When I was 9 or 10, my 4th grade teacher was a very religious woman. Every day before we walked as a class to the cafeteria for lunch, we would line up in single-file by the door and say grace. At the end, each of us would add a prayer intention if we had one, and the whole thing seemed incredibly benign and low key. If a student didn’t want to participate, all they had to do was remain silent.
The memory that sticks with me most is how about halfway through the school year the teacher informed us someone’s parents had complained to the principal of the public school and she had been asked to cease and decist the “inappropriate” behavior. All of us students were aghast. Here was our sweet, patient teacher whose “prayer time” had always been a time of solidarity for our class. How could her actions possibly be considered inappropriate?
As it happened, this teacher was a member of my parent’s church and a friend of my mother. Almost every Sunday, we would go to talk to her as we were leaving and my mother would casually ask how I was doing in class or how her family was doing.
This time, the teacher brought up with tears in her eyes how she had been forced to stop praying in school and my mother chimed in about how the religious really were persecuted by our secular culture. If only we could fight back somehow.
My teacher smiled and said her brother in law was the chairman of the board for a local private school which many of my classmates were trying to get into the coming year. She said the student whose parents had complained was applying to this school, and that her brother in law would deny their application.
“We don’t need atheists mingling with our children in their formative years,” she explained, cooly.
On the ride home from Church that afternoon I recall the conversation being about what an atheist is. The term was new to me; it was a completely foreign concept that someone would not believe in God. According to my parents an atheist was someone who liked mocking what others held dear for their own amusement. A serial antagonist. An anarchist of peaceful, moral society. This was confusing to me because my classmate (whose parents had put an end to prayer time) didn’t seem like this at all. He was a nerdy kid like me who enjoyed reading Goosebumps novels and let me play Pokemon blue on his gameboy color until I got my own.
I was puzzled.
In retrospect, it must’ve been a shock to this kid that he didn’t get into the school where all his friends were, and have to start all over again somewhere else. Although, with the snobby lot of assholes at that school, it was probably for the best. This memory came back to me today as I was reading an article about perceived religious persecution, despite there being a majority of them running this country. I wish I could go back and report that teacher, because what she did was wrong.
Not every religious person would take their revenge on an innocent kid, but the perception of atheists as dangerous and antagonistic is definitely there.