Shawn was only five years old when he accepted Christ as his personal savior. It was at the First Baptist Church during vacation Bible school. Of course there were many other children present, all of whom had raised their hands when asked if they wanted to be “saved.” Although Shawn didn’t fully understand what he needed to be saved from, he obediently followed Mrs. Stewart into the kitchen area of the church where she then had him kneel reverently in front of an aluminum folding chair. He clasped his hands together as she indicated to him and rested his elbows against the seat of the chair. He had to stretch just a bit to reach it because he was such a little guy. Then he repeated the words of the prayer she said to him with his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
Now he was born again. Jesus had entered his heart. It was funny, because he didn’t really feel it. He didn’t feel all that differently than he had before Jesus was inside of him. It surely did make Mrs. Stewart happy, though, as well as many of the other adults who were at that summer Bible school. After all, this was the ultimate purpose of VBS, to lead children to the Lord.
Shawn wasn’t really sure why it was that he needed to be saved. He honestly had no concept at such a young age what original sin was. He didn’t even actually know about death yet. He’d not yet known anyone or anything that had died, except for the goldfish that his mom had flushed down the toilet once. His bratty cousin Louis had been over to the house and had dumped an entire bottle of fish food into the bowl when no one was looking. By the time his mom noticed, all the fish were floating upside down at the top of the bowl. She was upset, and explained to Shawn that the fish had died. Then she flushed them.
He knew that Jesus had died too. He’d died for our sins, but Shawn didn’t know whether or not he’d had any of those. Mrs. Stewart asked him if he ever was a bad boy. Was he ever naughty? Shawn was a little bit afraid to answer the question because he knew what the consequences could be. He had already been informed by his mom that naughty children only got coal in their Christmas stockings from Santa Claus. If he lied and said he was never naughty, then that itself would be naughty, wouldn’t it?
Shawn remembered how sometimes he fed his vegetables to Betsy, the family’s pet beagle. He had to do it secretly when he sat at the dinner table, sneaking the food under the hem of the table cloth. But was that really completely naughty? After all, he was sharing. Probably Betsy didn’t think it was a sin.
In general, Shawn was not all that naughty of a child. He was a good boy. He knew how important it was to behave when he went out to eat with his family. He knew that little kids had to always be polite to grownups, never interrupt them when they were talking. He knew that he had to brush his teeth every night before he went to bed, and he had to try real hard to go right to sleep when his mom tucked him in. He’d learned all about being good in preschool. His teacher’s name was Miss Rice, and she had taught the kids how to stand patiently in “single file” when they were waiting for the bus. She’d taught them how to cooperate, and how to follow instructions. Shawn was quite good at all of these things, and he didn’t actually know what it even meant to be really naughty.
But he did know that if he did not admit that he was bad sometimes, then he wouldn’t be able to have Jesus come into his heart and be saved. So he told Mrs. Stewart what she wanted to hear. He told her that he was bad sometimes, that he was naughty. He prayed the prayer just like she said: “Dear God, I know that I am a bad boy sometimes. I know I’m a sinner. I know that I can’t save myself, but Your son Jesus Christ died for my sins. I ask him to come into my heart and to be my savior.” And it seemed that was all there was to it. Now he was saved. He was “born again.” He was a Christian now.
There were many children at that vacation Bible school who prayed this same prayer. In fact, almost all of the kids there did so on one occasion or another. Shawn didn’t know most of the kids, but the few he did know had not seemed any different to him after their salvation than they were before. Becoming Christians didn’t seem to make them any better or worse. It was just something that they did because they knew they were supposed to.
For Shawn it was a little different. His premature conversion experience seemed to stick with him far more significantly than with most of his peers. After vacation Bible school, Shawn continued attending the First Baptist Church. He went every Sunday morning to Sunday school and morning worship. As he got older, he began attending Sunday evening services as well, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. Well into his teens, he continued. He joined the youth group which met on Thursdays, and he even volunteered to mow the church lawn. Eventually he became a Sunday school teacher himself. This was when he was still a teenager, and he taught the first and second grade boys’ class. Shawn’s relationship with his savior and with his church became the focal point of his life.
It was when he was still in grade school that it began to become apparent to everyone that he was different from most other boys his age. His second-grade teacher, Mrs. Korthase, had assigned a project to the class, instructing them to draw a picture depicting what they wanted to be when they grew up. Shawn drew a pulpit, and standing behind it was a little stick figure of a preacher man holding up a Bible. He knew then that this was his calling. He was confident that one day he would lead a ministry and be the pastor of a church.
It was no surprise to Shawn that most people regarded him as being different. He felt quite different himself. In fact, he felt at times as if he were the only person on earth to have feelings such as he did. He knew that his mom considered him to be special, and he tried very hard to live up to her expectations. His dedication to his religion and to his church was very real to him, but this religiosity was not the only thing about him that set him apart. He was very different in another way as well.
By the time Shawn was in the second or third grade, he realized on his own that it was not normal for him to like Barbies and Easy-Bake Ovens. He came to the conclusion that it was not acceptable and thus unwise for him to continue choosing typically girl toys over the Tonka trucks and water pistols that boys generally preferred. Although he never got to the point that he could actually relate to the rough-and-tumble boys his own age, he eventually found ways to participate in gender-neutral activities. No one suspected he was different when he elected to play with LEGOs or even a game of Battleship.
In spite of his efforts to conform, Shawn found himself developing friendships primarily with the little girls in his class instead of the boys. While the boys were off playing dodge ball at recess, he was learning hopscotch and jump rope with the girls. He was playing House, and this seemed to be acceptable because every game of House needed a male participant to be the Dad. He was always the Dad in House, simply because he was always the only boy playing.
Shawn’s mom had a job where she worked every weekend. When he was in grade school, this meant that he needed to spend Friday nights and Saturdays at his grandma’s house. She was his babysitter. His Gram was a very affectionate and loving person, and she connected with him in a manner that was far deeper than was the case in most familial relationships. As he grew up, Shawn became so close to his Gram that he at times felt that she was more of a mom to him than his own mother. She always accepted him for who he was. She never tired of his company, and she treated him almost as if he were her own son rather than her grandkid.
One of the things that Gram loved the most was old movies. She watched Tarzan movies every Saturday morning, the real old ones which starred Johnny Weissmuller. Shawn actually liked the movies, too, and he’d lie on his stomach on the floor in front of the TV, watching them with Gram. The stories themselves were not really all that great, though. In fact, they were kind of cheesy, and they all ended the same way. But there was a secret reason why Shawn was captivated by these movies. They featured a muscular, athletic star who ran around the jungle wearing practically nothing. He was always shirtless and always wore little more than a pair of underwear.
But Shawn wasn’t really sure why it was he liked this. He was thankful that he was always lying flat on his stomach on the floor, because he would have been embarrassed had his Gram noticed that he was at times a little bit aroused during the movies. This arousal didn’t make much sense to him either, in truth. It was kind of like when he woke up in the morning when he had to go to the bathroom really bad. His privates were very hard—so hard that it was almost impossible for him to pee even though he had to really badly. He’d have to wait in front of the commode for his stiffness to subside a bit before starting to relieve himself. Well, it was this same stiffness he felt when he was watching Tarzan.
Tarzan wasn’t the only shirtless man who was appealing to Shawn. He also really liked the Irish Spring TV commercials. There was always a really attractive naked man standing in a shower lathering up. It didn’t reveal his whole body of course, but it showed him with his eyes closed and his head tilted back as he soaped up his hard, chiseled chest. You could see the foam run down his body as he breathed in the perfumed scent of the deodorant bar. Shawn always asked his Gram to buy Irish Spring. She had no idea why he preferred that soap, but she got it for him nonetheless.
When Shawn was in the fourth grade he had a male schoolteacher for the first time. His name was Mr. Howard, and he was a Mormon. Mr. Howard was very strict, and he had certain rules that he imposed in his classroom. If you broke the rules you got a demerit. When you got ten demerits, you got a spanking. All of the fourth-grade students feared these spanking sessions, and they were constantly reminded of the ever-present threat they imposed because Mr. Howard hung the large fraternity-like paddle on the wall behind his desk.
Shawn would remember for his whole life the very first time he witnessed this paddle being used. The recipient was the boy who sat directly in front of him. His name was Scott. Scott was a rambunctious kid who seemed to have difficulty focusing. He was very prone to collecting demerits simply because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut when he was supposed to. Scott’s mom always dressed him in plain cotton-polyester blended dress pants. They were kind of like khakis, and a lot of the kids wore them back then. They generally fit snugly and had a crisp, conservative look to them. They were what are now known as wash-and-wear, no ironing required.
Shawn remembered how Mr. Howard had pulled a chair out into the middle of the floor, right there in front of the chalkboard. He made little Scottie come up and bend over, placing his hands flat on the seat of the hardwood chair. When he did so, the fabric of the dress slacks he was wearing pulled tightly across his buttocks. This made a rather enticing target for the paddle. When Mr. Howard wound up and methodically delivered the ten swats (one for each demerit) to Scottie’s behind, Shawn sort of felt that Tarzan-induced stiffness again in his own pants. He wasn’t really sure why, but it was kind of exciting to him to see this classmate of his getting his butt whacked. He knew it wasn’t very Christian of him to feel this way. He should feel sorry for Scott rather than enjoying his public humiliation, and why was it that the smooth, tight appearance of Scottie’s backside ever appealed to him in the first place?
It was in the sixth grade that Shawn first realized that there might be a serious problem with his uniqueness. This was the first year that he attended the Christian academy. While Shawn was in the public school, everybody who knew him did seem to notice and accept the fact that he was different. Most people also knew that he was rather religious. They suspected that Shawn’s uniqueness was due to his religious commitment, ascribing his soft-spoken and gentle mannerisms to the fact that he was special. They figured he was very sensitive, probably because of his religion.
Well, all of that had suddenly changed. Shawn was now in an environment where everyone supposedly had this same religious commitment. All of the boys his age had been saved. All of them were born-again Christians, and yet none of them were like him. He no longer could fall back on the excuse that he was different because of his spiritual calling when all of his peers had a similar calling of their own.
His teacher, Mr. Matheson, noticed this difference in Shawn right away. Three times a week the class had an outdoor activity in lieu of an actual phys ed class in a gymnasium. The school was small, and they didn’t even have a gym, so they conducted gym class outside. Usually they played an organized sporting activity such as volleyball, soccer, or baseball. These events were torture for Shawn, because he had no aptitude for sports whatsoever. He was one of the kids who threw like a girl, or so he’d been told. He felt very self-conscious and embarrassed when it was his turn at bat or when the soccer ball got passed to him. He also was pretty much the last person ever to be picked for a team when they were choosing sides.
It was during the first week of the sixth grade that Mr. Matheson realized he needed to have a private conversation with young Shawn. After gym class that day, he pulled the boy aside and led him alone into the classroom. The other students were still outside enjoying a free period as Mr. Matteson sat Shawn down and pulled out his Bible. Shawn’s heart was racing as the teacher began to talk to him. Had he done something wrong? Was he in trouble already?
“Shawn,” the teacher said, “I want to talk to you about something that is very important, but I want you to realize that you’re in no way in trouble. The reason I’m talking to you is because I want to help you. Do you understand?”
Of course Shawn did not yet know his teacher, being that it was the first week of school, but he believed the man to be sincere. It was actually quite natural for Shawn to trust authority figures. He nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” Mr. Matheson said, as his smile started to fade and his expression became serious. “I want you to read this passage of scripture aloud for me.” He handed Shawn his Bible, pointing to the chapter and verse.
Shawn read the Bible verse, which said something about masculinity and how God had made this person a man. He didn’t fully understand it, and he was quite confused about why the teacher would want him to read this Old Testament scripture from the book of Samuel.
“Shawn, do you see what God is saying here?”
Shawn nodded slowly, although he really didn’t see at all. “I think so,” he said.
“What is it? You tell me what this verse means to you.”
Shawn felt his face start to redden. He was on the spot and he didn’t know what to say. “Um, well… I think it means that God wants men to be masculine?”
Mr. Matheson smiled and nodded. “Yes, that’s right! God made men and women very different. You know the story of Adam and Eve, don’t you?”
“Oh yes, sir,” Shawn acknowledged.
“God created Adam first. He is the male, and he then took one of Adam’s ribs to create his helpmate Eve.” He was telling the story to Shawn as if he’d never heard it before, as if he were teaching a first-grade Sunday school class. “He made them to be very different from one another, and he did this for a reason. Do you know what that reason was?”
Shawn slowly shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, sir.”
“He did so because it was God’s intention to give Man dominion over all creation. This is why he made men physically stronger than women. Women were created to be helpmates for men, just as Eve was to Adam. They are weaker physically and need the protection of men. They are softer and more sensitive. None of these are bad things. They are simply the way God designed them. Women are in actuality a gift from God. He created them for us.”
“God created women to be a gift for men?” Shawn asked, somewhat confused.
Mr. Matheson leaned forward and smiled broadly. “Yes. Yes He did! And because of this, it is very clear to us what God’s intention is for both men and women. Men are leaders. Men are protectors and warriors and soldiers. Men were designed to be strong and brave and competitive. Do you understand?”
Shawn scowled but nodded. “Yes, sir.” He looked down at his lap, feeling his face grow even redder with embarrassment.
“I want you to work on this for me, okay? I want you to understand that you’re not in trouble, but this truly is very important. If you don’t try now to begin changing some of your mannerisms and behaviors, you may end up growing up to act more like a woman than a man. We don’t want that, do we? We know what the Bible says about men and women, and we don’t want to in any way go against scripture. Does this make sense to you?”
Shawn was mortified and devastated as he sat there shamefully. He knew that if he tried to speak his voice would crack and he’d begin to cry. That was the last thing he wanted because it would be the opposite of what Mr. Matheson expected of him. He just nodded and continued to look down at the floor.
“I want you to try a little harder in gym. Pay close attention to how the other boys are behaving. Try to mimic their actions. Try to make friends with some of them and get them to help you. I’ll help you too. This is a great opportunity for you, Shawn. This will help you so much, and I promise you that if you work on this now, you will be so thankful when you get older. Okay?”
Shawn nodded again. “Yes,” he said softly.
“Okay, you’re dismissed.”
This was the first and only time in all the years of Shawn’s primary education that he was ever called in front of an authority figure for any kind of counsel. He felt as if he’d been taken to the principal’s office. Of course he would never tell another living soul about his conversation with his teacher that day, but he would always remember it. He would mostly remember the shame. He would remember how inferior he felt, and he would remember how he realized for the first time that he was less of a person because of who he was.