Or Sorry, I Couldn’t Come Up With a Better Pun
“Oh, I could write a book.” –Anna Stevenson, close friend and fellow PK
Wherever there are men of God, there are traumatized offspring left in their wake. We are expected to be either perfect or pervy. We are either kind, or kind of sickening. We have no room for error, but everyone is nonetheless waiting for us fail.
We are the few, the strong, the proud.
We are Preachers’ Kids.
PKs are not a Southern-only phenomenon. Ministers around the world, I’m sure, have similarly socially-addled children… but in the South, the Preacher’s Kid is something akin to an appointed town position. We function as the spokespeople for the non-juvenile delinquent contingent of the youth population. Like most political figures, we are badmouthed, slandered, and distrusted. Behind our backs, the rumors fly, and the jokes pass like lice among the other children. It’s a burden, but not without its perks.
I do not know whether my self-concept has always revolved around the idea of being nice and following rules, or whether my identity as the son of a Church of Christ of minister drilled that expectation into me before I had a fighting chance to act out my rebellious impulses.
Chicken-and-egg questions aside, the role of PK seemed to come natural to me. I enjoyed doing the correct things, and I enjoyed not being bullied as much as I might have been otherwise. A regular goody-two-shoes kid is clearly trying to ruin the curve and show up everyone else; a PK is just performing duties of state.
In a small town, PK prestige correlated with economic status, as well. The ministers were among the few professionals in town and often received free housing to boot. When I lived in Gamaliel, Kentucky, I was aware of being one of the most well-off kids in town–I was one of the few kids in my class who didn’t qualify for at least reduced-fare lunch. Not all of this was because of my father’s higher calling–the church allowed him to work a full-time job during the week at a local factory. Nonetheless, I was aware that my father held a certain status, and I conflated our relative prosperity with that status. So did most others, from what I could tell.
It sounds like all upside, right? Not so. Even as a young kid who attempted to predispose himself to perfection, I felt the pressure. If I sensed the urge to step out of line in school, the encumbrance from the weight of my PK duty would stop me dead. When it was the turn of my more unscrupulous classmates to take names in the teacher’s absence, they relished writing mine down for the most dubious of indiscretions. So even on my best behavior, the juicy jackpot of catching Micah acting out in class was sufficient to invite an unjust double-standard of behavior.
When my family moved to Nashville, I was able to wriggle free from my PK identity. My classmates there only knew of my honored position if I shared it with them. Life there did not revolve around the small-town church, and I felt fortunate. I feel even more fortunate now, because the lurid part of being a PK tends to unfold in high school, when playground spats become hormone-ridden adolescent conflict.
But the identity didn’t go away altogether. When I did share that my father was a preacher, my Nashville classmates invariably uttered, “Ohhhh!!” indicating that my otherworldly behavior now had a traceable origin. So even though they didn’t know my father or any church we had attended, they had an easy hook on which to hang my demeanor. And our collective self-awareness and self-parody made for a lot of jokes at my expense, mainly regarding what a party animal I was underneath my calm exterior, just like all those other preachers’ kids.
The problem was that I never knew if they were genuinely suspicious of me or if it was the best joke of all to imagine that I could be the untamed creature they described. Which is all just as well, because I could not decide which was more offensive.
Being a PK pales in comparison to problems other kids have, at least in the innocuous form it took in my childhood. But it was the mental equivalent of having someone tie my shoelaces together as a prank. Just when it was important for me to break free of my parents’ and others’ expectations and begin to think and behave for myself, I was confused and constrained by an extra set of expectations and perceptions about who I was allowed to be. Managing those expectations while needing to maintain a carefree childhood and a healthy adolescence was a challenge.
What do I mean by “healthy adolescence”? Well, if you don’t know… I will have to tell you in a subsequent post. It’s too much to get into right now.