50 years ago I wrote my first essay, and my first exploration into the nature of religion. I was 13 years old and was in Grade 8 at a school that contained grades 1 through 8. It was a semi-rural school board outside Windsor, Ontario and did not have the money to establish 'middle schools' or 'senior public schools'. I was approaching the end of two years of a hellish experience of being an outsider and bullied by the other denizens of this place. But there were two points of light for me then. One was my confirmation in the Anglican Church of Canada, and the other was a teacher at this school.
This teacher, Norton Mansfield was also the school principal (Head Teacher to Brits). He was a tall, spare Englishman with a loud (when needed) and precise (always) voice and manner of speaking. The year before we all had heard his loud form as that was a year with a coterie of violent and angry young boys in the school. Corporal punishment was normal then, but only in extreme cases and only administered by the Principal, which in this instance he did so and with gusto. Anyway, I was a bit nervous as I entered Grade 8 as my teacher - this school still placed all students into a single room with a single teacher for the academic year by grade - had been the second in command for discipline. The teacher, George Hinch, turned out to be a wonderfully kind and gentle man. Norton Mansfield was the same. But, what mattered here was Mr. Mansfield's love of the English language. He taught us English literature every Tuesday morning from 9 to noon. From him I learned of my own passion for writing. Writing is two things to me: it is thinking in an organized and permanent fashion and it is also and now mostly for me, a feeling/experiencing in a way to communicate either ideas or feelings. We read poetry, a novel, short stories and essays under Mr. Mansfield's tutelage and he made them live and breathe for me. I was a reader already, but he opened new worlds of creativity and profound thought in my heart and in my mind.
Because of him I wrote this first essay. Its genesis was in my local Anglican parish church. After confirmation at age 13 that winter, I began to attend church services rather than Sunday School. This was St. Matthew's Anglican church in South Windsor. As I sat in the pew with my family, I began to argue mentally with the sermon. Many times I wanted to jump up and shout NO, WHAT ABOUT .... X or Y.....
As this was rather frowned upon, I began writing passionately after my family came home from church. I had a desk and I had a pad of yellow, lined paper and a pencil in my bedroom. While my mother made 'our Sunday egg' as she called it (eggs in those days made me mildly nauseous, but I was always a good son, or at least I was rarely caught). I would sit for the half hour or so until called up to eat lunch, furiously writing my essay on the relationship between religion and society, for such it was. I focussed my 13 year old mind on science and religion. I came to the conclusion that as science advanced, religion would decline. I have seen this opinion again many times in student discussions in the university courses I teach in the History of Religions, especially the one that focusses on religion and society. My wiser (I hope) and more mature (less likely) self has mostly rejected this early conclusion as clearly religion is not going anywhere, though its form and practice are altering profoundly.
The next year I entered High School in Grade 9 (for my American friends, we do not use the terms 'freshman, or junior or senior and so on, but the grade you are in - and for my British friends, although we used American 'grade' terminology the Ontario High School system was modelled on the British 'forms' - High School went either to 12 - 5th form for those not going on to university, or Grade 13 - 6th form for those going to university). I polished and worked on my essay, but was in an agony of wanting someone else to read it. I did not want to show it to my parents as they had the habit of finding anything I did worthy of great praise, whether it was worthy or not. That Fall I had made a friendship of sorts with another student, whose elder brother was the school genius and also President of the Student Council. My friend and I used to do homework together in a spare room - much of that time was spent fooling around, but we did some work. I knew also that my friend often had his brother help him with his homework. So I hatched the plan of slipping my pencil written document 'accidentally' into my friend's homework at a time when I knew he was going to get help from his brother.
This happened on a Friday and I waited over the weekend hoping, wondering. On Monday, we met as usual in this room and my friend looked rather oddly at me, as though he had never seen me before. He pulled out my essay and handed it back and said, 'This got mixed up with my homework. 'My brother read it while helping me and said "This would get an A grade in Grade 13". I had my answer. I was a writer and a thinker from that time on in my life. This was the Fall of 1964, 50 years ago.