long as we burned it after. I was so frightened that I agreed immediately. Poor Maurice.
A few days later, Mr. D — told the other workers that we’d be working late to look over some documents that we’d fallen behind on. He called my parents and told them the same, and that he would give me dinner. That was usually enough for my parents to allow me to stay out later with another family or friend. We set up in the back of the office and Mr. D — began to read out loud. He said that we could alternate reading pages if I wanted but I told him that it was fine for him to read the whole thing.
Even Mr. D — was not able to say every word, and would censor himself instinctively at times. Every so often, I’d ask him what a certain word meant, and he would tell me to think about the context the word was in and to just guess. Many times, he didn’t know the word himself. After a few pages he would stop and ask: What happened so far? What’s happening now? He was playing the part of a teacher, asking questions as they would in school, and I was happy to oblige.
At the end, which stopped the story abruptly, he asked if I had the other parts of the book. I told him I didn’t. He asked me if I knew anyone who did. I told him I didn’t. He told me he would try to find the other parts of the book and that we could do this again. We never did, but that was nobody’s fault.
Instead of burning the book, we used one of the shredders and took the trash out right away. We even made sure to hide that bag under a number of other bags. It didn’t occur to me until the next day that Mr. D — had chosen the day before trash pickup to read the story with me. We never spoke about it again, even when we were alone at work, and, by the time I turned seventeen, Mr. D — had relocated to another office to help the community in a different way.
A few months after Mr. D — relocated, I picked up what few possessions I had, took money from my father’s wallet, and left the community; first on my bike, then on a bus, then on a train. This was spurred on, perhaps, by some events in my family life that left me unable to trust the community any longer. Perhaps it was the passages in On the Road that echoed in my head, growing louder and louder, until I couldn’t think of anything but getting out and going anywhere-but-here. Perhaps not. I stayed at a cheap motel for a few weeks until I was able to secure a low-paying office job and could afford a small room in a cooperative living space. Eventually, I was able to get to where I am now. The culture shock took me years to get used to. Even now I’m learning new things, or finding myself doing something that no longer makes sense now that I’m out.
My family, my friends, the community made no attempt to contact me. It hurt at first — they spent so much time and effort keeping me in that I had figured that they’d pull me back with all their might when I got out — but as time passed I was able to forgive and forget everyone I had known there. I often think about going back but I know that I never will. I often wonder if my mother and father are still alive — I suspect my father is not, as he was not entirely well when I left — but it would be impossible for me to contact anyone and ask. It would probably not be in any obituary either.
I’d like to say that I’m happy now that I’m living outside the community but I’m still not sure if that’s true. Maybe I’ll never figure that out.