I’ve had two distinct vocations during my lifetime—so far. Three, really, if you count parenting a vocation. Parenting took up a lot of my time for many years. There were aspects to it that were fulfilling, enlightening, and satisfying, but parenting doesn’t last a lifetime. Children grow up before long and then what?
I grew up in Temperley, a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, with fundamentalist, evangelical missionary parents, the second of five children. My parents met at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois, an ultra-conservative, Bible-believing school that encouraged and prepared students to go into the world and preach the Gospel. My parents were zealous to reach Jews for Jesus and sailed to Argentina in 1941, a country where many Jews from Europe emigrated to in the 19th century to escape various upheavals.
All did not go well for my parents and their children. I don’t think my parents realized how much time, money, and energy raising children would take. I don’t think they realized how difficult it would be to raise children in a culture so different from their own. I also think they thought their children would somehow automatically absorb their values, zeal, and dedication to bringing lost souls—especially Jewish ones—to the Lord.
Due to circumstances beyond my parents’ control (the proximate cause was my expulsion from a high school in Boone, Iowa), they were forced to return to the U.S. to focus on their children. (I had already been expelled from a boarding school in North Carolina after being there two years. My high school days in Iowa lasted a mere nine weeks.) My heart-broken mother wrote me a letter telling me that I would be responsible on the Day of Judgment for those souls that could have been “won for the Lord,” but would now perish in hell due to my intransigent behavior. Their blood was on my hands. I carried that imposed guilt for years.
I don’t remember seriously entertaining the possibility of being a missionary although feared that somehow I might end up as one. My mother, before matriculating at Moody Bible Institute, had earned her RN (registered nurse) at a three-year diploma nursing school in her hometown—Wilmington, Delaware. She pushed me in that direction. I resisted. I went to secretarial school right after high school and did well learning shorthand and typing. I got a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad in New York City, earning a good salary. However, I couldn’t stand disappointing my mother—yet again. She thought nursing would “do me good.”
Like her, I enrolled in a three-year diploma nursing school program, feeling much like I imagined the Hebrew prophet Jonah felt when he refused to go to Nineveh at the Lord’s command, and sailed to Tarshish instead, “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:10). A huge storm came up along the way and after negotiations with the crew, Jonah was thrown overboard and landed in the belly of a great fish which eventually “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). After this experience, Jonah proceeded on to Nineveh, the place that God commanded him to go initially. Somehow I appropriated this story as my own. I was like Jonah—not heeding my mother’s (God’s?) desire—going off on my own path (secretarial school), but having had a change of heart, was now on my way to becoming a nurse. (The stories we believe do shape our lives.)
I hated nursing school (my Nineveh), yet I persevered, eventually graduating and passing the state boards to earn my RN. I worked in Obstetrics as well as Psychiatry. I was miserable. When my children enrolled in college, I decided, after looking longingly at their textbooks, that I needed to enroll as well. I did—although not at the same institutions they attended. College literally saved me. Learning to read critically, learning to see myself in relation to the wider world, and learning to respect how people understood themselves in relationship to their conception of God gave me a dimension to living that I had not ever experienced before.
I never left college. Fortuitously, I stayed on in a teaching capacity. Teaching is a better fit for me than nursing ever was, yet I’m restless. If I had been able to “come out” as a young person, I would have worked my butt off to launch myself into an acting career. Given my upbringing, I never allowed such a desire to come to the surface.
My parents and their closed, conservative community thought attending the theater (both movies and plays) to be sinful. Paying money to support Hollywood actors that lived decadent lifestyles was an abomination. Dramatic plays weren’t “real.” They were a waste of time. Our job was “to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12). The theater didn’t count.
I saw my first movie, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” when I was twelve years old. My Aunt Esther convinced my parents that the movie was harmless and took me under her wing for one delicious summer. I waited five years before seeing another movie—“North to Alaska.” I snuck out from a midnight watchnight service at a Baptist church on New Year’s Eve. It was magic.
Teaching college students in the classroom does give me some space to act out. I can dramatize material I convey to students as well as dramatize the teaching experience itself. However, I don’t think that takes the place of internalizing and then displaying the wide range of emotions played out on the stage after “losing myself” in a character developed by a playwright. I know little about how one goes about getting set up in such a place. I do know that acting is a vocation that keeps calling to me.
Oscar Wilde said, “I love acting. It is so much more real than life.” I hope yet to experience how “real” life can be.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.