I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian bubble. My Cole Valley story.
13 years at a school that systematically worked to close my mind
When I left Cole Valley Christian School, I loved it.
In fact, I was something like a poster boy there. I was popular, a team captain, salutatorian, and totally bought into the religious teachings and lifestyle. I was all the way.
But, as time passed, I became more and more concerned about my experience with Cole Valley. And now, 10 years later, I am utterly appalled by many of my memories.
I now feel opposed to virtually everything my Cole Valley experience was about.
I value being open, not closed. Exploring, not isolating. Considering, not debating. Being inclusive, not exclusive. Being empathetic, not judgmental.
I know that my experience is just my experience. And honestly, it’s possible that a lot about Cole Valley has changed. Someone else could interpret things totally different than I do, and I know they do. I can only speak for myself.
For other perspectives, check out these survey results.
I know not everyone sees things the way I do. I may be near one end of the spectrum, and it’s worth hearing from people on the other end and in the middle. For that reason, I asked other past Cole Valley folks to fill out a survey about their experiences, and the anonymous results are available below.
Your Cole Valley Experience
These anonymous survey results reflect experiences and perceptions of Cole Valley, provided by past students, parents…
I believe Cole Valley did real damage to my mental, interpersonal, and intellectual development.
And I know peers that feel similarly. In fact, many have much worse stories than I do. They describe real trauma, bullying, and bigotry. Several continue to deal with it, years later, through therapy.
In the past, if I heard these criticisms from others, I might have shrugged them off and closed my ears, but now I’ve been more places, met more people, and considered more ideas. Using a new lens, I’m horrified by the way I was educated, and I think people should hear this perspective.
My purpose isn’t to blame.
Instead, it’s to get this point of view out there transparently and honestly. I truly think the Cole Valley experience damaged me and is dangerous for children. Perhaps this can serve as helpful context and perspective to others and prevent or lessen a bad experience for someone else.
Below are some anecdotes I can share that stick out to me as disturbing.
The first time I learned about homosexuality, it was from our extremely biased textbook that had the purpose of countering all the things that good Christian kids shouldn’t think about carefully. It told me that gays are disgusting, they’re tearing families apart, and that they regularly shove things up their asses like lightbulbs and corn cobs. Not joking. The purpose was to intimidate and disgust us. We were supposed to be emotionally scarred from these ideas.
Similarly, our textbook discussed some world-renowned and famous secular scientists and leaders. Darwin and Freud came to mind. They were painted with a broad brush as idiots with crazy ideas, that should be paid no attention to. Their profound contributions to science were absolutely dismissed. My classmates and I sneered at them. (I later had a profoundly inspirational experience reading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents in college.)
The classes I remember were a cult of personality. We spent more time praying, talking about Boise State football, playing games, and making jokes than we did learning about our country’s history. Things like women’s rights, how we brutally stole Native American lands, and the Civil Rights Movement were breezed over. Almost every kid in my class was white, and most of them middle or upper class, and we had little understanding of our privilege.
Also, extreme political positions regularly spouted from the teacher’s mouth. Things that go beyond the public discourse we hear from President Trump. I distinctly remember one class when the teacher said, “I can understand why people want to bomb abortion clinics.” We all nodded in agreement.
One of my high school literature classes felt like it was more about politics and “religious warfare” than anything else. What we were reading, and how it made us question our beliefs, felt like an afterthought. Our teacher would regularly talk about visions, her personal demonic encounters (for real), and spout anti-Islamic rhetoric.
This teacher was considered extreme, even within Cole Valley, but she effectively served as an anchor to shift the spectrum of acceptable dialogue further and further. (I’ve since learned that this concept is called the Overton Window.)
I remember explicitly believing that it wasn’t possible to be both a Christian and a Democrat. I dare say most people thought this, and we discussed it openly, reinforcing ourselves even further.
Once, after the 2004 presidential election, I remember hearing that one of my friends and basketball teammate’s parents voted Democrat, for John Kerry. I was flabbergasted and outraged. His parents’ private choice broke with the ranks, and that reflected poorly upon my friend. We ostracized him. After all, we needed to send the message that some things aren’t acceptable. (It didn’t matter that his dad was an elder at a local church.)
We never learned about birth control or safe sex. Abstinence, all the way. In fact, you shouldn’t even be masturbating — that’s a sin. God hates that.
And don’t even get me started with those poor gay kids who found themselves in Cole Valley. They were discriminated against harshly. “God doesn’t hate the sinner. He hates the sin.” “Pray the gay away” was the preferred treatment to fix this, and in the meantime, we’d all make fun of them and isolate them mercilessly.
Creationism, baby! God made the Earth in 6,000 years. The Bible was our textbook, and we deduced everything based on that story. Evolution was vilified. They taught about it, but they made sure all of us thought it was stupid, and didn’t make sense, and they planted dozens of talking points into our heads so that we could reject it in debate with “unbelievers.” They never, ever, wanted us to think about it carefully.
I’ve said a lot about teachers already. For many, it appeared that their academic credentials were secondary (at best) to their religious fervor and support for this system of education.
I do have to say there was one big exception. The best teacher I’ve ever had in my life was one that I had at Cole Valley. She had a reputation for playing “devil’s advocate” and pushing back on normal opinions. She wasn’t the type to spew rhetoric or bigoted opinions at the front of our classroom (an exception). She regularly tested our assumptions and engaged our critical thinking. She was very brave, defying the system like she was. Eventually, she was criticized for going too far. She had to leave.
We were a very homogeneous lot. We had one “half-black” kid, as we referred to him (he was actually Hawaiian). We would poke fun at his skin color often.
In general, we would use vulgar language, and make jokes about “black dicks” and other things that we thought were harmless at the time. We weren’t offending anyone, right? And, by the way, the Civil Rights Act basically solved racism in the 60s. There aren’t any real issues with this anymore, people just like to bitch and moan.
Dress codes were restrictive for girls, and teachers regularly enforced things like the appropriate number of inches on skirts and shorts. After all, guys can’t really control themselves, and if you dress a certain way, you’re asking for it. I ACTUALLY HEARD PEOPLE SAY THIS. REGULARLY. Slut shaming was real, and just making out with a guy was justification for that label at times.
Sexism was rampant. In fact, feminism was considered one of the worst things imaginable. These were opinions openly espoused by teachers and staff. In fact, when one teacher defended feminism, she was smeared and given a talking to. After all, the Bible taught us that women exist to serve their husbands. They need to accept their place in the world. Embrace it, actually. (Watching the Handmaid’s Tale has felt terrifyingly familiar for me.)
I actually thought one were a bad person if they didn’t read the Bible every day.
“How’s your walk [with God]?” was as common a question in Cole Valley as “What have you been up to?” in the outside world.
Many of us didn’t have non-Christian friends. It wasn’t necessarily discouraged, because how are you supposed to share Jesus with people if you don’t get to know them? But, don’t get too comfortable with them. And definitely don’t become like them.
Every week there was an implicit competition about who could look the most fervent and rapturous in regular chapel worship. If you’re not standing or singing, there was something wrong with you. You’re doing good if you raised a hand in the air. You’re killing it if you’re waving both back and forth to the music and distorting your face in emotion.
Parents paid roughly $5,000 per year, per child. About the same cost as tuition at Boise State University at the time. They thought they were getting a great education for their kids. In reality, it was a huge waste. They were paying for their kids’ minds to be washed and closed off. What else could that money have been used for?
Thank God I went to a secular college.
I’m not sure I would have ever snapped out of it if I didn’t. I had been taught to “be on guard against worldly ways” and to “stay strong” in secular environments. So, when I went to college classes, I was wary. I was watching for the gaps in their arguments, waiting for their flaws to pounce on them.
Over time, my suspicions alleviated a bit. Cracks in my faith and worldview appeared. Over years and years of exposure to different ways of thinking, those cracks widened and eventually exploded. I realized that I didn’t have anything to fear from open, honest, intellectual inquiry. In fact, I only needed to fear the absence of that — the atmosphere of my upbringing.
Now, I’m an atheist.
It was a rocky road, that’s for sure. Going from zealot to questioner, to searcher, to skeptic, to atheist had lots of ups and downs. When I got real with my high school friends about this stuff, I fully expected to be excommunicated. I felt like I was having some sort of “coming out” experience. From poster boy to heathen is quite a departure.
Some disassociated themselves from me, but some were on a similar path, and some are now among my closest friends. They’ve been some of my biggest supporters when I said I was thinking about writing all this down.
I’m not opposed to all religious education.
Some readers might conclude from my story that I dislike it in all forms. Though it’s obviously not my preference now, and I have real bias against it (still working through my resentment, if you couldn’t tell), I think it’s possible to get a good education in a religious setting.
From what I gather, Bishop Kelly is much more open than Cole Valley. And I know Jesuit universities are famous for their intellectual environments. To me, the important thing is that it’s safe to question and explore. There should be no fear of questions, only encouragement.
If you think this story is worth sharing, please do.
If you’re interested in talking about this on the record, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m interested in doing some recorded conversations like these so that other people can benefit from our exchange. If you want to hear more from me, follow me on Medium or Twitter.
Update (Feb 14, 11:07am): Wow! Reactions to this post have been almost immediate. I’m blown away by how many people have come out of the woodwork to thank me for sharing. Lots of these discussions have been private, but there’s also discussion on Facebook (here and here) and Instagram (here and here), if anyone wants to check those out and participate.
Update (Feb 15, 7:35am): I want to make one clarification — there are a lot of good things that happen at Cole Valley. It’s not ALL bad. I tried to focus my post on the lack of freedom of thought and exploration, examples of this, and unintended consequences (most Cole Valley people think they’re doing the right thing!). So, I didn’t focus on my friendships and mentors. Some of them contacted me and asked “Was it all bad? I love you, man.” And my response has been “I LOVE YOU TOO!” I have many, many warm, happy, precious memories of friends and mentors. But, I wish I had those things in an environment that didn’t hold me back and hurt so many people I care about. To me, Cole Valley was totalitarian. But, like in other totalitarian environments, you can still find good people, love, and kindness.
Update (Feb 15, 10:20am): Given how many people have contacted me privately about their personal stories about Cole Valley and the pain it has caused them, I think it’s a good idea to have a closed support group. The goal is to have a place for these people to come together, share, and help each other. There needs to be a safe place for these conversations to continue without the need to debate with or defend yourself from proponents. If you’d like to join, you can request membership here.
Update (Feb 18, 1:17pm): I offered in the post to help people go “on the record” with their Cole Valley stories. The first one just came out, and I have 7 more scheduled, with new requests coming in all the time. You can find all the recorded interviews here.
Update (Feb 21, 9:07am): Things are moving really fast. So much has happened. There are currently 72 people in the support group and dozens have shared their stories. Most of these have been horrific. I thought I was a 9 out of 10 with my anger towards Cole Valley when I wrote my post, but now I know I was only a 5/10. I’m a 10/10 now. Honestly, my opinions of people I thought I knew well are changing dramatically. I’m less confident in my original premise that it’s a bad system full of good people that are propagating bad behaviors. I don’t know how good people could do some of the things I’ve heard about.
Things in the works:
- Mark Doubleday (Class of ’05) and I are going to make a documentary film. We want it to include students, parents, teachers, and administrators. We’ll begin reaching out to folks soon. If you want to be added to the list of potential interviews, please fill out this brief form.
- A group of no less than 20 from the support group are drafting a joint statement to Cole Valley to articulate problems and possible solutions.
Update (Feb 22, 11:41am): This movement is rapidly out-growing my personal blog. We’re launching Cole Valley Speaks as the new home of these discussions.