In my 11th grade American history class, we studied the Bill of Rights. And it says in the First Amendment, right: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So why did my college—a division of a major public university, of all things—require chapel attendance on a regular basis?
The dean explained it at freshman orientation: “You are required to attend six chapel events each semester and to submit a card indicating which programs you attended. Failure to attend chapel will be noted on your permanent record.” Then she paused and smiled, “Of course, keep in mind that the record of your attendance or lack thereof will appear on the back of your academic record.”
This couldn’t happen today, of course, but I was a freshman in college back in the early sixties, when the winds of change and revolution were only just beginning. I longed to be a rebel, but my idea of rebellion was somewhat confused. I was against anything my parents supported and in favor of the opinions of whichever young man I happened to be dating. I dated a lot of different guys; as a result, my political opinions changed frequently.
But chapel! Chapel! I was enveloped in a froth of self-righteousness. They can’t force me to go to chapel. Then I looked at the list of programs offered at midday each Tuesday and Thursday throughout the semester. They included monologues and one-act plays performed by professional actors, classical, jazz and folk concerts by soloists and small ensembles, and fascinating-sounding lectures on topics ranging from psychology to art to history to social policy and current events. Praying or religious indoctrination wasn’t on the agenda. We were only required to attend six chapel events per semester, and I was interested in all of them.
But now I was in a quandary. I was an independent thinker, a rebel, a young woman of anti-establishment values. At least, I wanted to be. And I also wanted to attend almost all of these chapel presentations. But I’d be darned if I was going to admit it.
So I didn’t. For the four years I was at college, I attended most of the chapel presentations but did not submit a card indicating I’d attended even one of them. And I was thrilled that stamped in bold red ink on the back of my permanent record, destined to follow me throughout my life, would be the fatal words: DID NOT FULFILL CHAPEL REQUIREMENTS.
My college days are far behind me. I suspect that the chapel requirement was abandoned long ago, together with curfews and single-sex dormitories. During the intervening years, I’ve submitted my college transcript in connection with a series of graduate-program and job applications. No one has ever called me out on my first major act of rebellion. If my act of civil disobedience was reported at all, it was probably in tiny type at the bottom of the back page. But I had the satisfaction of knowing that I’d had it both ways. Not only was I a rebel—my mind had been opened to a wide variety of cultural, social, political, and philosophical ideas. I smiled secretly when they called my name at graduation. I’d put one over on them for sure.