As a public school teacher, I have a responsibility not to bully my students into believing as I do.
In fact, I go out of my way to respect their right to form their own opinions – to think, not just to accept what they’re told.
The US Supreme Court apparently has no idea how this works.
The six Republican members (I refuse to call them justices) paved the way for organized prayer in public schools by ruling this week in support of a high school football coach who lead his team in prayer on the field.
Anyone who has ever been in the minority knows that when an authority figure leads students in an activity, it is not optional – no matter what they say.
I know this from personal experience.
When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in a building of mostly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.
In December, the kids were preparing for a choral concert where we’d sing a slew of holiday songs.
I loved to sing and enjoyed Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and all the other classics…
Except one – Silent Night.
I just didn’t feel right singing things like “Round yon virgin mother and child” and “Christ the savior is born.”
So when we practiced that song, I’d stop singing.
I’d enthusiastically belt out all the other tunes, but I just stood there when it was time for Silent Night.
I didn’t think it would make a difference. There were hundreds of others kids. No one would notice me.
But the choral teacher did.
She pulled me out of line and demanded to know why I wasn’t singing. I told her I was Jewish and didn’t want to sing that song.
She chided me for making everyone else look bad and told me to just move my mouth during the song so it looked like I was singing.
I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want people to even THINK I was singing things I didn’t believe.
It’s not that I really accepted Santa and his reindeer, either, but this was somehow different. I didn’t want my parents to go to the concert and see me participating in this farce. I didn’t want to be forced to go onstage and before everyone profess the opposite of all I had been taught – to declare myself other than what I really was.
But the other kids were right there listening to this whole conversation and giggling. It was yet another way I was being marked as an outsider, as different – so I gave in and did what she demanded.
In retrospect, I now know I could have complained to my parents and gone to the principal and we could have even taken the matter to court like the aforementioned coach.
However, when you’re a little kid in elementary school you usually just listen to what the adults tell you to do. At least I did.
It took me decades to get over it. Really.
Whenever that song would come on the radio or I’d hear it in a department store, I’d get all tense and upset. Like something had been stolen from me.
So it was with some trepidation many years later that I attended my daughter’s first winter concert when she was in elementary school.
It was with some relief that I noticed no holiday songs like Silent Night. They were all pretty secular and even multicultural.
And my daughter goes to the same district I went to as a child.
We’ve come a long way in the past three decades.
It’s a lesson I take to heart, myself, in my middle school classes.
When we discuss things – as you must in Language Arts – I encourage students to agree OR disagree with me or anyone else. Either option is okay so long as they try to explain why they think the way they do.
Moreover, I encourage them not to just speak but to also listen to what their classmates have to say and even be open to revising their original thoughts based on what they’ve heard.
And this includes discussions of religion.
I tell my kids that they can say or think whatever they want about it. If they want to talk about God or religion, that is fine. It’s just me who is constrained. I am not allowed to give them my own opinion on these matters.
Often I tell them that this isn’t necessarily what I believe, but I’ll propose one idea or another to get them thinking.
I remember one year my students were particularly interested in religion, and they complained that they couldn’t pin me down on anything – they couldn’t tell if I was religious or an atheist.
And that’s how it should be.
It’s just that teachers have been forbidden from telling them what to think or leading them in prayer.
Even if we CAN lead kids in prayer, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD.
I don’t plan on altering a single thing in my classroom, and I don’t think my colleagues should, either.
But there are 3.2 million teachers in public schools. There are bound to be some who will use this ruling as an excuse to give in to their worst tendencies.
So here’s what I suggest we do.
We should not coerce our students to do anything, but we damn well can and SHOULD pressure our colleagues not to indoctrinate their students.
Principals should give crappy assignments to teachers who break this taboo. Keep them away from students if at all possible. After all, they don’t belong in the classroom if they’re going to misuse the trust students have in them.
Teachers should give them the cold shoulder in the faculty room and at the copier.
Want to borrow my grammar unit? Not if you’re going to subject your classes to your faith and encourage them to follow along.
Consenting adults can do what they like on their own time, but this is public school.
When it comes to undue influence, inculcation and alienation of kids who are different, we cannot be bystanders.
We may not have dark money and Christian Nationalists behind us, but until we have a rational Supreme Court to overturn this decision or a Congress with enough guts to codify freedom from religion into law, teachers still have some modicum of power.
We should use it to protect our children.
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