Getting to Know You

By Bobbie Kirkhart

my uni­ver­si­ty school days – at least on the stu­dent side of the desk – are two decades past now, but I dare­say this sto­ry is still play­ing out today, in grad­u­ate schools and oth­er places where think­ing peo­ple with dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences collide.

On the first night of class, we start­ed with an ice­break­er: paired off, we were to inter­view each oth­er and then intro­duce our col­league to the class. I was part­nered with a woman who, as soon as the pro­fes­sor said “begin,” nar­rat­ed her life sto­ry. I knew every­thing about her in 10 min­utes with­out hav­ing asked a sin­gle ques­tion.  She con­clud­ed her solil­o­quy with the state­ment, “I’m very active in my church.”

When she inter­viewed me, I con­clud­ed, “I’m an athe­ist activist.” I was almost expect­ing a neg­a­tive response, but she sim­ply com­ment­ed, “that’s interesting.”

When we were called on, she intro­duced me, my school, my spe­cial­ty, my hob­bies, and then turned to me and asked, “Shall I tell them the secret?” 

Not know­ing what hid­den vice this woman had learned about me in our 20-minute acquain­tance, I decid­ed the best option was to lie. “I have no secrets.” I was able to keep a straight face.

Then, in a stage whis­per, she said, “you know… the athe­ist thing.”

I assured the class that I am an out-of-the-clos­et infi­del, and we went on. When my daugh­ter was men­tioned, one of my class­mates shout­ed out, “If we can’t sa-a-ave the moth­er, maybe we can sa-a-ave the daughter.”

Dur­ing the break, a friend was wait­ing just out­side the door. “Bob­bie, we have to talk. I’ve always said that if I ever met an athe­ist I wouldn’t like them.” Anoth­er class mate came up and asked me if I was a mem­ber of Athe­ists Unit­ed. I was. She was, too. “You mean,” my friend exclaimed, “there are TWO of you?”  I told her that there were at least three, a mutu­al friend was also an atheist.

My stunned friend recov­ered, but the man who want­ed to “save” my daugh­ter didn’t. I wouldn’t be sur­prised to learn he is still pray­ing for our souls to this day.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is vice pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance of Amer­i­ca and serves on the board of Camp Quest, Inc., a sum­mer camp for chil­dren of free­think­ing fam­i­lies. She is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al as well as a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.