Fiction and Poetry »

View All Fiction and Poetry »

Comments Comments Print Print

Text Size A A

Ivory Tower

by Karon Luddy

January 11, 2013

“Dr. Bannister, I appreciate everything you’ve said today about the excellent programs here at Furman University,” I motion out the window behind his desk. “And that new bell tower is as Ivy League as anything I’ve ever seen in South Carolina.”

He swirls in his black leather chair and looks at the gargantuan white tower perched on the grassy peninsula that juts halfway into Swan Lake. He turns back toward me. “Indeed, it is magnificent. When our president discovered the Citadel had sixty-nine bells in their bell-tower, he raised enough money to hang seventy bells in ours. We are proud of our carillon, Karlene, and we are proud of Furman.”

“As you should be—but to be honest sir, the idea of attending a college associated with the Southern Baptist Convention makes me queasy.”

“Queasy? How so?” A bemused smile spreads across his lightly freckled face.

“You see, sir—for the past seventeen years, I have been associated with Southern Baptists, and I can assure you my candor has not been appreciated. Baptists believe in obedience and doing things the way they’ve always been done, but I think we are supposed to develop our individual personalities to the highest degree.”

“Preacher Smoot didn’t mention obedience in his recommendation letter. He pointed out your persistence, wit and intelligence,” he says with a hearty smile.

“Preacher Smoot is highly tolerant for a minister. He and I have been discussing this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit business for years, much to my mother’s chagrin. Mama is profoundly Baptist—and believes in playing by the rules. But I have to give Preacher Smoot credit—he always listens to my point of view, even though he rarely agrees with it. And he’s rabid about me getting a scholarship here at Furman.”

“Rabid describes him well. Herbert was my roommate in college—a real live wire,” he says, tweaking his red bowtie. “Now tell me, Karlene, who is your all-time favorite hero?”

“Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. When I read his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, I felt like a red tailed hawk soaring above all the world’s problems. The way he chastised those phony-baloney clergymen, who blamed him for stirring up white folks, is a perfect example of how to approach ignorant individuals— with aplomb and grace. Education is a slow process, sir. Slow as molasses. South Carolina has a couple of centuries of work left to do in the civil rights department. It was our secession that started the Civil War. We owe it to ourselves to acknowledge our part in the tragic war—and to finish the work Dr. King started. There are lots of troubled hearts in South Carolina. We need to alleviate as many of them as we can.”

“Ah yes, troubled hearts—that goes right along with Furman University’s motto: Christo et Doctrinae. You know what that means?”

“For Christ and Learning,” I say in a robotic voice.

His eyebrows form little tepees. “You have a problem with that motto?”

“No sir, I have enormous respect for Jesus. The story of his life is the most enigmatic and transcendental I’ve ever read. It breaks my heart the way his life built to that one penultimate moment on the cross at Calvary—when he told God to forgive the people who were crucifying him. Jesus did not ask God. He told God to forgive them. That’s what I call courage. Just like when Jesus was twelve-years old and his parents scolded him about being at the temple without permission. Jesus told them they didn’t have any say-so in the matter. Years later though—when his mama told Jesus they needed wine for the wedding at Cana—he listened to her. Jesus could have turned that water into buttermilk if he’d wanted to, but his mama asked for wine, so that’s what he gave her. It also turned out to be his first miracle. There wasn’t one cowardly cell in his body—that’s how I want to be—courageous as Jesus.”

“Don’t we all?” Dr. Bannister smiles like a doting disciple.

“To tell you the truth Dr. Bannister, I have a major conflict roiling inside of me.”

“What kind of conflict?”

“There’s one Bible verse that plagues me: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God's. Having been raised in a Christian home, the rendering unto God part I understand very well. But ever since I went to Washington, DC for the national spelling bee in 1969 and saw the grandeur of all those museums and monuments, I’ve been trying to figure out what my obligation is to my country.

“I’m glad you brought up Washington, DC experience. That must have been a life-changing event—becoming the National Spelling Champion.”

“Yes, sir, it was life-changing. I had to study my dictionary every day for years to make it to the national spelling bee. And I was lucky that Mrs. Harrison, my Latin teacher agreed to be my spelling coach. Being in Washington, DC was the first time I saw History with a capital H—all those statues of presidents and tombs of soldiers—and the U. S. Constitution and the tattered old flags displayed in glass cases. Being there also made me realize how important my own life is—and my own accomplishments.”

“What impressed you the most on your trip to Washington?”

“The portrait of George Washington that hung above the fireplace in the Oval Office. The reverence in his eyes and the way his hand was tucked inside his jacket close to his heart surprised me. When I returned to Red Clover, I got myself a copy of President Washington’s first inaugural speech and studied it. He wrote about God in an intimate way, without once using the word God. He used figures of speech such as ‘Almighty Being who rules over the universe,’ ‘Great Author of every public and private good,’ ‘Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of all life,’ and my personal favorite ‘Benign Parent of the Human Race.’”

“I love that metaphor—Great Author of every public and private good—it’s absolutely grand.”

“I like it too. Dr. Bannister, but what really caught my attention was President Washington’s candor. He tells the American people they have caused him enormous anxiety by electing him as their president, and their confidence in him had forced him to take a good hard look at himself, which made him aware of his own deficiencies. Admitting his shortcomings lets you know he was humble to the bone. His humility made me curious to make a modern day comparison, so I studied Mr. Nixon’s inaugural speech. He mentioned the word God six times—but not in a particularly loving way. He used no figures of speech. He didn’t use any presidential sounding words either like Mr. Washington, such as vicissitudes, predilection, immutable, providential, auspiciously, magnanimous, felicity, reverence, discernment, or tranquility.” I stop right there before I pontificate myself into a stupor.

Dr. Bannister’s pen races across the page. No telling what he’s writing about me. Nobody wants to hear that gobbledygook. It’s time to lighten up. Finally, he stops writing and looks at me. “Sounds like Washington, DC lit a fire under you.”

“Yes, sir, but I had fun, too, hanging out with my friends, Tommy Ludinksy from New Jersey and Janine Whitehead from Kansas City, eating croissants for the first time, and seeing the Lincoln Memorial. But the grooviest thing was swirling around in President Nixon’s chair in the Oval Office, and Ollie, the White House photographer taking a photo.”

“Groovy, indeed. Now tell me, Karlene, what other colleges interest you?”

“Well the Harrison’s are kind of like my second family, and Mr. Harrison wants me to go to his alma mater, Duke, but Mrs. Harrison is set on me going to her alma mater, Smith College, which is an all girl’s school up north. Last year, my girlfriend Lucinda won a baton-twirling scholarship to Clemson College, so I might look into what they have to offer.”

“A baton-twirling scholarship?” he says, all twinkly-eyed, as if it’s a big joke.

“A lot of people think majorettes are dimwitted, Dr. Bannister, but they aren’t. As head majorette, Lucinda led the entire Red Clover Marching band for three years. She also has a photographic memory and plans to become a pharmacist one day. Clemson lucky to have Lucinda Randall as a student.”

“Clemson is an excellent school and I’m sure your friend is a fine student.” He stands and offers his hand. “And any university that can entice you as a student will be lucky to have you.”

I shake his hand firmly. “Thank you, sir. If Furman University offers me a scholarship, I promise to give it every consideration.”

“If you decide to come here, I hope you will stop by for a frank discussion now and then.”

“Indeed, I will,” I say, curtsying like an imbecile.

Dr. Bannister escorts me to the lobby. Mrs. Harrison stands up, beaming like the Flying Nun. They start chitchatting, so I excuse myself and walk outside feeling content as a just-burped baby. I walk along the sidewalk, avoiding the cracks, thinking that the Christian atmosphere at Furman might help soothe soul, but the bells start clanging in the tower—sounds like a victory march and funeral dirge melted together. Makes me think about how the Southern Baptist Conference refuses to ordain women, saying a pastor has to be the husband of one wife. Why can’t they ordain the wife of one husband?

As the bells continue to clang, I think about how the President of Furman went haywire when he discovered the Citadel had sixty-nine bells in their tower and set about raising enough money to hang seventy bells in Furman’s. To think the President of this fine university took on such a petty project is ridiculous—but when it comes to football rivalries, even highly educated Baptists act like nincompoops.

Comments Comments Print Print

Tags: Karon Luddy, fiction, Ivory Tower

blog comments powered by Disqus

View Our Brand New Artist Gallery

Click Here

About Town About Town »


Magazine ArchiveslEventslResources / LinkslSubmit

Back to Top Back to Top