Slouching Toward Bedlam

Of Chapel Committees and Kings; Or, Cal and the Art of Automotive Maintenance

Industrial arts teacher Gord Winkle gathered up his notebook, pen, and folder; stuck an emergency Snickers bar in his front pocket; and locked the door to the shop. It was third hour. Still two periods to go until lunch time, and now he had to walk to the other end of the building and climb two flights of stairs to get to Cal Vandermeer’s room for chapel planning period. It was a long way to go, and there was no legitimate way to detour past the counselor’s office to see if they had any leftover doughnuts. Ever since Bedlam had started experiencing declining enrollment and the school board decided that students could waive industrial arts in order to take three AP classes in a single semester, he had fewer and fewer students. This was the first year, though, that enrollment dipped so low that Principal VanderHaar had been forced to find something to fill Gord’s schedule. Hence, by scheduling necessity, Gord had become a chapel sponsor.

As he waded through the students who were moving to their next classes, Gord fumed that this was really not his thing. Cal was the Bible teacher. He had the connections and the themes and the Bible verses. Sure, Gord went to church and talked in his classes about how Jesus was a carpenter and God was a creator, and he had even done that chapel about the craftsmanship displayed in the ark of the covenant once—but he felt incompetent about this assignment.

He was out of breath and a couple of minutes late when he arrived. Cal had the student chapel committee arranged in a semicircle as usual. There were twelve of them. Mostly honors students and artsy-fartsy kids, not the sort he typically taught in shop. But when he and Cal had picked the team, Gord had insisted that they include King Kendall and Nikki Yang. Both were shop kids. King was the son of a remarkably unsuccessful farmer. Nikki was right at home with the guys and had aced her carburetor project the week before. But she didn’t fit in with the rest of the school. And now Gord was thinking that maybe his insistence on having them on the team was a mistake.

Because he was late, he had missed Cal’s “Prayer of Abiding,” which Cal referred to as an “important formational spiritual practice,” but Gord thought it was really a whole lot of uncomfortable silence punctuated with awkward moments when two people would start praying at the same time. Anyway, they were on to the planning part. Gord grabbed the desk chair and wheeled it to the circle, since, unlike Cal, he would never fit into a student desk.

“Welcome, brother!” Cal boomed. “You are just in time to help us work something out. We are talking about who could speak on the topic of thanksgiving within authentic community, and your disciple Nikki just suggested we have Mrs. Lisa Lambert speak.”

It sounded like a great idea to Gord. Mrs. Lambert had sent three of her children to Bedlam and had created lots of authentic community by bringing her fabulous cowboy cookies to every meet, match, game, concert, play, and gathering Bedlam had. “Great idea!” Gord said. Then, as Cal frowned, Gord wondered what he had done wrong. Both Nikki and King shot him a sympathetic look.

Cal cleared his throat. “I was just explaining to Nikki that even though Mrs. Lambert goes to Nikki’s church and has been part of our Bedlam community, having her speak in chapel right now might not be a great idea.”

“Why?” Gord asked, confused by the ensuing silence and building tension that he could sense but whose source he could not comprehend. “Has she got other commitments that would get in the way?”

“That would be one way to put it,” Cal said.

Cal looked at Gord, but every student in the room kept their eyes on their laps until finally Nikki looked up. Her face was twisted with anger and hurt as she blurted, “Mr. VanderMeer doesn’t think she’s a real Christian because she ran for mayor as a Democrat last year.”

“That is most certainly not what I said,” Cal protested. Gord, meanwhile, kept moving his gaze from Nikki to Cal to Nikki to Cal, waiting for things to make sense to him. His jaw moved subtly up and down, like a goldfish underwater.

“But . . . but that doesn’t even make sense,” Gord protested. “Cal, you usually vote Democratic from what I can tell.”

Cal shot him a look and muttered beneath his breath about the lost secrecy of the ballot box. Then he said aloud, “Gord, as I was explaining to everyone before you came in, we are living in times of the most polarized politics I have ever seen. I don’t think we want to invite in a speaker, even ‘one of our own,’ who’s just going to get everyone stirred up.”

Gord scratched his head and asked, “What topic were we going to ask her to address?”

“Gratitude,” said Cal.

Gord turned uncomfortably in his seat and began looking for a hidden camera filming him. Surely this was a joke, except no one was laughing. And, in fact, Nikki looked like she was ready to kill someone. Gord pulled out his Snickers bar, opened the wrapper, and took a bite. This was too strange a situation to attack without a few extra calories to help the old noggin operate.

“So,” he said as his jaw worked the caramel, “you think the subject of gratitude is likely to lead to a political speech?”

“That’s exactly what he thinks!” shouted Nikki as she pushed forward in her seat. “And so he refuses to let us ask Mrs. Lambert, even though she’s a great speaker and even though I heard her give a great presentation on thankfulness and even though she sent all of her kids here!”

King laid a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t say anything, just laid his hand on her shoulder, and after a moment some of the tension that was in Nikki’s body seemed to dissipate, and she slumped back in her seat. Then King looked at Gord and Cal and cleared his throat.

“You know something,” King said. “When Mr. Winkle first asked if I would consider serving on chapel committee, I thought he was crazy. I’m a solid C student, I hate public speaking, and I’m not that involved in my church. I thought, ‘Why would anyone care what I say or think?’ I’m just a dumb kid who likes to get his hands greasy working on car engines. Then Mr. W says to me, he says, ‘King, God’s kingdom is made up of all kinds of people. Doctors, yeah, but bus drivers too. Teachers, but mechanics, too. And you know what, King? If we don’t hear from all those people, if we don’t learn how to all work together like one engine, then we ain’t going nowhere.’”

King stopped and looked around the room. He was nervous. He really did hate public speaking, and even a small group like this gave him fits. Gord himself, who had taught King all four years of high school had never heard him string together this many words in a row. He continued haltingly, “So I say we let Mrs. Lambert speak. And if she says something stupid or political or whatever, then we deal with it afterward. Because she’s one of us—you know, like a believer or whatever. And if she is one of us, then it is kind of like an engine. A car engine won’t run right if you rip parts off. That’s all I got to say.”

Gord felt a swelling of pride for King. It was true, King wasn’t going to be picked for valedictorian, but Gord knew King’s heart was in the right place. And what he said was the truth. Gord took another bite of his Snickers bar for courage. He turned to the other students. “What do you guys think? You are the chapel committee. Should we invite Mrs. Lambert?” Gord knew there would be an uncomfortable discussion with Cal later about how we shouldn’t just let the kids run chapel committee and how there was a place for wise adult counsel. Gord also knew there might be an even more uncomfortable conversation with Principal VanderHaar later if this led to angry letters from people in the community who fell on the other side of the political spectrum. But as every student on the chapel committee put up their hand in solidarity with King and Nikki, Gord imagined what he would say to Cal when the kids left the room:

“You know, Cal,” he would say, “sometimes our students can have wisdom too.”


Jan Karsvlaam is currently, as he puts it, “between jobs” following a misunderstanding with the school board of the most recent Christian school where he was employed. What Mr. Karsvlaam refers to as a “highly effective object lesson,” the school board calls “a legal nightmare in the wake of an ill-advised pyrotechnic projectile event of questionable educational value.” While Mr. Karsvlaam was unable to share the exact nature of the activity due to the judge’s gag order, he did say that it involved three live hamsters, a bucket of banana slugs, and a misfiring potato gun.