I don’t know why I’m so bummed about it this time. Maybe I relished the challenge of approaching a controversial topic in a way that builds bridges rather than walls. And no, I won’t name the school, so don’t ask. I’m not mad at them. I understand the pressure they are under and they stood to lose a lot more than I would if some lawsuit-happy parent got their knickers in a knot.
But I’m still bummed.
Legend of the Valentine has religion in it. And not just any religion. Legend of the Valentine has Christianity in it. It also has the Civil Rights Movement, school integration, handling bullies, Valentine’s Day and a wise grandmother. Because of that, I’m sometimes invited to speak by people who don’t know about the Christianity part. So I make sure I tell them it’s there and discuss how I might present the book in a context appropriate for a public school setting.
What I was hoping for this time, was to bring up the topic of bullying on the basis of religion. I wanted to brainstorm various ways we divide ourselves up: race, language, nationality, money, gender… and religion. Inside the book is a story of religious persecution. And while I don’t know if anyone is being fed to the lions anymore (at least in this country), kids in school routinely experience bullying aimed at their religion–be it Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Sikh, or something else. But religion has become the Great Unspeakable in the public square–most especially in public school.
Do I think it’s acceptable for an author to waltz into a public school and proselytize a captive audience of children for her particular religion? No. But the squeamishness that places religious references in a category of obscenity previously reserved for… well, obscenity, does a disservice to our kids–and to the culture as a whole.
I remember my daughter coming home from Kindergarten and telling me it was “against the rules” to talk about God at school. Of course, her school had no such rule, but the anxiety and discomfort of her teachers any time a child made a religious reference was evident to her. How many children begin to see their innocent faith, and the religions of their families as something shameful? Our kids are taught to speak openly about all manner of sensitive topics–most of which would have curled my grandmother’s hair (had it not already been curly.) But the topic of spirituality and faith elicits a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” superciliousness among policymakers.
What this does is further isolate children of faith (and nonreligious children) from one another. And those children grow into adults who build fortresses around their belief communities because they have never been exposed to any other belief. From within these fortresses, the adults shoot arrows at the other fortresses. Fortress A must be defended against the alien “others” from Fortress B. The beliefs attributed to Fortress B are a caricature, created by Fortress A. Why? Because they never got around to talking openly with each other and trying to understand their common ground.
Do I blame teachers for this? Absolutely not! I am a teacher in a public school. And I am guarded about religious discussion in my own classroom. I know what the climate is in these times, and I can’t put my own school at risk.
So maybe I was a Pollyanna not to decline the invitation to speak in the first place, knowing how loaded it would be to read a book with the name “Jesus” in it.
But I wish that we would talk about this. There has to be another way.