Beyond The Pale

On Childhood: Gothard and Burning Down a House

I’m sitting here at the Starbucks in Dublin where Israel works when he isn’t on tour with Disciple, feeling seriously cracked out because I don’t drink coffee on the regular anymore, and I just had a Venti drip with two shots of espresso. Egad, I have the shakes. It’s nice to be home.

Last week I said that this week I was going to try to write about what it was like for me to be homeschooled, and I’m going to, but as I’ve spent the week trying to conceptualize a coherent way of discussing it, I’ve found that it is harder to get my brain around than I thought, especially since there is so much that I could say about it, and I can’t begin to hope to hit on everything in 1250 or so words (my self-imposed word limit), so if what I have to say feels squashed or rushed, that’s because it is, and I tangent really badly, but I think that anecdotes do a better job of explaining what a person’s childhood was really like than a formal essay ever could anyway.

In a previous essay, I talked about how my dad would read to us every night before we went to bed. In a big way, this was just an extension of the school day. The primary curriculum around which my parents developed their pedagogical schema came from Bill Gothard’s Institute on Basic Life Principles, which I always hated because he had some really ridiculous views of what godliness meant, specifically his hatred for the drums and dating. What I never realized at the time was that once you got past the moronic aspects of his theology, which my parents never really emphasized much anyway (though they seemed to consider getting retarded about courtship for a while), his actual program was ingenious.

The basic program was six years long, and the whole thing was written at a high school level, so that from the first day of kindergarten or first-grade (grade levels were always a little fuzzy), kids were working on high-school level stuff. The whole family would work through the material together, with new kids jumping in wherever everyone else was whenever they got old enough to start. The first time through, kids were expected to just understand whatever they understood, though there were age-specific activities included in the supplemental material. When the whole six year cycle ended, you were supposed to go back to book one and start over. The second time through, there were higher level activities to do, and kids were expected to achieve a higher level understanding of the information that they had already been exposed to in the previous cycle. Everything was cumulative because the program was cyclical, so those kids who jumped in later in the cycle (in this case, Chris and Jaimie) could treat the point at which they started as the end point on their second time through the program.

My parents weren’t strict adherents to the program. Very little of the secondary curriculum and almost none of the tertiary material that they used came from the Institute on Basic Life Principles. Math was always Saxon, which I think most Christian schools used at the time, and I remember seeing a fair amount of Abeka books around the house, though I can’t remember what the subjects were.

The typical day started around nine o’clock, though it seems like that time wasn’t exactly hard and fast. My favorite example of how relaxed things were, while still requiring that we get school done comes from when I was about 14 or 15 years old, and the Erwin boys had helped me find a copy of the Anarchists’ Cookbook on the Internet (which, by the way, I eventually got in a lot of trouble with because there was a chapter on how to commit credit card fraud, and when my dad found it, he didn’t think my claim that it was purely academic would be very convincing to the FBI. I can’t imagine the trouble I’d have gotten in if I hadn’t edited out all the swearing in the first hour I had the document). My favorite chapter had two recipes for napalm. I couldn’t use the best one because even though I had access to plenty of frozen orange juice concentrate, I didn’t have any good way to get a hold of black powder. Matt told me that Walmart sold it, but I couldn’t think of a way to get my mom to buy me any. The second recipe, which wasn’t nearly as good, was easy though. All that it required was gasoline and Styrofoam. I got up early one morning and used my mom’s good chili pot (which she finally replaced a couple of years ago) and filled it half-way full with gasoline, then I took all of the packaging from our computer and dissolved it in the gas until I had a mass roughly equivalent to unhardened toffee. This was supposed to be Napalm, though having seen videos of Napalm being used, I’m pretty sure the consistency was wrong.

At some point during the process, Chris, who was always a morning person, woke up and came sauntering into the kitchen where I was cooking up my concoction on the stove. When it was finished, we realized that Mom probably wasn’t going to feel too magnanimous about me having a pot of Gasoline on her stove, and the gas smell was pretty strong, so we opened all the doors in the house and went out back to decide what to do with the stuff.

It is amazing the magnetism that we felt toward Jaimie’s five-by-five play log-cabin in the back yard.

We knew it was a bad idea, but the Imp of the Perverse had its hooks deep in us by this point, and the state of mom’s chili pot had me figuring that I was in for a painful death anyway, so we did the natural thing and went out back to smear our napalm on the back of the roof and a couple of logs we pulled off of the log pile the cabin stood next to.

Styrofoam mixed with Gasoline burns like a tire. About fifteen minutes later, when mom came looking for us to start school, there were pillars of black smoke billowing off of the back of the cabin, though the wood itself hadn’t even started on fire yet. Chris was rolling a big log around on the ground, trying to put it out, and I was hitting it with a long stick, trying not to let the log pile catch on fire. Dad had about ten cords of wood in that pile, close to two winter’s worth, and we knew it was all over if it caught. Mom stepped out onto the deck, planted her feet firmly with her hands on her hips.

“David!” She hollered.

Chris and I stood up from where we were bent over and faced her. I felt pretty conspicuous because I had a huge burning glob of “Napalm” dripping off the end of the stick, and we were both back-dropped by the pillar of black smoke.


“What are you doing?”

Chris and I just looked at each other. How do you respond to a question like that? There was no lying about it. The ruined pot, which Chris and I would rehabilitate on the sly that afternoon, was lying a foot away from me with gasoline running out of it to leave a big dead spot in the grass, and all the other condemnatory evidence surrounded the scene of the crime, so I decided to suck it up and face my doom.

“What’s it look like?” I hollered back. “We’re burning down Jaimie’s house with Napalm.”

Her response, “Oh. Well put it out and finish later. It’s time for school.”


March 22, 2009 - Posted by | Childhood


  1. Oh man, this is a fantastic story. I laughed a lot reading this. It confirms my wish that we had been friends as children. I’m not sure it would have been a safe combination, but it sure would have been fun. I wish I had gone to your school. haha. napalm in the good pot.

    Comment by wordorgy | March 22, 2009 | Reply

  2. This is pure awesomeness! You can’t get much better than homemade napalm, honestly. I think this was around the first few weeks I started Rangers, which, I’m sure had a lot to do with why I stayed 😛

    Comment by Matt | March 22, 2009 | Reply

  3. I laughed till I cried!! That is homeschooling as it should be!

    Comment by Arvallian | March 23, 2009 | Reply

  4. Fantastic. I’m still laughing. I laughed the hardest about the drums and dating…. Such good stuff. I’m seriously loving your stories. You could just keep telling stories until I got an accurate picture of life in the Gross house. Then you could compile it into a memoir and come up with a cohesive theme-thing.

    Man, napalm. That’s really rich.

    Comment by It's Just Me | March 23, 2009 | Reply

  5. I remember when I discovered the handbook on my boys computer (they thought I was too much of a luddite to find anything on computers, then). The story was that they got it from you… just shows there are always two sides. I also discovered that they secretly accessed the internet through an acct. from Bergemanns.

    This is actually the story, also, of how I became tech/web savvy to the extent that that may be said.

    funny how things work.

    Comment by Ilona | March 26, 2009 | Reply

    • I didn’t mean to get them in trouble…but since the damage is done, they might have gotten access from the Bergemanns, but that isn’t the only way that they got the internet back then. They were curiously adept at finding ways to get what they wanted if it had anything to do with technology.

      Comment by davidjgross | April 21, 2009 | Reply

  6. Still love reading this little story. I was thinking about the Bill Gothard thing the other day – I did the Institute on Basic Youth Conflicts twice, but I could never get past his reasoning that 3/4 time signatures were more godly than 4/4 time signatures.

    Comment by Arvallian | January 19, 2011 | Reply

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