Baccalaureate: “Cootie Girl & the Construction of Moral Character,” Prof. Randall Balmer’s 2015 Norwich Address

An ordained minister, PhD, and chair of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College, Prof. Randall Balmer gave the 2015 Norwich University Baccalaureate address in White Chapel on Friday, May 8, 2015. He came at the invitation of his friend, Norwich University Chaplain William Wick. A copy of Reverend Balmer’s prepared remarks follow.

Cootie Girl & the Construction of Moral Character

John 8:2-10

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

I remember the eyes as though it were yesterday. They were pretty. Blue. Expectant, yet afraid. “This is Diane,” one of my new fourth-grade classmates said, pointing in her direction. “Don’t let her touch you. She’s the Cootie Girl.”

I did not know then – and I’m not entirely sure today – what a cootie is, but I could tell from the context that it wasn’t a good thing. Cooties – and, by extension, Diane herself – should be avoided at all costs.

I was the new kid at Wenona School. My family had just moved to Bay City, Michigan, from the farm country of southern Minnesota. I was fearful myself in this alien environment, and insecure. I had never seen a one-way street until that summer of 1963, yet there I was living on DeWitt Street, which was bracketed at both ends by three-lane, one-way streets, each headed in the opposite direction. I was fearful every night when I crawled into bed; I tried to stay awake and listen for an inevitable intruder so I could warn my family and summon the police. Once I finally did succumb to sleep, sirens, another new phenomenon, woke me nearly every night. By the time of the first day of school, I was desperate for a friendly face amid these city kids everywhere around me.

There was, I could tell, something different about Diane. My family was hardly affluent – not by any stretch of the imagination – nor were the kids at Wenona School. But the dress she wore was tattered. Her shoes appeared to have been repaired crudely and by hand. Someone whispered that she and her mother lived alone. At lunchtime, she ate alone. Although she had a pleasant smile, Diane looked slightly disheveled and unkempt. Waiflike. A wisp of dishwater-blonde hair fell awkwardly across her forehead and into her eyes.

Occasionally, the Cootie Girl would play along. After listening to taunts on the macadam that passed for a playground in this strange new world, Diane would chase her tormenters, who would shriek in horror and run away. Anyone she tagged, boy or girl, had cooties, which, although it appeared to have no long-term effect, was not considered a good thing by the fourth-grade cohort at Wenona School.

Like a pack of wolves taunting a moose, children of that age can devise ingenious ways to belittle anyone they choose to ostracize. I recall one day standing in a queue across the hallway from a janitor’s closet. One of my classmates had apparently been musing on the word “custodian” painted on the door. “Hey, look,” he shouted, moving his hands across the letters and articulating the syllables slowly: “CUS-TO-DIAN.”

Everyone chortled at the brilliance of the put-down, of course, but I caught the wounded look in Diane’s eyes. Yet another insult, yet another wound to carry home that night. “And where do you stand?” the eyes asked. Would the new kid become just another tormenter, or maybe, hoping against hope, a friend?

I think I recognized even then that it was a defining moment. It was a kind of test. Are you with us, my new classmates were asking, or are you going to be a geek, a loser, an outcast like the Cootie Girl? In the words of the Pharisees in the Gospel reading, “What do you say?”

Jesus fashioned an entire career out of his association with outcasts. He spent his time with harlots and tax collectors rather than the hoi polloi of his day. He healed gimps and paralytics and those we would call neurotics and schizophrenics today. Fishermen were hardly the élite of Palestinian culture in the first century. And when the Jewish equivalent of a lynch mob was collecting rocks to execute the adulterous woman, Jesus crouched down, scratched a few letters in the sand, and, with a few well-chosen words, dispersed the mob.

The Gospels don’t record what he wrote there in the dust, but my guess would be that it had something to do with who we are, all of us, in the divine economy. Perhaps Jesus listed the names of her accusers, and perhaps he added the names of every man who had ever slept with the accused woman, and – who knows? – there may have been a name or two that appeared in both columns. The bearded men packing stones were no better than the woman caught in someone’s bedroom. We are all sad and pitiable, the dusty letters read. We have terrible secrets and overwhelming fears, and one of the signs of our wretchedness is that we organize into packs to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are somehow not as lost or as desperate or as hopeless as we know we really are. There is safety in numbers, and one of the timeless ways we congratulate ourselves is to draw lines and boundaries, marking off who is good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, saved and damned, cool and not cool – careful, of course, to locate ourselves on the right side of those lines.

That’s what the Pharisees were doing with the woman caught in adultery. They had formed into a pack and, armed with their impeccable understanding of the law, what was right and what was wrong, they determined that she was on the wrong side of their lines. Women had a tough enough life in first-century Palestine, but this woman had violated their rules, and she must die! Anything short of death would have upset their system, would have skewed their precious lines.

Perhaps her real crime was not love or even passion. Perhaps her real crime lay in the fact that she had exposed the shallowness, the pettiness of her accusers, for when Jesus finally confronts them with their own peccadilloes, they slink away in silence.

When my daughter entered high school, she expended a great deal of energy worrying about whether or not she was part of what she called the “high group” – meaning, I gather, those who were considered the social élite. I’ve never been part of the “high group,” nor have I aspired to be. But pecking orders can be fearsome, and if you run afoul of the established order or find yourself on the wrong side of social convention, the consequences can be devastating, as my daughter learned. As the woman caught in adultery learned. And as Diane, the Cootie Girl, knew every day of her life at Wenona School.

I’ve been musing a lot in recent months about the notion of honor. Honor is not a word you hear very much any more. Many schools, including my own, have what they call an honor code, which is meant as a hedge against cheating. As nearly as I can tell, many schools adopted honor codes in the years following World War II, after honor had been forged among soldiers on the battlefields of Normandy and Corregidor and Iwo Jima. But the notion of honor took a hit during the Vietnam War – through no fault of the soldiers themselves, but because of the perfidy of the Johnson administration and the Pentagon. Honor suffered irreparable damage during the Nixon years. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher, sought to restore honor to the presidency, but by then betrayal had given way to cynicism, and we have never fully recovered.

Today, the notion of honor ranks far below such “values” as ambition and affluence. But I invite you to consider with me what honor might look like today – and if we might reappropriate it for the twenty-first century.

I suggest that the enterprise of recovering honor in the twenty-first century could do far worse than look back to the first century. In the text at hand, the passage from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus refuses to take the easy course, which would have been to join the chorus of the woman’s accusers. Jesus was already suspect in the eyes of the religious leaders; he had healed on the Sabbath, and he had suggested that simply adhering to the letter of the law somehow fell short of the mark. Jesus could have saved himself a lot of trouble and even earned some credibility in their eyes that could have saved him a lot of grief later on. He might even have picked up a stone himself. It was just one woman, after all, and not a very worthy one at that. Why not simply blend into the crowd for once? What’s the harm?

Jesus chose a different path, the path of compassion and identification with the downtrodden, with those on the margins. There was no obvious payoff for doing so, no award or citation or entry on a résumé. No one in that crowd would congratulate him for his courage or commend him for his compassion. For Jesus, the path of honor was a lonely one, one that led ultimately to the long walk up Golgotha, the place of the skull.

But Jesus did more than simply stand up to the crowd and defend an embattled individual. He also called all of them to account and rebuked them for their hypocrisy.

We have no way of knowing what Jesus scribbled there in the Palestinian sand. John is maddeningly silent on that score. I guess I’d like to think that he scratched out a few choice words for the Pharisees – “You sorry bastards are really trying my patience,” or something like that – but then Jesus thinks better of it and rubs out the curses. He stands up and surveys the scene. His eyes meet each of the accusers and then take in the woman. Back to the Pharisees and back again to the woman. Then Jesus steps back several paces, crouches down, and with his index finger traces a large circle – a circle big enough to take in the whole crowd, the Pharisees and the woman and maybe even a few bystanders, the accusers and the accused.

A circle. The quintessential symbol of femininity. A metaphor for eternity. A circle large enough to encompass everyone entangled in the web of our shared humanity, our wretchedness, our loneliness and suffering.

By now in your education – a process only begun and that will continue far beyond this day – you’ve been introduced to Aristotle’s concept of Nichomachean Ethics. This notion, which was adapted to Christian theology by St. Thomas Aquinas, holds that individuals can cultivate virtuous behavior by means of discipline and repetition. That is to say that the more we comport ourselves with honor, the more honorable we become.

I’m not interested for the moment in whether or not this is good theology. But it seems to me that honor is a noble pursuit. For most of us, the cultivation of moral character and virtuous habits is a lifelong enterprise, but every time we defend the helpless or decry the powerful, we build moral character. Therein lies the noble tradition of honor.

I wish I could tell you that you that I did the right thing back there on the macadam playground at Wenona School. We all like to be the heroes of our own stories. But I’m afraid that I’m not very good at this hero business, and I lost that opportunity for moral formation. It takes guts to stand up to peers, to resist the pressures of conformity, to choose the honorable course – and I have come to admire those with the courage to take up the cause of those less fortunate, those on the margins. And those who do summon that courage – Angelina Grimké, Elijah Lovejoy, William Wilberforce, Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King Jr. – occasionally alter the course of history. Lord knows it’s not easy to face down a mob, be they armed with legal codes or truncheons, insults or self-righteousness.

I don’t pretend that history would have been different if I had been kind to Diane, the Cootie Girl, back in Michigan more than four decades ago. But I would have been different. And perhaps she as well, if only for a moment. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was beaten and slumped over a barbed-wire fence on a cold Wyoming night; you wrapped me in a blanket and tried to revive me. I was sad and lonely, and I was wearing a ratty dress because my mother couldn’t afford anything better. But you stood up to the crowd and became my friend.

If only it were so.

I lost track of Diane long ago, although I remember her from time to time in my prayers, even all these decades later. She never made the transition from elementary to junior high school with the rest of us. Perhaps her mother found a new boyfriend or a new job. Or perhaps they decided to try a new city, to take their chances in a different school and a different community – a place where the Cootie Girl could simply be Diane, and she could start over.

What I failed to recognize those many years ago is that Diane’s tormenters were just as wretched as we thought she was. We had our own bundle of fears and anxieties. We sought to mask our own insecurities by lashing out at someone else, by drawing lines.

But the gospel draws circles. Jesus comes along and disrupts our childish games, our taunts and our sarcasm. He visits the playground and reminds us that he, the Crucified One, the Man of Sorrows, was the ultimate outcast, facing the ridicule of everyone, deserted even by those who had claimed to be his friends. He reminds us that he was suspended naked between earth and heaven for the benefit not only of the righteous or even the self-righteous but for the outcast, the person of color, for the hungry child, for Matthew Shepard, lashed to a fencepost in the cold Wyoming night, for the Muslim woman trembling with fear these days beneath her head scarf, for John Lewis and Rosa Parks – for Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, for the girl in the tattered dress, searching the crowd desperately for a friendly face.

Jesus visits our playground with a thin piece of chalk and draws a large circle. He straightens up, surveys his fellow sufferers, and gently suggests that if we have the courage somehow to see Jesus in the Cootie Girl’s wounded blue eyes, then we will have grasped something very important about the gospel, something crucial to the notion of honor.

I was naked, and you gave me a shirt. I was thirsty, dangling there from that cruel wooden tower. You came with water. I was hungry, and you brought me a slice of pie at the lunch counter, even though your boss said you would be fired for serving me. I was cold on that Wyoming night – and unconscious. You wrapped me in a blanket, hoisted me over your shoulder, and carried me home.

I was the Cootie Girl. You were my friend.

– Randall Balmer