Innocence, Ignorance - and Backlash

By Williams, Leslie | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview

Innocence, Ignorance - and Backlash

Williams, Leslie, The Humanist

Amy was tall for a first grader. She had a joyful smile, soft fair hair, and a deep desire to learn to read. But my first impression of her was tempered by the warning I received almost immediately from the school principal: I was not to make her stand when the class said the Pledge of Allegiance because it was against her religion. The school wanted to accommodate all faiths.

Ludlow, Vermont, in the late 1960s was a small, homogenous community of less than 1,000 people, most of whom were either Roman Catholic or main stream Protestant. There was no synagogue in town; only a few Jewish families lived there. A lot of people, including my family, didn't attend religious services at all, though most of us came from a Protestant background. There was, however, a growing group of Jehovah's Witnesses in town. Amy was from one such family.

So all eyes were turned on her when she remained seated during the morning ritual. Her pale skin glowed red; she looked at the floor. In succeeding weeks, she sometimes stood silently, sometimes squirmed in her chair. Always she maintained a sad dignity that showed how well she understood that she was irretrievably set apart from her classmates.

Eventually the class accepted that there were different rules for Amy. The other students mumbled the pledge without staring at her or asking awkward questions. Amy became less shy and sad. She made friends. She chased around the playground during recess like everyone else. She gained status because she was one of the brightest and kindest children in the class.

Then came the Christmas season. Peter and Rachel, the two Jewish children in my class of 24, were not for bidden by their parents to participate in learning Christmas carols, writing letters to Santa, practicing for the all school holiday pageant and concert. (Hanukkah was mentioned only in passing, as a sort of afterthought.) I know now that the holiday preparations in school must have posed an absolutely no win dilemma for Peter, Rachel, and their parents, but I also understand now why they did not protest. The homogenous majority of townspeople saw nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas at school. It had been done for generations. It was a tradition--one that excluded and intimidated those who did not share it.

Only Amy, once again, stood out. Her mother, a warm and courteous woman, came to school to talk with me. We agreed that Amy would be excused from all rehearsals and caroling, and that she would stay home on the day of the class Christmas party as well as on the day of the holiday concert. She would not draw a name for the gift exchange; her name would not be put into the gaily decorated "Christmas Mailbox." She would not make decorations for the class Christmas tree.

The school officials and the PTA thought this was the perfect solution to a minor problem. But I watched Amy grow more silent, saw her try less hard to make friends, and ached as she began to lose her spontaneity and lose interest in her schoolwork.

I felt disturbed and uneasy. For the first time as an adult I had directly experienced the destructive effect of state sponsorship of a particular religious faith. I wish I could say that henceforth I became a strong advocate for purely secular holiday activities, refused to participate in carol singing, ceased to tell the story of the stable and the star and the wise men--but I confess I did not. I just kept the visual memory of Amy and Peter and Rachel somewhere in the back of my mind as an instance of in explicable injustice.

Now, many years, many changes, many experiences later, I am the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and I realize that there was a kind of majority innocence 26 years ago (when I knew Amy) that still exists in parts of this country. That innocence remains as dangerous as ever.

I say innocence instead of ignorance, though, in fact, both are alive and well in every community that puts up a cross or a menorah on the courthouse steps, in every school that opts for a graduation prayer or moment of silence de signed to promote prayer, in every well meaning parents' group that doesn't understand why "Silent Night" cannot be included in the holiday program.

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