The Test

The bell toned and the students scrambled to their desks, not really quite ready to dive into their morning history lesson. “Everybody take out a sheet of paper and a pencil. It’s time to see how many of you did last night’s reading on the Bill of Rights,” Ms. Alexander said. The kids let out a collective groan and began rustling in their notebooks. Suddenly, the intercom crackled and Principal Hoggard announced that in accordance with a new statewide policy, the school would this very day begin taking the first five minutes of first period for a moment of prayer. “It is the hope of our wise leaders that by uniting our students spiritually, we might uplift your souls as well as your minds. Let us all thank God for our wise governors. All students are welcome to continue praying at their accustomed times and venues, of course.” The principal’s voice seemed still to be ringing in the speaker as the students began their unified prayers.

Windstar the pagan produced a small brass altar and placed it on her desk, facing north. She lit the Goddess candle mounted on the left side of the altar and poured a little pile of sand on the northern side, lit some incense on the eastern side, tumbled a fragment of lava from a straw bag into place on the southern side, and arranged a shell on the western side. Then she put her wand on the eastern side, a small Celtic blade to the south, an encrusted chalice to the west, and her boline to the north. “Oh wise Hera,” she began chanting, picking up the wand and the boline and waving them in opposing circular motions above the altar, “grant me the memory of Calliope and the luck of Felicitas in my quest to conquer the dread pop quiz…”

David patted his yarmulke gingerly and pulled out of his backpack a little Mezuzah fashioned of balsa wood and containing a rolled copy of the Shema that he had printed out on his computer. He took the thin box to the door and used masking tape to fix it to the frame, brushing it reverently with his fingertips. In the most uvular Hebrew he could manage, he began singing the prayer: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One. Blessed is His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever. Love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might…”

Ralph, whose parents had reared him in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition, left the room in a hurry without asking for permission.

Shilpa always carried in her pack a small statue of Shiva. Using the desktop as a makeshift altar, she bowed to the statue, annointing it from her water bottle and spilling water into her chair. She carefully unpacked her lunch from its brown paper bag and, spreading it about on the altar, began uttering a mantra unintelligible to anyone else.

Damien dug down the front of his shirt to grab a black and red medallion adorned with a bat-winged demon. This hung on a chain along with an upside-down crucifix whose Christ’s head was riddled with toothmarks. Damien removed a matchbox full of communion wafers from one of his pockets, plucked one of the wafers from the box, and rubbed it on his crotch until it crinkled and crumbled into a scattering of dust on the floor. All the while, he yelled the Lord’s prayer backward in his most gravelly voice, eyes bugging out and face reddening.

Diminutive Francis O’Toole, with his oily hair and wearing a bowtie and big dark-rimmed glasses, fingered his rosary and looked wistfully at the votive candles Windstar had begun to arrange around her altar. He too had a crucifix, which he held up in front of him as he moved toward Damien, alternating between mumbling the Hail Mary and bellowing “The power of Christ compels you,” baptizing his classmates with spittle as he made his solemn procession.

Dai Chi sat down peacefully on the floor with his legs crossed and gurgled as he practiced his throat singing. Meanwhile, he fluttered one of his arms in front of him, straining to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Ralph returned holding a freshly-trapped black snake and beginning to froth at the corners of his mouth, so invigorated was he with the spirit. Shaking his head from side to side rapidly and hopping from foot to foot, the unhappy snake held in both hands above him, he knocked over a desk, shouting “THANK you, THANK you, Jesus, for thy guidance. Help me in thy charity to triumph over this test as I triumph now over this very serpent. Make me strong in the face of adversity and faithful in the face dagobbledebleeblah hagabardoomamenaty…”

In the back corner, next to a replica of the Constitution that Ralph had inadvertently knocked askew so that it swung from the wall by a single fastener at one corner, First Baptist minister the Reverend Smith’s daughter cowered, thumbing the index of her Bible to see which of the signs of the second coming were being fulfilled before her eyes and looking for some prayer to get her out of the whole big promiscuous mess.

In their graves, the framers of that venerable swinging document spun like ferris wheels, and in their various heavens and nirvanas and hells on earth and in the ether, the gods couldn’t help but chuckle.

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