I'm a committed Pagan who believes in a divine, universal creative force and in reincarnation. My significant other is a devout Catholic who respects and understands my worldview while not subscribing to the specifics himself. We agree that we both believe the same basic things: There is a "god," the soul is eternal, and we should spend our time on earth being as kind to each other as possible. The trappings of our respective religions are just that: trappings. I moved away from my pagan parents, pagan friends and associates in the enlightened West to be with him and his family business in rural Louisiana, full of darkness and superstition, understanding that there would be some mental adjustments on my part.
We've been together 10 years, learned the fine art of compromise, and have only grown in respect for each other's needs and viewpoints. We love each other more than either of us ever imagined we could love another and feel we are true soul mates. We have a 5-year-old son and a newborn and agreed before our children were born that they would be taught both Mommy's and Daddy's beliefs (along with other religions) and that what faith you carry with you is a matter of choice after looking at all the options.
This week, what I suppose was the inevitable train wreck has occurred. Our son is entering kindergarten, and our only option is Catholic private school in the next town over. Public schools in rural Louisiana are atrocious, and our only other choices were the local Catholic or Baptist school. I think that there are many wonderful individual Christians, but I think of organized religion as a Very Bad Thing. I think of Christianity (as a movement, not a belief) as a plague on humankind. The current incarnation of Christianity in our country seems to me to be ignorant, small-minded, bigoted and hypocritical. It seems that every "Christian" opinion is the opposite of mine: tolerance, evolution, stem cells, a woman's right to choose, school prayer, separation of church and state -- you know the drill.
After much discussion and soul-searching, we toured the school, spoke with administrators about our "dual faith" family and signed up. At the first meeting for kindergarten parents there were the obligatory prayers (which I ignored) and then a discussion of the curriculum. When it came to the section on religion, the teacher assured non-Catholic parents not to worry, that the religious instruction would be inclusive because "we're all Christians here." As my husband put it, if my eyes were laser beams, the auditorium would have been filled with little piles of dust. That's my hot button: The attitude that all good, reasonable people must be Christians; none of you hippie Pagan liberal Buddhist types need show your face. When we met the teacher (one of three kindergarten teachers) that my son was assigned to, I got an immediate, visceral bad vibe from her. She is THAT woman -- that chirpy, "I'll only teach where children can rejoice to Jesus" evangelical woman. No posters of happy penguins reading books on her wall, just signs imploring "Jesus, help me be more like you." By the time we left I was in tears, crushed under the oppression of that place.
My husband was heartbroken that I was so upset and that the situation is creating a pall over what should be a happy and exciting time. He understands my feelings, but he can't quite feel them, being the product of 22 years of Catholic school himself. He has no personal objections except that I have objections. His first suggestion is for him to go speak to the teacher and explain our somewhat unique situation, and see if she seems amenable to some compromise, and if she isn't, to request that our child be moved to one of the other classes where the teachers seem a little less evangelical. A good plan, a reasonable plan, but I still lie awake in the darkness and I get out of bed in the morning with my fists clenched and walk through the day angry and hopeless. I don't want to fill my child up with my toxins, but nor do I want anyone else filling him up with theirs.
I envision the first time my happy, bright, articulate child comes home and tells me that his teacher said Mommy is WRONG about Jesus, or worse that Mommy is crazy or bad or going to hell. I dread being the volunteer at the bake sale that every other mother avoids, I dread the moment when I just stop participating in my wonderful child's school life because it is just too painful and too depressing. I don't want to start a war over the soul of my 5-year-old, but I feel backed into a corner.
I also feel guilty and foolish. It is after all a Catholic school -- what did I expect? And I fear that I am putting too much pressure on a small, perfect being just making his way in the world.
I want my child to make his own choices in life, and if he chooses Christianity from all the options available to him and becomes a decent, open-minded loving person like his father, I'll be thrilled. But I don't want him force-fed this crap until he becomes a small-minded, guilt-ridden, jump-for-Jesus automaton like 90 percent of the people surrounding me.
I just want us all to be safe and happy and well adjusted, but I fear that my attempts to fix the problems I perceive will only make them worse.
How can I not ruin everything?
Alone in Louisiana
Dear Alone in Louisiana,
In Bradenton, Fla., in the early 1960s they were still teaching the Bible in the public elementary school I attended. We were still saying the Lord's Prayer in class. Week after week on Monday the teacher would ask for a show of hands of those who went to church on Sunday. My family was not a churchgoing family, and my hand never went up. The teacher asked me why, and I remember feeling embarrassed and a little ashamed. Our class was also regularly visited by a stream of women we called "the Bible ladies." They arrived with their easels and their felt Bible scenes, with cutout camels and wise men and such, and they told stories. This, as it was in essence a performance, wasn't that bad. Some of the stories were pretty good. I especially liked the story about Jonah and the whale. (I did not at all like the story about Job.) All in all, it was a break from the mental torture of elementary school.
But there had been a ruling by the Supreme Court around that time making it clear that the official practice of religion in the public schools was unconstitutional. My parents were outraged to learn that the Bible ladies were still coming around. They visited the school and objected to the practice. It was all very interesting, intellectually speaking. But socially, for me, as a child trying to fit into the world, it was a not so good to be caught in the middle.
Frankly, I certainly didn't want to have to go to church. And I think my parents were very courageous for standing up for the separation of church and state in that small-town Southern environment. But sensing the scorn of all those tight-faced white Christians was upsetting. I suppose I would have preferred to be shown a way to fit into the society we were living in; I was not mature enough to be a rebel at that time.
I don't know why I'm telling you that. I guess the thing is, for a kid, what's important is to be given the tools to navigate his world in a way that makes sense for him. And that's not necessarily the same as what makes sense for adults. What's important to him is different from what's important to you. He needs to be able to understand what is required of him and to be able to meet those requirements. He isn't capable of evaluating whether the requirements are right or wrong. All he knows is that they are requirements and if he meets them things will be OK. If the requirements at school are different from the requirements at home, it's a lot of work to figure out which is which. As I recall, I took such things very seriously as a kid. (I also renounced God and Santa Claus at the age of 7, but that was an intellectual thing; it didn't mean I was prepared to engage in cultural warfare; I was just having my first rational, critical thoughts.)
Your struggle is not your kid's struggle is what I'm saying, I guess. My parents' struggles placed us kids in a bind. We found ourselves in the position of trying to meet two competing sets of requirements. It was very difficult indeed to navigate those two -- to determine, for instance, which of the schools' requirements were ones that our parents also approved of, and which ones we could, for reasons we did not then understand, object to or fail to accomplish. All very confusing for a kid. Later in life, I became quite a rebel. In high school, my parents defended me against authorities even when I myself knew I was only being a jackass. This too contributed to a good deal of confusion.
My dream for your child, and for your situation, would be if you could somehow get across to your child that these teachers are good people, and that you trust them, and that while he's in their care, what they say goes. Try to keep it simple. Make him feel protected and confident that he knows the rules. Don't confuse him by contesting what he's being taught in school.
As to these people whose views you detest: They are innocent creatures of this planet just as you and I are. My dream for you is that you could be as open and warm toward them as you can be. Show your kid that what's important is that that we all try to get along. These people are different from you, but that does not mean they are bad. Consider the somewhat radical idea that if tolerance is a good thing, then maybe we don't even get to choose which "different" people we are tolerant toward. Have some faith in your own kid, too -- if you take care of him, he's not going to be warped by anyone else's views. If it's truly nonsense, most of it will probably go in one ear and out the other.
And, if at all possible (I'll bet you hate it when people say this to you!) try to lighten up a little. You brought him into the world, but he's already who he is. Whatever he turns out to be, he'll turn out to be. I would just give him lots of love and try to make his world an understandable place for as long as you can. It'll get complicated soon enough all on its own.
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What? You want more?