On Being Threatened with Hellfire in the Second Grade by Martha Woodroof

My father was an atheist; my mother, an agnostic. My parents preached conscience and character to their two daughters instead of dogma.

I grew up in Greensboro, N.C., a city with seven colleges. Outside of academic circles, however, society was rigidly constrained by the Bible Belt. Pictures of a blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus were omnipresent. The judgmental Yahweh of the Old Testament thundered from a lot of Christian church pulpits on Sunday mornings.

All my school friends went to Sunday School and church. As far as I could tell, the primary goal of their religious experience was to make them fear the consequences of having either too much curiosity or too much fun.

Bye-bye, inner yeehaw.

Hello, life-limiting, fear-based conformity.

Looking back, it flat-out amazes me that none of my school friends failed to notice I wasn’t Christian until my second grade teacher set them straight.

School that year began on a Monday. I showed up early in my shiny, new back-to-school oxfords and happily ruckused around with my classmates until our teacher, Mrs. Smith—whom I remember as rigidly coiffed—stood up from behind her desk and called us to order.

We were good kids. We shushed and faced front.

Mrs. Smith cleared her throat and asked in her southern-sweet teacher voice for anyone who had not been in Sunday school yesterday to stand up.

I immediately stood up.


I’d been to Sunday school a couple of times after a Saturday sleepover at a friend’s, but I’d spent the day before in the woods across the street playing Robin Hood.

Mrs. Smith put on her concerned face and radiated disapproval.

“Oh dear,” she said, in an even sweeter voice. “Were you ill, Martha? Is that why you weren’t in Sunday school yesterday?”

I knew the other kids were looking at me, curious about how I was going to hold up. I was known and respected for my toughness on the playground. Even boy team captains sometimes chose me first for dodgeball and Red Rover. “No ma’am.”  I said. “I wasn’t ill.”

Mrs. Smith shook her head sadly, took a deep breath and valiantly brisked up. Then she asked the rest of the class to bow their heads and join her in beseeching their dear lord to have mercy on Martha’s immortal soul for her sinful ways.

Everyone bowed their head. And kept them bowed while Mrs. Smith went on at some length begging the extraordinarily rigid and punitive god of her understanding to give seven-year-old Martha a pass from the fires of hell for not going to Sunday School.

I still remember how alone I felt. And how tall. Like Alice in Wonderland after she’d eaten the growth-inducing part of the mushroom.

I was also old enough, however, to recognize Mrs. Smith’s cruelty as cruelty—no matter how much piety she draped it in. I remember how befuddling this felt. I’d expected my second grade teacher to be a completely good person.

Thankfully, it never occurred to me to worry about actually going to hell. My mother had read a lot of Greek, Roman, Norse mythology aloud to me and my sister. I was well equipped to recognize a Christian myth for what it was—a magical explanation of the unknowable and/or the inexplicable.

That night at supper, I asked my father if—should Mrs. Smith pop the same question next Monday—it would be okay if I fudged the truth by staying seated.

Pop was big on personal accountability. “It’s up to you, Martha,” he said quietly, “to decide whether or not you’re willing to stand up for what you believe.”

There it was: conscience and character vs. authority and peer pressure. Quite the crossroads for a second grader.

Whatever. I continued to stand up alone for the next several Mondays while Mrs. Smith and the rest of the class prayed over me. Was I standing up for my own beliefs, in defiance of Mrs. Smith’s cruelty, or to please my parents? Who knows? Whatever the reason was, it kicked off what has turned into my long history of politely (for the most part) thumbing my nose at societal conventions with which I do not agree.

My ordeal by prayer ended when—abruptly and without explanation—Mrs. Smith stopped asking her public school students about their Sunday school attendance.

Divine intervention or the principal’s?

I suspect the latter, but I’m okay with not knowing everything about everything. I like a little mystery in life.

I’m happy to report that my school friends evidently rejected the idea of damnation by association because they still invited me to sleepovers and birthday parties.


Silhouette of someone jumping in the air
Photo by Mesh on Unsplash

Martha Woodroof
Martha Woodroof was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her first—and so far, only—novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.

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4 thoughts on “On Being Threatened with Hellfire in the Second Grade by Martha Woodroof”

  1. Always look forward to Martha Woodroof’s wonderful essays and high-flying spirit. Much needed in these troubling times. Thanks for the shot of inspiration!

  2. What an excellent read! Thank you. I grew up Catholic with the scary nuns, and had a similar experience in also the second grade! And in my case as well, cruel they were.
    Thanks for a great story.

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