Sunday, June 01, 2008


Why we have to keep secular schools secular

My local public radio station has just been begging had its fund-raising drive. I recognize the need for it, and I do give them money — and so should you, please. But “drive” is the operative word, because it drives me away from the radio for the better part of ten days. Needing something else to listen to on my way to and from work, I use the time to catch up on podcasts I’ve collected — often, as now, old episodes of This American Life.

I recently listened to program #322, “Shouting Across the Divide”, first aired on 15 December 2006. It’s about Muslims and non-Muslims trying to communicate with each other, trying to understand each other. Listen to the first part, at least, for a lesson in how not to deal with religious issues in public schools. Here’s how the web site describes the story:

Serry and her husband’s love story began in a place not usually associated with romance: the West Bank. That was where the couple met, fell in love and decided to get married. Then Serry, who was American, convinced her Palestinian husband to move to America. She promised him that in America their children would never encounter prejudice or strife of any kind. But things didn’t quite work out that way. This American Life contributor Alix Spiegel tells the story. (33 minutes)

Why it didn’t quite work out that way, of course, was what happened in 2001, on September 11th. After that, people, seeing Serry’s head scarf, treated her differently. Despite that, the family mostly coped, until the problem hit their 9-year-old daughter’s fourth-grade classroom, on September 11th of 2002. From about 15 minutes into the audio:

Chloe: I got to meet my teacher, and she seemed nice the first day, the first week. But it all changed on September 11th, that one day.

Serry: I picked up the children from school that day, and she was in tears, she was inconsolable. She wasn’t even making sense, she just was crying and crying.

Alix Spiegel: Apparently, as part of the lesson for the 9/11 anniversary, the teacher in Chloe’s class had passed out a book, a slim paperback intended to educate the students about the 9/11 tragedy.

Serry: On the cover was a picture of the World Trade Center in flames.

Chloe: And the first thing was like, September 11 was a horrible day. Thousands and thousands died. And it said, who did it?, we don’t know, but here’s a clue.

Serry: Muslims hate Christians. Muslims hate Americans. Muslims believe that anyone who doesn’t practice Islam is evil. And the Koran teaches war and hate.

Serry spoke with the principal and the teacher — the former was sympathetic, the latter was not — but they both said that this book was provided to them by the school district, and that there wasn’t anything they could do. And anyway, unpleasant as it was, the lesson was soon over. Yet Chloe’s classmates couldn’t move on. She was abused by her classmates, kids who used to be her friends, their minds poisoned by adults who should have known better.

But, bad as that was, that wasn’t the worst of it. When December came, the teacher announced that they’d be reading Christmas books all month. Initially, the idea didn’t seem bad. About 22:25 into the audio:

Alix Spiegel: But then on the fifth day of December, the teacher brought in a book that talked about Jesus’s blood, how the blood of God’s only son could save you. And to underline her point, she used a visual aid. Here’s Serry.

Serry: Apparently, the teacher had held up a candy cane, passed out candy canes to the class, and said, “Look, children, let’s reflect on the candy cane. It’s in the shape of a ‘J’, for Jesus, and it’s got red stripes signifying the blood of Jesus.”

Chloe: Then, from her own words, she said, “Jesus’s blood will save us all. So, as long as you’re Christian you’ll be saved, and you’re fine.” And that really upset me a lot.

Chloe’s classmates added to their abuse, but, worse, Chloe herself now worried that her whole family would burn in hell for eternity. She would stay home sick from school for days at a time. Another conference with the principal and the teacher went badly.

And the thing is, despite Chloe’s fear of what her teacher was telling her, she was not converted to Christianity. She was hurt, frightened, and alienated. Ultimately, the “lesson” pushed her family to move to another school district, and contributed to the breakup of her family.

There’s a good reason we keep religion out of our secular schools. Listen to the story — it’s worth a half an hour of your time.

1 comment:

lidija said...

Oh, I heard this when it was first aired on the radio. It got me soooo angry. The transcript is good but it was really something hearing the mother talk about it. I really could not believe how twisted the whole this was (I do take secular schools very much for granted I guess) and how helpless they felt that they could change anything. And that they were literally driven away, and, well, apart.