An Awakening

By Sylvia Akin


Memphis, Tennessee

A lot of things happened to me the year I turned 9. I had my appendix out, got bitten by a snake, found out how babies were really made and learned to question religious doctrine.

There were two churches in the heart of town, Methodist and Baptist. On Sunday morning the Baptist church would always be overflowing with people, while only a handful attended the Methodist church on the opposing corner of the street. I was Methodist. All my friends were Baptist. I constantly begged my grandmother to let me attend the Baptist church, where they seemed to have much more fun than us Methodists. No matter how hard I begged, she always refused, saying their beliefs were not the same as ours. One Sunday morning, my pleading was joined by playmates, Billie Sue and Toni. We were carrying on so that my grandmother finally just threw up her hands in defeat and said, “All right! You can go!”

With squeals of delight, we raced down the street to church. When we passed the Methodist church, I didn’t even glance that way.  Arriving just as the church bells rang, Toni, who was younger, ran off to her class while Billie Sue and I joined our friends in hers.

Our teacher was Mrs. Mary Lester Cox. Miss Mary Lester, as she was called, was also the piano teacher and had tried, once a week, for an entire year, to teach me to play the piano. In the summertime I would arrive straight from play, all hot and sweaty, my sticky hand clutching a 50-cent piece – Miss Mary Lester’s reward for the 30-minute ordeal ahead. 

Musically, I was hopeless. I had no ear for it. No sense of timing. No gift of rhythm. When my fingers attacked the keys, discordant sounds shattered the quiet and jolted old Mrs. Brown, Miss Mary Lester’s mother, from her afternoon nap. She would slip silently into the room, a shadow among shadows, in that dark house where the shades were always drawn. I once asked Miss Mary Lester why she never raised her shades. She said it was to keep the house cool. This made no sense to me, but when I asked my grandmother about it she explained that the drawn shades kept the sun out.

I asked her why we didn’t keep our shades down if it made the house cooler. 

“Oh, I love the light,” she said. “I couldn’t stand the gloom.”

From my bench, I could sense Mrs. Brown’s presence. If I turned to stare she would retreat, gliding backward through the door without a whisper of sound. It was creepy, that house with its drawn shades and semi-darkness, and Mrs. Brown’s silent wanderings. Resisting an overwhelming urge to run, I would pound the keys harder. This act brought Miss Mary Lester from the kitchen, holding the glass of iced tea that she always sipped when I was there. She would lift my right hand, grab my pointer finger and guide it, making it tap out a rhythm on one particular key, all the while calling in ever-increasing volume: “C, C, C. The key is C!”

One day Miss Mary Lester made the trip up the hill to our house to suggest to my grandmother that perhaps it would be a good idea if I dropped music lessons. My only disappointment was, I never learned to play “Chopsticks.”

The next weekend, Miss Mary Lester welcomed me into her Baptist Sunday School class and said how glad they were to have me visit — an opinion she would soon change. She started the class by asking those of us who had sinned to raise our hands. Miss Mary Lester’s was the only hand that was raised. She then informed us that by not raising our hands we had lied. Which was a sin. Off to the side, I could see a few hands creep up. She continued, telling us that Jesus was the only person who had never sinned, and Peter had only sinned twice — both times when he had denied knowing Jesus. We were born sinners, she said, and we sinned many times daily.

“Now. I will ask you again. Those of you who have sinned, raise your hands.”

Every hand in the room but mine flew up.

Miss Mary Lester’s body was heavily corseted. She was a solid, compact package when she loomed over me and asked, “Sylvia, have you never sinned?”

“No,” I lied.

Billie Sue nudged me and whispered, “Raise your hand.” My hands remained in my lap.

Miss Mary Lester’s black eyes locked with my blue ones. Remembering piano lessons, I sat on both hands, securing them firmly beneath my bottom.

Miss Mary Lester again asked me, “You’ve never sinned?”

Stubborn, I stared into her hard eyes. Everyone’s attention was focused on us. Defiant, my chin shot out. “No.”

Meeting such resistance, she dropped the matter, ignored me and continued with the lesson.

I tuned her out, my mind struggling to comprehend what had just happened. I had deliberately lied to an adult. I had intentionally been rude and defiant. Yet, I knew, given the same circumstances, I would do it again and again because I knew myself to be right. It was a heady experience, this Awakening.

When the class was finally over, I braced myself for a confrontation with my friends. Astonishingly, they were all smiles, eager for me to join them in church, the incident apparently so unimportant to them that they had already forgotten.

“I’m not staying for church,” I said.

Once home, I ran up the steps and into the house. As the screen door slammed behind me, I told my grandmother, “Well! You were right about those Baptists. I won’t be going back.”