When I was a kid at Minerva Elementary (known then as Mary Irene Day Elementary), they took God out of the school, and I never noticed. Because you know, it wasn’t like they dragged him kicking and screaming from the building. He wasn’t even sternly escorted by Mr. Jenkins, our principal, who in those days still administered cracks with a wooden paddle, the number of which was determined by the severity of a wayward student’s indiscretion. I didn’t notice when God left the building because truth to tell, it didn’t feel like he was ever really there in the first place.
I can remember going to eat lunch in the Cold Lunch Room, a side room from the cafeteria where kids who carried packed lunches were segregated from those who purchased the school’s hot lunch. And I can remember particularly in the third grade, the teacher’s aids who took turns watching over the students and who led grace at the beginning of each midday meal. Most distinct in my memory are Mrs. Jugo, a tall pale stern lady who wore straight line dresses that looked like they were made from upholstery material and who never smiled; Mrs. Holderbaum, first name Nancy, a petite swarthy Mediterranean who sparkled stylishly in pant suits and joked around with the kids; and most of all, Mrs. Dreher, a very large beach ball of a woman in bright cotton dresses with full skirts and bulging black flats who wore her shoe-polish hair piled high in massive loops with razor sharp spit curls pasted to her cheeks. Enormous hoops dangled from her ears and I believed she must be a gypsy. These were the ladies who instructed us to intone in a sing-song warble that sucked all meaning from the words: “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for this food. Ahhhh-men.” Mrs. Holderbaum would get us started and then dart out to the big room to check on things, Mrs. Jugo was the one who felt the burden of duty to castigate those children who failed to close their eyes, while Mrs. Dreher seemed to me to execute the whole ritual with actual distaste. Of course I also heard Mrs. Dreher revile children on numerous occasions and call them things like “little idiots” so I assumed she must be godless anyway. And I remember her asking kids, “Are you going to eat that?” and snatching morsels from their lunches.
Now I don’t mean to offend any descendants of these women and I don’t know that they were anything at all truly like the impressions left in my grade school brain forty-two years ago. I’m saying that these were the most obvious of God’s representatives in my school experience. And to tell the truth, I was raised in a Christian family, but we didn’t engage in a ritual grace at home so the chant we droned in school was completely pointless to me. Nobody ever explained this grace thing, just like nobody to my recollection ever bothered to explain the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, either. It was just another daily, meaningless exercise of corporate behavior. So the next year when grace was no longer dictated, perhaps we all assumed it was left behind with the other childish practices of third grade. None of the kids in my circle were aware that God had been forcibly removed.
So now days when I hear adults fuss about God being removed from the schools, I don’t doubt that what really irks them is the fact that they’ve been told what can’t be done. Teachers can’t lead all students in corporate prayer or worship to a God that the children may not believe in at home. Well, this is the United States and the founding fathers implemented in the Constitution that the state could not dictate the faith of its people like it did back in Mother England. I think we can all agree that was a good and fair thing, so the government can’t tell us all we must belong to the same church. Basic freedom of religion. So if I want my child to be raised Jewish I send them to Jewish school, or Catholic to Catholic school, but I don’t complain that they don’t get led in meaningless grace at lunch in a public school, because truth to tell, I’ve had enough trouble just setting my kids straight on the erroneous information they’ve occasionally picked up at church.
Does anyone actually believe those brainless chants of “God is great” ever kept a kid from turning to a renegade life of crime and cruelty? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not the school’s responsibility to instill Christian values, and that can’t be accomplished by staff who may or may not be good Christians enforcing rituals that are never explained and lessons that are never clarified. The Sunday school movement itself was first intended for street kids who didn’t belong to a church and didn’t get any Christian education at home, from their parents. It was never meant to be the means of educating typical children in a walk of faith or Biblical knowledge, but I can tell you for the majority of kids I grew up with, it had become the expected source of Christian edification. Lucky parents were now exempt from the responsibility of teaching their kids themselves. Just like parents expect public school to pick up the slack in teaching manners, courtesy, honesty, and responsibility.
So all you angry screamers declaring that kids are shooting kids because God was removed from the school: God might be missing from the hearts of the people raising those kids. Because God can’t be removed from anyplace, but there are hearts he’s never been invited into. The fact is, Christian clubs and organizations are permitted and do exist on public school grounds, but they can’t be made mandatory for all students. And some of you screamers, watch it before you point fingers and place blame and deny your own responsibility, because I know what kind of example you set for your own kids. You’re most upset because someone is telling you they’re not going to do your job.*
Now. I will say there was one lovely blessed exception to my grade school God-experience, although I didn’t recognize it until years later. My third grade teacher was a wonderful woman named Mrs. Hahn, to this day my favorite of all teachers. She did begin each day of class with a prayer, but it wasn’t leading us to intone something we didn’t comprehend or agree with. She would just talk to God briefly and ask his blessings and protection on the day. It sounded a lot like listening to my mom’s end of a phone conversation with her sister, just talking with someone she knew. She never told us we had to talk to that guy, but it was nice when she did. And Mrs. Hahn would sometimes read us Bible stories, but she treated them like any other literature and would comment on lessons of kindness or strength of character. But mostly, and with no words at all, Mrs. Hahn loved and served with love, reserving judgement and anger. I never felt as safe in any other classroom as I did in hers, because she strove to behave as much as she could like the Jesus she knew. She never preached or expounded, she just lived. That concern, that acceptance, that love, I carry with me even now. That is what every child in public school should be blessed to experience. And that is the place God most resides in public school, regardless of any law. “God is good” can be stricken from the lunch room, but nobody can take him out of the hearts of those who know him.
*This attitude is most likely what my gorgeous niece Kristine was referring to when she said I’m “slightly arrogant.” I don’t think I’m better than other people, but I do honestly have a fairly high opinion of myself. Basically I just recognize my virtues as well as my faults, I know I am wondrously made, and I don’t believe in false modesty. Is that so wrong?
©2012 Doug Tennant, all rights reserved