Letters

Readers question the wisdom of Cary Tennis' advice to a pagan woman whose child is going to Catholic school.


Salon Staff
August 26, 2005 10:20PM (UTC)

Read "Since You Asked" by Cary Tennis.

Cary, most of the time I agree with what you advise. Other times, like now, I respectfully disagree. I grew up just a few years before you did. I attended public school as a child in rural Pennsylvania when prayers were mandatory. My mother was a semi-indifferent Baptist, my father a lapsed Catholic. My mother graduated from high school, my father did not. Mostly, they learned to get along. They didn't have a kindergarten close enough for me to attend, so I started first grade at the age of 5. My grandfather had already taught me to read by then. And what I'd read was the Golden Book Encyclopedia.

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What I remember most about those books -- which, by the way, my mother had brought home from the grocery store, one book at a time for a dollar apiece, along with the canned goods -- was a center-page spread in Vol. 5 about dinosaurs. That's why I was so profoundly changed by a field trip to the Carnegie Museum when I was still in first grade. There were dinosaur bones there. Huge, put-together skeletons of the terrible lizards I'd read and re-read about till I'd memorized the article there in that museum. There was even one bone, set on a short pedestal, that children like me could touch. Of course I did. And 40-some years later, I returned to that same museum and touched it again. And then after that I went on to find dinosaur bones of my own in the badlands of Montana (but that's another story).

This is what I want you to hear now: My parents didn't fight for me when I challenged my Sunday school teacher, who threw me out of her class when I stopped her in the middle of her recitation of Genesis and asked where the dinosaurs were. This evangelical Christian woman had gone straight from fish to mammals, and when I wanted to know why the Bible had left the dinosaurs out of the story, she told me that was because they didn't exist. I'm sure she was well meaning. And she might even have been a good person. But I was 6 years old, and I'd already touched the bone of a dinosaur. If that mother's child is half as sentient as his mother's letter promises he already is, asking her to feign support and him to endure his kindergarten teacher's evangelicalism could be more damaging than the amorphous "why can't we all just get along" alternative you propose. I don't hate my Sunday school teacher, but I still remember her having no compunction about humiliating me for asking a reasonable question. And I resented my parents for continuing to send me to Sunday school after that. Yet I felt guilty at the same time. For not fitting in. You see, unless you ask that woman to begin living a lie in a very fundamental sense (no pun intended), her son, and her daughter after that, will sense the disjunction between the family's private and public face. You felt the sting of "not fitting in," but I'll bet you look back on your parents as principled, not hypocritical, at least in this regard.

My parents didn't have the luxury of sending me to private school, but, as I've said, prayer was still mandatory in my public school. So maybe because of or maybe in spite of that Sunday school experience, I refused to pray during school prayer. My teachers and classmates were not supportive, to say the least, of my rebellion. My parents, neither of whom were fundamentalists, and both of whom had come to a reasonable compromise on their religious beliefs, told me to play by the rules. They told me not to make waves. But I couldn't help myself. I was always slapping my oars in the water. And by this time I felt tremendous guilt.

I think you're right to say that good parents, who teach their children to be decent, caring human beings, can overcome conflicting messages. I know I did. But it took me almost 40 years.

Cary, do not tell that mother to be tolerant in the face of intolerance. Do not ask a 5-year-old child to resolve the tremendously conflicting worldviews that he has already been exposed to by his parents' example and those he will have to live by in that classroom. You are doing neither of them any favors.

Unlike my parents, this mother has a choice. At the very least she can and should demand a less dogmatic teacher.

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-- Peg Hesketh, Anaheim, Calif.

As a former evangelical, I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read the letter from the Pagan who is torn over sending her son to Catholic school. I was particularly struck by this passage:

"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."

This is not the voice of reason -- she is as nasty and biased as the people she is howling about and running from. And where the hell does she think those "wonderful individual Christians" come from? They come from thoughtful people who have considered their faith carefully and tried, in their limited and finite way, to live in a way that overcomes the craziness and the corruption of their organization(s). More than that, I'll wager she will find that the same tension exists in Islam, Judaism, and any other belief out there. A person has to be presented with a system, something solid and organized, before an individual's faith can be accepted, rejected or adapted.

The Christian church does not hold a monopoly on oppression and hypocrisy. While the Catholic Church, and let's not forget other forces too, did a lot of repugnant things, it's also rather presumptuous to dismiss centuries of thought, tradition, history, art, charity because it offends a vague set of reactive modern sensibilities. People in the past acted according to imperatives we do not share today. It's history. Get over it.

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Give our children some credit; let them at least be exposed to something that at least tries to make sense of the universe. If they can, they will eventually question things, especially if they are exposed to more than one way of viewing the world. Don't count on shielding them from opposing viewpoints; those will come sooner or later in spite of your best efforts. Arm them with the capacity for thought now.

Then the rest is up to your child and God.

-- A. Wright, Toronto, Canada

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I think Cary Tennis could have thought a bit more out of the box in his response to "Alone in Louisiana" than a long version of grin and bear it. To begin with, how about home schooling? How about a private tutor? How about starting an alternative? After all, there might be 20 or so non-Catholic parents who support a quality education nearby. How about moving from an area so clearly incompatible with one's social views? I am an openly gay man and could have made a great deal of money in Saudi Arabia with my computers skills, but I took the economic hit to not live somewhere where my neighbors would stone me to death if given the chance. While I don't have children and am very likely not to, I think raising them with such obvious conflicts between school values and home is begging for trouble. I note there is a Friends Meeting nearby and they might have some good suggestions of alternative schools or even run one. I also note a Montessori school in the area. There are more possibilities than just bad public schools or Catholic schools.

As part of a political group that has sought tolerance, I can tell you it is highly overrated when compared with acceptance. To ask Alone to be placed in situations where she would either be the object of pity at best and scorn at worst, for the next 12 years (and more like 18 with the baby included) is, I think, asking a bit much of anyone's patience. This isn't a problem that is going to go away. I think something more radical that actually solved the problem would be a better solution.

-- Stephen R. Stapleton, Sacramento, Calif.

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Let me see if I get this straight. A child is enrolled in a Catholic school and a parent is upset with the school teaching Catholic principles. Why not pull the child from the Catholic school and enroll in the public school where no religion is supposed to be taught. Or why not home-school the child?

-- Jennifer VanderKelen

Since Gary Tennis was so unwilling, or unable, to offer substantive advice to the pagan mother enrolling her child in a Catholic school, perhaps I should pitch in and do his job for him...

The most critical figure in this situation is the father: Himself a Catholic, but understanding and tolerant of his wife's differing beliefs, he can, and must, serve as an example of enlightened and compassionate Christian conduct, to counter any intolerance his son is likely to encounter in school. And yes, it's a pretty safe bet that he will encounter bigotry at one time or another; kids are like that sometimes (I know I was), with or without adult encouragement.

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I strongly suggest that both parents go to the school together, and that the father -- speaking as a Catholic who values tolerance and understanding, especially of his own wife's faith -- clearly inform school officials that teaching ignorance, intolerance or bigotry toward persons of other faiths is, in his opinion, un-Christian, and will not be tolerated. It is vitally important that this line be drawn by the Catholic parent, since, if the teachers are as closed-minded as the pagan mom fears, a pagan's opinion will likely be ignored. The father should also offer to educate the teachers about what pagans really believe, since many Christians (including, it seems, the pope) still labor under centuries of hateful propaganda on this subject.

Finally, the last thing the pagan mom needs to do is "try to lighten up a little." The intolerance and lies she fears are no laughing matter; they are part of an ongoing coordinated political campaign, and Tennis' insulting brushoff proves his ignorance on such matters.

-- David Motheral

As a neo-pagan writer ("The Pagan Man," "Rites of Worship," "Real Magic") and a polytheologian, I found the letter from a pagan mother worried about sending her child to a Catholic school, and Cary Tennis' response, both disturbing and heartbreaking. Creedism is no more acceptable than racism or sexism, and a mother's fear that her child will be brainwashed into a creedist worldview is well founded. A famous Catholic saying is (in its modern phrasing), "Give us a child until he's 6 and he'll be a Catholic forever." That's not true, thank the Gods, but it is still the prime motivation (other than financial) behind "allowing" non-Catholic kids to attend Catholic schools.

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I would tell the mother that no matter how bad the local public schools might be, nothing will give her child a worse self-image or a more crippled worldview than a Catholic, Protestant Fundamentalist, or Mormon school. Full or part-time home schooling might be a better solution than giving in to the local power structure.

As for telling the mother to "be tolerant," those who are opposed to racism don't have to be tolerant of the KKK, those opposed to sexism don't have to be tolerant of sexually abusive employers, and those opposed to creedism don't have to be tolerant of Talibaptist or Catholic bigots. Being open to new ideas is not the same thing as having to accept all ideas as equally valuable.

-- Isaac Bonewits

Cary -- loved your answer to the pagan gal who's sending her 5-year-old to Catholic school, as far as it went. The first part of her letter showed such a balanced, happy, down-to-earth person that the second part's wrapped-tight hysteria seemed like a different person altogether -- and any mother will recognize that person instantly. She is the tigress whose cub is leaving her den, hunting on his own, swimming to Hawaii, heading to the moon: entering kindergarten. Her feelings may be intensified by her isolation in rural Louisiana and the limited options available for her son's education, but the nature of those feelings would be the same if she lived in Northern California and had gotten her son into the Pagan Dream Academy. No teacher will appear benign, nothing will be right about this school, until she drives to school and picks up a happy kid who can't wait to tell her about his day. Your advice was good, yet she could also have used some validation (did I really write that word?) for the head-clutching anxiety attendant on her first child's first school days.

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-- Michele Kellett

Generally speaking, I try to take Cary Tennis with a large grain of salt. Sometimes I agree with him, but usually I don't, and that's all right. Advice columnists are just people with opinions, after all, and their opinions don't have to agree with mine. But sometimes I find his advice to be actively pernicious, and his column about the pagan mother in Louisiana is a prime example. The mother very clearly and concisely outlined her many excellent objections to having her son taught doctrines inimical to hers, and Tennis blithely brushed them aside with counsel "don't confuse the boy," "he is what he is and he will be what he will be," and "lighten up."

The issue isn't one of a minor conflict of views. Fanatical Christians are just like any other fanatics: they preach a worldview so twisted and full of hate that exposure to it is, simply, toxic. To expect a mother to gladly consign her child to people who will tell the child that his mother is wicked and hell-bound is not only reprehensible, it is utterly baffling. Such advice flies in the face of a mother's natural concern for her child's well-being, but in addition is almost certain to prove disastrous to the family dynamic. How is this poor woman supposed to react when her son comes home spouting fanatical Christian foolishness and telling her that God hates her beliefs? "Son, your teacher is always right"? Such words could only be a dagger through a mother's heart, and no amount of "lightening up" could possibly make it less so. Does Mr. Tennis genuinely have no appreciation for the dilemma this woman is in, or is he merely being glib? Either way, he has no business commenting on her situation.

Mr. Tennis claims that the child will only be "confused" by being told one thing at home and another at school. To judge by Mr. Tennis' anecdotes, this was true for him, but he should be informed that not every child is incapable of reconciling two different ideas or making value judgments between them. Children spend their days reconciling conflicting information -- it's how they learn critical thinking and judgment. My parents were careful to inform me from my earliest days that not everything my teachers said was correct, because teachers were people too and made mistakes. Armed with that information I was able to challenge my teachers when they made errors (or when I perceived errors) or simply ignore fallacious information; this didn't make me popular with my teachers, but it did equip me with the tools I needed to begin thinking critically from the earliest age. Had my parents told me that my teachers were always right, I would have gone through my school years being far more confused than I was.

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Lastly, Mr. Tennis counsels that tolerant people can't pick and choose who they tolerate, so the mother has no right to quibble over what her son is being taught. To this, I can only say: What? Being tolerant doesn't equate to being incapable of making value judgments! Growing up in rural Louisiana, the child will certainly encounter vast amounts of racism and sexism -- should the mother avoid denouncing such creeds under Mr. Tennis' bizarre definition of tolerance? Should she simply shrug and say nothing when her child overhears ignorant bigots? Tolerance doesn't equal spinelessness or lack of moral compass, as Mr. Tennis' statements appear to indicate.

-- Gregg Helmberger
Department of Psychiatry
University of Minnesota Medical School

I grew up in a Catholic home (as in, I have aunts who are also nuns) with my mother, who divorced my pagan father on her way home from the hospital. I spent my high school years boarding at a convent school. During that time I embraced my pagan side, driving the school priest to whereever priests go to dry out. In college I came out of the broom closet and spent several years as a pagan and as an elementary school teacher. I met my husband at a pagan gathering, and we became the first pagan couple to marry in a military chapel on an active-duty post. Two weeks later his lapsed Methodist parents embraced the Catholic Church full bore. Three years after our marriage, and just after a move to another state, I spent two years as a Sunday school teacher in the Unitarian Universalist church. Since then, for many other reasons, my husband and I have decided to rejoin the Catholic Church.

I know this topic very well.

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As I see it, you have four choices.

1) Try to explain how Mary is an incarnation of the Goddess, Jesus is a God figure, and so the Catholic Church isn't that foreign. Then play along until he's old enough to understand that Mommy is a little different.

2) Fight like hell over every prayer, holiday, sleepover-with-church-on-Sunday, etc. Odds are no one will reject your son, he's "innocent." You, however, may end up as the school pariah.

3) Join the nearest U.U. church. They take pagans, teach a little of every religion, and then your child can truthfully say, "Yes, we go to church on Sunday." The teachers there will help him, and you, cope.

4) Home-school.

Anyway, good luck. You're going to need it.

-- Annie Cable

Cary, I feel you gave terrible advice to the pagan with a child headed for Catholic school. There is more to life then fitting in at grade school. I cannot understand why any parent with even a limitedly open mind would subject their child to the propagandistic bullying by a kindergarten teacher as you described. As not only a pagan, but as one who never fit in, I can assure you that the damage that comes from dealing with difference isn't nearly as harmful as allowing your child to be brainwashed. After all, it's frequently the people who are different who make great contributions to humanity -- and even if a person doesn't, conforming mindlessly to the crowd certainly isn't what I'd want for my child!

Not to mention that your advice places guilt on both parents should they dare to teach their child to have minds as open as that of the parents with regard to religion. You sound like the judge in Indiana who's ruling that divorcing parents (who agreed about religion) were not allowed to teach their own religion to their child. The decision was overturned last week by the appeals court.

My mother stopped the felt-board Bible stories in my school (I didn't know at the time that she did it). I was unhappy because they were a lot more fun than class. However, my mother was totally right to do so! Children shouldn't knowingly be subjected to propaganda, unless you prefer adults who don't think for themselves.

-- Grey Cat, High Priestess and founder of NorthWind Tradition of American Wicca

I have a friend whose parents, both being lapsed Catholics, didn't particularly care what she decided for religion, but didn't want her, as a teenager, to suddenly "return to her roots" and become a Catholic. So they sent her to Catholic school. Worked like a charm.

-- Marc Moskowitz, Arlington, Mass.


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