Last night, as Bella played in her own little imaginary world with her sister at the foot of my bed, I overheard her singing God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. “Where did you learn that?” I asked her. “At school,” she replied nonchalantly, “we do it every day before we go to lunch.” A couple of questions later and I’m informed – with only one week of this school year left – that her teachers have lead her class in that prayer every single day since the very beginning.
I was floored – I had no idea this was happening. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. I couldn’t believe it – her teacher is a good friend of mine, and we’ve discussed my Atheism and the fact that religion is not present in my home before. My plan is to discuss various religions and deities with my children when I believe they are old enough to form their own opinions and follow their own paths, whatever those are. The small talks we’ve had regarding God in the past were brief and diplomatic. Bella has no idea that I’m an Atheist or what it means, just like she doesn’t know anything about Christianity or Buddhism or anything else.
This morning I went to the school. I looked for Bella’s teacher, but there was a substitute for the first half of the day. The principal, noticing that I obviously was upset (but not over this: my mom accidentally hit Ari with the back door just before we’d left home and I needed to get her to her pediatrician immediately because she had a bloody mouth and loose tooth), called me into her office. I explained to her what I had found out and that I couldn’t believe that it was happening in a public school. I told her that I was an Atheist and didn’t approve of anyone even mentioning religion to my child when she was at school, or overstepping their bounds as an instructor. She nodded at me, not saying anything until I was finished. She then wrote my name on a piece of paper and said that she’d speak with my daughter’s teacher. I was not convinced – Bella has 2$ stolen from her a few weeks ago and the principal did nothing about it, but did the same patronizing nodding.
On my way out I ran into my daughter’s teacher’s assistant (TA). I told her what I’d discovered, and that I’d talked to the principal about it, and also that my intentions were not to get anyone in trouble. She didn’t say much (I didn’t expect her to, her being a preacher’s wife), other than that she needed to clock in for the day, and I went about rushing to get Ari to the doctor. The TA called back to me as I approached the parking lot: “We’ll just have her step out when we do it.” With all that was on my mind, that statement didn’t hit me until I was already in the car.
I called Bella’s teacher’s cellphone and left her a message – I wanted to prepare her for anything she walked into that day, just in case the principal did take this seriously and talk to her. In the afternoon, I picked Bella up from school and spoke with her teacher, who was more than understanding and contrite, as I hoped and expected her to be. It usually wasn’t her that led the children in prayer – most of the time she wasn’t even in the classroom when they were preparing and leaving for their lunch period. She informed me that it was common in the school and that many of the other teachers led their students in prayer as well, and it was something that was going on before she started teaching there. She wasn’t aware that it was unconstitutional/illegal in our state as it was so common. The principal had said nothing to her.
I thanked her for being understanding, and I told her that while I wasn’t going to let this go, I didn’t want it to negatively affect her. I looked for the principal as I was leaving, but didn’t find her. The TA, who was standing outside the school saw me but didn’t make eye contact with me, and I didn’t approach her. I was pretty pissed off – it wouldn’t have done much good for me to talk to her. When I got home, I called the Superintendent of the school district and left a message with his assistant.
Bella was made to stand in the hallway alone outside of her classroom while they prayed today. And I am livid. She was ostracized because of the illegal actions of an adult. My daughter was punished because someone infringed upon her constitutional rights, and she has no idea why. I need to explain this to her, but I don’t have any idea where to start.
I want to say that I cannot believe I am having to deal with this. I want to say that I’m surprised that this is quietly accepted. I’m not. It doesn’t surprise me one bit. This is a small town in North Carolina; what else would I expect?
These teachers at this school are indeed overstepping their bounds. Their jobs are to teach children to read, write and count, not to praise a God they might not have any knowledge or understanding of. It’s easy to say “well if Bella doesn’t want to say it, tell her she doesn’t have to” but that’s unfair. What is she supposed to do? She’s six years old, and so are her classmates – of course they are going to do what they told. The prayer is little more than a poem to them, and they have no reason to believe that they are allowed to refuse a teacher’s instructions. I feel like these children are being coerced and indoctrinated by making this small prayer a part of their daily routine. On top of that, to make a child – a child whose parent was willing to stand up and say “dude this is SO not okay!” – stand outside; to make it obvious that she is different, her family is different, that something is “off” about her in front of her peers… that is even more not okay. I will not stand back and let this slide. I cannot.
What do I want? I want the teachers at my daughter’s elementary school – the entire school district, actually – formally reminded that prayer in schools is illegal and unconstitutional, and will not be tolerated. I want to ensure that the next time something like this happens the culprit will face a serious reprimand. I don’t want anyone to lose their job over this – not yet at least. It depends on how this is handled.