Now I Sit Me Down in School

I don’t ever write here anymore! I am not one for posting “well, nothing happened today, but I’m going to waste your time with my boring life anyway” entries. However, lately it seems to be my mission in life to defend the separation of church and state in our public schools. That may or may not make any sense to you, considering I teach at a private Jewish high school.

The principal of Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, home of UGA, where I graduated from college, has apologized for reading a poem entitled “The New School Prayer” over the intercom. He claims he read the poem in order to “provoke thought and discussion among students.”

The AJC article (free registration required) about the incident posted a link to the poem in question. I decided to reprint it instead of sending you chasing links or registering at websites. Set aside its questionable literary merit for a moment and think about the message only:

Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd.

If Scripture now the class recites,
It violates the Bill of Rights.
And anytime my head I bow
Becomes a Federal matter now.

Our hair can be purple, orange or green,
That’s no offense; it’s a freedom scene.
The law is specific, the law is precise.
Prayers spoken aloud are a serious vice.

For praying in a public hall
Might offend someone with no faith at all.
In silence alone we must meditate,
God’s name is prohibited by the state.

We’re allowed to cuss and dress like freaks,
And pierce our noses, tongues and cheeks.
They’ve outlawed guns, but FIRST the Bible.
To quote the Good Book makes me liable.

We can elect a pregnant Senior Queen,
And the “unwed daddy,” our Senior King.
It’s “inappropriate” to teach right from wrong,
We’re taught that such “judgments” do not belong.

We can get our condoms and birth controls,
Study witchcraft, vampires and totem poles.
But the Ten Commandments are not allowed,
No word of God must reach this crowd.

It’s scary here I must confess,
When chaos reigns the school’s a mess.
So, Lord, this silent plea I make:
Should I be shot, my soul please take!

Oh. No. He. Didn’t.

Shall we dissect the argument?

  • Praying is not against any rule or law in any school. It is institutional prayer, led by, say, a teacher, or by a group of students who pressure other students to participate that is a violation of the separation of church and state.
  • I discussed Scripture with regards to biblical allusion on many occasions, and I was never pushed out of public school bearing a cross on my back.
  • What on earth does hair color have to do with religion? Yet another fallacy — in order to be “good Christians,” folks have to dress conservatively, vote Republican, and get all jumped up over the “secular humanism” pervading our schools.
  • I’ve never worked at a school where students were permitted to “cuss.” Did they do it anyway? Of course! This poem, however, makes it sound like the student who mentions God will be drummed out of town, whereas we put up with cursing.
  • Piercings, like hair color, have exactly what correlation to a person’s religious faith?
  • We’re not supposed to teach right and wrong? Good. One less thing. I’m glad to know that whole “Character Education” requirement put on teachers several years ago because parents can’t teach their children how to be moral human beings is no longer the responsibility of over-burdened, underpaid teachers in public schools.
  • I suppose it would be better to pretend kids don’t have sex, like they used to do in the good old days, when pregnant girls were sent away or had to get married as teens. Oh, wait. That never happened, because kids having sex is a new thing. It happened in the last 50 years or so since school prayer was “outlawed.”
  • Violence in school isn’t new either. School shootings are new to the white, middle-class suburbs. Urban schools have been dealing with problems like this for decades and no one cared.

I never thought I would make it my mission in this blog to be the champion of separation of church and state, but lately, so many of my fellow Georgia educators seem to be missing the mark. Then they take up the cross (a Medieval euphemism for going on a Christian crusade) and claim they aren’t allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. No one is stopping anyone from going to church or synagogue or even sacred oak grove in this country. No one. What we believe, and have believed for the over 200 years since the Bill of Rights was ratified, is that government and religion are two distinct entities. It bothers me that people feel that in order to practice their religion, they must push it on everyone else. It angers me when those people are educators. Educators have a great deal of influence, both positive and negative, in the lives of the children they teach.

There’s going to be a lot of discussion of this matter on conservative radio shows. Rush Limbaugh has already addressed it. He’s right about one thing. We are at a crisis in public education. The schools are unruly. The students aren’t learning. Is reciting pithy little poems bemoaning the lack of prayer and blaming the problems on the absence of religion going to fix this crisis? I really don’t think so. But I really don’t think violating our Consititution is the answer to the problem.

The principal apologized. Personally, I think he exercised poor judgment in reading the poem. I wonder what his colleagues (several of whom I know) thought when they heard it. My college professor, Sally, taught there for a year on a job exchange with another teacher (who taught Sally’s college classes — she has a doctorate). I picture her in a classroom, listening, mouth agape — absolutely stunned. I am fortunate in that I currently work with a great principal who has her pulse on education today. For most of my career, this hasn’t been the case. I realize there are real frustrations for a public high school principal. I understand this poem must, in some way, address some of his frustrations, or he probably wouldn’t have read it. He apologized for it, but he was probably told to do so. Do I think he needs to lose his job? No. I do think that would be an overreaction. Times are tough, and even tougher for a teacher who has been denied a contract and needs to find work somewhere else. I don’t think one mistake (at least a mistake like this) must lead ultimately to the man’s dismissal. However, I do hope that if he takes anything away from this, that it is simply not right in our pluralistic society to push your religious beliefs on someone else. I do hope he won’t make this a Crusade and insist he’s being persecuted.

Now I sit me down in school;
I (silently) pray we’ll practice the Golden Rule,
That we’ll treat others as we’d like to be treated.
This doesn’t mean religion’s defeated.

I have the right, when I’m at school,
Not to feel like I am a fool.
Just because I believe differently from others,
It doesn’t mean we can’t all be brothers.

Let me practice (or not) religion in my own way,
Let my parents teach me how to pray.
I believe in the Constitution;
For over 200 years, a firm institution.

Let me learn wisdom from books and teachers
I’m not here to listen to your “preachers”
I’m here to be well-rounded and prepare for college,
To fill my head with all kinds of knowledge.

For every purpose under heaven there is a time,
As I’ve endeavored to explain in this poorly-written rhyme.
I don’t know that on religion you and I agree;
I think the best way to address it is to let it be.

I’m a spiritual person in my own way,
But group prayers in school I won’t say.
I want to feel like I am free
To worship or pray as it suits me.

(/bad poetry)

2 thoughts on “Now I Sit Me Down in School

  1. Wow. I couldn't agree more. I've never been in any experience (school-related) whereby "religion" was banned per se. I think like all other subjects in life it should be open to discussion, in and out of the classroom, but not from the point of view of the educator's beliefs. And, can I say: this is exactly why I read your blog. It's a brilliant entry and that poem wasn't bad either!

  2. Our new super prays before meetings and just basically talks about the "Lord" all the time. It makes me insane and well, it makes me uncomfortable. I simply don't believe like most of the people in my town do and I resent having it forced down my throat. *urgh*

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