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Rachel Belth writer

A Survival Guide to Christian College

by Rachel Belth

Dear Meredith,

I hear you are thinking about attending my alma mater, a staunchly Baptist university in the plains of central Ohio. There are a few things I didn’t tell you during our conversation yesterday. For example, what you may not realize now is that eventually, you’ll crack, some small or large or medium-sized part of you. The place is a little bubble of Christian perfection. You can only take so much of girls with clear skin and name-brand shoes and perfectly curled hair even coming in out of the wind. You can only take so much of polite boys with trimmed scruff and pomaded haircuts who hold doors open for girls. Sure, for a lot of them it’s a façade, and sure, there are some awkward, frizzy people like me—I’m just talking about how it feels. How it felt to me.

You can only take so much of required Chapel—every student band perfectly mixed without a single missed note, the worship leader reading an applicable Bible passage while a guitar or keyboard plays emotionally in the background. Not to mention university-mandated room checks (when your RA goes through your room once a week while you’re away, to check for illicit substances, which for Baptists includes alcohol). It really does a number on your faith.

Of course, I must remember who I’m talking to. You’re pretty, big eyes and soft hair, always so gracefully dressed from your flats to your loose scarf. You’re generous of spirit to everyone you talk to, and you speak so earnestly of your love for your parents, your sisters, your God. You seem fearlessly innocent, as if anything dirty in the world would bounce off you without leaving a mark. I try to be surprised by nothing, but I sincerely can’t but believe you’ll be fine.

So, let me re-phrase: what I didn’t realize when I was your age was that eventually, I’d crack (in a small-to-medium-sized way). It was a philosophy professor with a beard and a baritone so epic that everything he said carried the finality of absolute truth, and it was J.L. Schellenberg’s argument of divine hiddenness that collapsed my faith finally like the last brick of a Jenga tower.

I’m sure your faith is stronger than mine was. But if you do crack, here’s what you need to know. What you can get away with:

  • You can cut off the middle finger of your winter gloves. Like those fingerless gloves with the pullover mitten tops, but just for the middle finger.
  • Similarly, you can paint your fingernails lime green except for the middle one, painted red. It will totally go over everyone’s heads. People will even compliment you (“I love your nails!”). You can choose to point it out (“You realize which finger is painted red, right?”) or smile smugly and say, “Thanks.”
  • You can brew kvass in an old coffee syrup jar. Nobody will notice even though it smells distinctly yeasty. You can keep vodka in a travel-size Jack Daniels bottle in a box under your bed. You can probably keep a whole liquor cabinet under your bed, but I wasn’t brave enough—you can get expelled for that.
  • You can scrawl Russian swear words on your arm with a Sharpie, a temporary tattoo. Maybe дерьмо (that is, bitch). Not so much because you believe yourself to be one, although you do, but because you can flaunt a word that everyone would be shocked to see in English.
  • You can keep the handful of Band-Aid wrappers in the trash, right on top. You can keep on your dresser—right there sitting on your perfume bottle—the Bic razor you so tenaciously wrested from its plastic casing, wedging it between the laundry room laminate and the heel of your stoutest pair of pumps, between the carpet and the back leg of your desk chair, leaving tufts of blue between the blades. You can slice the skin on your lower left abdomen where no one will see and worry. (You can cut your arm and most people won’t notice, but those who do will get hysterical when you tell them not to worry, it’s not that big of a deal, so it’s best to keep that stuff hidden. Except, of course, for the razor blade, which you can keep in plain sight.)

What you cannot get away with: throwing your converse against the cinderblock wall, again and again until all the frustration is out and all the swear words have been muttered. Your RA, a peppy girl who flatirons her blonde hair and wears a lot of pink, will hear and come to the door concerned, and she will not believe you when you say everything’s fine.

Or maybe it will be your friend across the hall who hears you, who knows pain better than you do, and she’ll sit on your roommate’s chair and wait for you, even though she doesn’t know what’s going on because you can’t find the words yet.

Maybe, in the thick of this, you will try to write a poem, and you will send it to a friend for feedback, but instead of commenting on its cadence, he’ll ask what’s going on because he knows you’re not OK and that’s more important. And you’ll tell him what you can, even though you still haven’t found the words. You’ll wait for them to stack in the air between you and they still won’t come. And he’ll say things to help that won’t. And he’ll hug you as long as you need him to, which will not make everything better but will begin to help and will comfort you even years later, after you have begun to find the words.

Whatever university you choose to go to, may you find friends like that.

It seems horrendously inappropriate to be telling you this, Meredith, so innocent. To think, my story, benign as it is, may be the first block in your Jenga tower. That is not what I want for you, and I don’t want that responsibility—please let this story bounce off you. But if your faith does crack or crash altogether, I hope you’ll find peace in the rubble. I hope you rebuild, if that’s what you want, or burn it, or learn to carry the mess along with you. Any of those can be beautiful options too. And if you find any new ways of flipping people off or cursing them without them knowing, please tell me; I still enjoy doing that.

Stay strong.


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Rachel Belth is an instructional designer, creative nonfiction writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Critical Flame, among other places, and she volunteers as a copyeditor at the literary website Identity Theory. She holds a B.A. in Technical and Professional Communication. She writes from an east-facing window in Columbus, Ohio.