Classroom Culture War: When N.J. Student Matthew LaClair Signed Up for High School History, He Never Expected Preaching Instead of Teaching

Article excerpt

Only days into the new school year, Kearny (N.J.) High School history teacher David Paszkiewicz began preaching and denigrating evolution and the Big Bang theory in class. Sixteen-year-old Matthew LaClair, a student in Paszkiewicz's 11th-grade accelerated American History class, knew it was wrong, but also knew it was too surreal to believe. He needed proof of Paszkiewicz's evangelism, so he taped his lectures for two weeks and handed the tapes over to school administrators. He soon found himself in the thick of an impassioned church-state debate.

LaClair discusses his experience in this email interview by Americans United Communications Assistant Lauren Smith.

Q: What went through your mind when Mr. Paszkiewicz began criticizing evolution and the Big Bang and promoting the biblical story of Noah's Ark in your history class?

LaClair: Not only did Mr. Paszkiewicz criticize evolutionary theory and the Big Bang, but he said it was not even a science. Speaking about the Big Bang, he said. "Let me give you a clue, guys: if there's nothing, it can't explode!" This is not what the theory states. I was scared more than anything else that this kind of stuff is happening in my school, about 10 miles from New York City. What is going on in the rest of the country?

Q: You told The New York Times that you weren't sure how far Mr. Paszkiewicz would go. Did you think he'd ever go so far as to tell students they belonged in Hell if they didn't accept Jesus Christ?

LaClair: I never imagined in the first two days he would go so far as to tell the students that if they don't agree with him, they belong in Hell. I was not sure what to expect, but from what I heard the first two days, 1 was ready for anything.

Q: How did other students react to Mr. Paszkiewicz talking about evolution, Noah's Ark and the Big Bang in history class?

LaClair: Most students would just nod their heads in agreement when he talked about evolution, Noah's Ark and the Big Bang. On the recordings, you can here Mr. Paszkicwicz try to disprove evolution and then ask the students, "Can it be a science?" And there are mutters of "no" from the students.

Q: Were any of your classmates concerned when Mr. Paszkiewiez began preaching? Did you ever discuss his remarks with friends outside of class?

LaClair: Some students have talked to me after class, saying that sometimes he goes too far. But after they realized that I had recorded the class, I would see some of these same students on TV saying that Mr. Paszkiewicz never pushed his beliefs on anyone.

Q: Why did you decide to begin taping Mr. Paszkiewicz's lectures ?

LaClair: I decided to start taping the class on Sept. 13 because I didn't think anyone would believe me if I did not have proof.

Q: How did your classmates react when you exposed the tapes? Why do you think they reacted this way?

LaClair: Most students in the class and in the school became angry with me. I received a death threat, and there have been many glares and very foul language used to me both at school and on Web sites. I think this occurred because Mr. Paszkiewicz is very good at communicating with the students, and they think he is cool. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the students agree with what he was saying.

Q: Some of your classmates have been quoted in national newspapers saying they believe Mr. Paszkiewicz has the right to discuss his religion in the classroom. How do you respond to that statement?

LaClair: I am truly disturbed that many students do not seem to understand the separation of church and state. I am sure that my classmates would feel different if the teacher was Muslim or Jewish and tried to do the same thing. …