Princestia

I feel like having a riff on the insular culture of Christian Science. My inspiration comes from a discussion thread in a group I’m in about goings-on in the wider Principia community. Principia, for those not in the know, is a school and college for Christian Scientists, located in St. Louis, Missouri (school), and Elsah, Illinois (college). One person in the thread referred to Principia as ‘Princest-Land’. I laughed at that term, as it is such an apt description of the somewhat insular-to-the-point-of-incestuous Principia community, so I riffed off that and came up with my new name for Principia: Princestia.

The Principia community is particularly insular in its own special way. There are many in this community who have rarely stepped outside of it, some having gone all the way through from ACORN (the pre-school) through Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools, and on through the College, only to go on to become staff at Principia. I myself am a member of this community, for better or worse, although as an ex-Christian Scientist, I’ve distanced myself, and some in the Principia community have distanced themselves from me. It’s been a mutual parting of ways. I’m definitely an outlier now, and choose not to be involved with any associated activities. I attended Principia College for all four years of my undergraduate studies, ultimately receiving a bachelors degree in Communications. In my opinion, the education I received was top notch, some of the friendships I forged there have been invaluable, and my degree has ultimately served me well in my professional life.

Mississippi River at sunset, circa 1989. Photo credit: Emerging Gently.

Mississippi River at sunset from the bluffs at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, circa 1989. Photo credit: Emerging Gently.

I will always remember my first entrée into the Princestia community. I had just turned 20, and had recently been admitted as a student at Principia College, starting in the upcoming Winter Quarter. My family had just moved to the Seattle, Washington area from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada–the city where I had grown up. Other than one person I’d known from a Christian Science summer camp here in Canada that we both attended, and with whom I’d forged a long-standing friendship, I didn’t know anyone else my own age in my new city. I was interested in making friends, so, off to one of the signature events put on by all ‘Prin Clubs’ (Principia alumni and booster organizations that exist throughout the USA and a few other countries) I went.

The Prin Club in the Seattle area was no different from others in hosting the ubiquitous Principia Christmas Sing. At the time, in 1987, it was a fairly well-attended event. There was a smattering of people in their early 50s, 40s and 30s, and a very small number of 20-somethings such as myself, but mostly it seemed to be the over-55 crowd. I came by myself, and when I arrived, the only other people in the room I knew were my friend’s parents (my friend, not having any interest in Principia, didn’t attend and wouldn’t have been caught dead there, me thinks). For most of the event, they were the only people who talked to me or paid any attention at all to me. Nobody else even made eye contact unless they were being introduced to me by my friend’s parents. Even at that, after a short and polite conversation, most left, and joined the crowd that looked through me as if I was not even there.

I am an extremely introverted person, so being in a crowd of people I don’t know is not my comfort zone, and never has been. I’m not the kind of person who can just walk up to people and introduce myself. It’s never been something I easily do. I always look for someone I know, and let them be my wingman. It’s just the way I am. Otherwise, I’m the person standing in the margins, looking for a quick escape. Now, as someone in my late 40s with a lot of life experience behind me, I’ve accepted who I am and am comfortable with it. But, back then, it was often painful for me to always be on the outside and not know how to get ‘in’. This party was turning into a special hell for me.

Towards the end of the ‘Principia Christmas Sing’, the emcee stood up to announce that he had been informed that there were a few current and a couple of soon-to-be students of Principia College and School in attendance at this little shindig. He asked us to stand up and be recognized. I joined the others in standing to the polite applause of the crowd. Then, all of a sudden, my experience at this little event took a turn. I was no longer invisible! As one of the only ‘new’ students, I suddenly became a rockstar that everyone wanted to talk to. I was somebody! While it felt good to finally be accepted, I was also left with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth about the sudden interest these people had in me now, when moments before, they barely acknowledged my existence. Now, because I was known as a student, I was worth talking to all of a sudden. That feeling set in strongly, and never really left me. It was my first introduction into the very insular world of ‘Princestia’.

I enjoyed my four years at the College, got a good education and all, but throughout my time there, I saw the stratified world that exists at ‘Princestia’. In my class, there were the ‘lifers’ (the ones that came to the College from the Upper/Middle/Lower School), and those of us proletarians who had attended public schools in our various home communities. I gravitated towards the latter initially, and the friendships I did forge with the ‘lifers’ tended to be with the ones who themselves were the outliers in that group. Most of the ‘lifers’ kept to their own crowd initially. There were many people I encountered who were true ‘lifers’–people who had attended Acorn (the pre-school/kindergarten program at Prin), Lower School, Middle School, Upper School, and finally College, and there were some ‘lifer’ grads who were employed by the college or school. These people had rarely been outside of this tight little cocoon, and it seemed weird to me. They had what I call the trademark stepfordesque ‘Christian Science/Principia smile’ pasted on their faces all the time, with quick ‘God is love’-type answers to all of life’s challenges.

For me, my time at Principia, and as a member of the ‘Princestia’ community, brings mixed feelings. Principia was a very special version of Christian Science, based more on image and perception rather than actual substance. Your level of faith and dedication to Christian Science was based more on appearances than anything else. The friendships I forged there and that remain with me are largely with others who, like me, tended to occupy the margins of that community, and who took a more realistic view of life. Most of my Principia friendships that I actively maintain now are with those who’ve also left Christian Science, but not all are. I am truly grateful for the education I received, and the close relationship a small college community afforded with the faculty who mentored me. In many ways, Principia was the right thing at the time for me, despite its shortcomings, and it had few truly deleterious effects on me, fortunately.

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