Religion in My Public School


Today a Middle School, it was Matthew Gilbert Seventh Grade Center back in 1974 Jacksonville, Florida.

(Occasionally I post draft excerpts  from Too Smart for God, the book I’m slowly writing about my journey from Christianity to atheism/agnosticism and back. Here’s an early chapter. Comments and suggestions for revision are welcome!)

In Seventh Grade one period was taken up with something called the “Pre Vocational Wheel.” You got to rotate quickly through a series of potential careers; quickly was good in case you sucked at one of them like I did in Woodshop. The birdhouse I made would have been condemned by any reasonable avian housing inspector. Home Economics was great, even though it was nobody’s idea of a career, because we made food sometimes. Looking back, it’s surprisingly progressive in the 70’s South that boys were required to take Home Ec along with the girls. My big mistake in that class was not picking red fabric when we did sewing because my blood from needle pricks would have blended right in.

Another spoke in the Pre Vocational Wheel was Business Administration. All I remember content-wise was a bunch of filing practice along with a smattering of business letter writing. As long as you were handy with the alphabet and could spell “Sincerely,” you could ace Business Administration.

The B. A. teacher was a laid back yet arrogant guy. That’s not as oxymoronic as it seems. He was cavalier about his casualness. You probably know the type, non-establishment rebels who have sold out but have convinced themselves it was on their terms.

I only remember two other things about this Business Administration teacher, one of which is not his name. So I’ll call him Mr. Smythe. While reviewing one of the scintillating filing exercises, Mr. Smythe corrected me about the pronunciation of “Smythe.” I said it like “Smith” and he said it should be “Smithy.” I would not let the matter rest, although I admit I was unsure and arguing mainly out of boredom and disdain for Mr. Smythe.

I’ve just spent a half hour on Google reading phonetic expressions of “Smythe” on various websites, as well as listening to MP3s where they are available and none of them has “Smithy” as a possible pronunciation.

Suck it, Mr. Smythe!

Yes, it is a little pathetic that I am still fighting this battle 40 years later. I’m including this in part to demonstrate a critical facet of my personality – I don’t like to be wrong. That trait, certainly based in pride rooted in intelligence (and reinforced by everyone telling me how smart I was from the time I can remember with the occasional exception of dolts like Mr. Smythe) is  something that inhibited my return to the church as an adult. It would mean admitting I had been wrong to leave in the first place.

Knowing the right answers was (is) a big part of my identity, and Mr. Smythe offended that by correcting me unjustly. Like all middle schoolers and college sophomores, I had an overdeveloped sense of fairness and belief in my ability to adjudicate justice and truth . . . especially when I was the self-perceived injured party.

It took (is taking) me a while to grow out of that, too. It’s a process . . .

The second thing I remember about Mr. Smythe is the day he decided to evangelize. He wanted all of us seventh graders to see the light, or more exactly, his light. That meant sharing his view of God and casting off our various religious indoctrinations.

Some of you more conservative Christian types are metaphorically on your feet applauding. “Hear! Hear! Religious freedom! God back in the schools!” And so on.

But not so fast . . .

You see, Mr. Smythe was an atheist. He was in fact the first person who I ever heard say out loud that he did not believe in God.

I don’t remember what precipitated the conversation. Perhaps we were learning how to address a Cardinal or a Bishop in a business letter. Something got him going.

“Now I know most of you go to church. Your parents probably make you. What a waste of time!”

In spite of my basic antipathy toward Mr. Smythe, he was verbalizing some of my unspoken angst.

“I’m an atheist. There is no God. And most people know that. They just don’t want to admit it.”

Whoa! No God . . . I didn’t like church but I had never gone that far. At least I hadn’t allowed myself to venture there in seventh grade. That would come later.

“Your parents, they don’t believe any of it either but they go to church and go through all the motions for the same reason all of you do stupid things . . . peer pressure. The same reason they buy big houses and expensive cars. Peer pressure. Keeping up with the Joneses.”

“The difference between your parents and me is  they don’t have the guts to say it. God does not exist.”

Now wait a minute. That’s not true. About my parents. You don’t even know my mom or dad. My hand shot up.

“Yes, David?”

“My father was church treasurer and he sings in the choir. My mom taught Vacation Bible School. We pray before every meal and at bedtime. My parents definitely believe in God.”

Mr. Smythe shook his head. I didn’t know yet what condescending meant but that’s what he was. “David, what does your father do for a living?”

“He’s an accountant,” I said proudly.

“Well, that explains it,” Mr. Smythe proclaimed, his voice ringing with the triumph of besting a 12-year old. “I’m sure most of his business comes from people in the church. The church is all about money for him . . . business contacts. If he didn’t go to church, he wouldn’t have clients.” Dismissing me, he turned to the next item of what he was supposed to be teaching us about The Wonderful World of Filing and didn’t give me a chance to respond.

It wouldn’t have mattered. I’m sure if I had told him my dad wasn’t that kind of accountant, that he didn’t need clients because he worked for the railroad, Mr. Smythe would just have replied that the expectation to go to church was simply part of the corporate culture. He should know, teaching Business Administration and all.

I was pissed at Mr. Smythe. I realize writing this that I still am.

The memory of Mr. Smythe’s attempted atheistic evangelism undergirds my conviction that religion has no place in public schools. Some Christians advocate for teacher-led school prayer in the name of “Getting God Back Into the Schools” (as if God could ever be absented from anywhere – by the way, the implied ability of humans to expel God from school or any other space does not enhance the argument that God is omnipotent). But they fail to consider that once you open the door to religion, all religions – and anti-religion – are going to walk right on in.  It would have been no more appropriate for Mr. Smythe to tell us we should be Christians, or Buddhists, or Wiccans, than it was for him to promote his atheism in Business Administration class.

On the other hand, maybe Buddhism would have been more appropriate, a sort of Pre Vocational Dharma Wheel, but I digress.

Religion, or more exactly faith in God (or not), is too important to be entrusted to the whims of which teacher’s class one’s child is assigned. I venture to say this is true for believers of all sorts as well as non-believers. In a pluralistic society, it is just as wrong for my child to be directed to pray five times a day facing Mecca by a Muslim teacher as it is for a Muslim child to participate in a Christian teacher’s prayers in the name of Jesus, or for a child from an atheist family to be required to be a part of any prayer at all.

It is even more blasphemous – and I do not use that term lightly – to attempt crafting an inevitably milquetoast address to a generic deity that may or may not exist so as to please everyone.

Certainly prayer should be allowed in public schools . . . and it is. The old saying is true – “As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school.” Students should be allowed to pray individually or in groups in which they voluntarily participate free from the actual or implied coercion of even well-meaning authority.

I do not hold Mr. Smythe responsible in any way for my eventual conversion to his unspiritual “side.” The offensiveness of his screed was more about my parents’ faith, or lack thereof, than my own. I don’t recall ever doubting the sincerity of mom or dad’s belief in God or Jesus.

Although I did not know, or at least acknowledge, at the time, even in seventh grade I was already well down the road in my journey to rejecting God myself. But Mr. Smythe’s clumsy and inappropriate atheistic proselytizing did nothing to further that expedition of escape. In fact, he had the same inverse affect as Christians who were similar in their methods if opposite in their beliefs. I no more wanted to be as bitter and closed-minded as Mr. Smythe than I wished to mirror the intolerant Christians I was already beginning to eschew

(You can read other draft excerpts from my alleged book, Too Smart for God, by clicking here.)

About pastordavesimpson

I'm an unexpected pastor. Why unexpected? Because no one is more surprised than me that I'm a pastor. See the "About" page on my blog for more info.
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4 Responses to Religion in My Public School

  1. Anonymous says:

    My early experiences as a student in public school includes the reading of Bible verses in the 4th grade. I usually was asked to do that since the teacher figured I went to SS and church and would not be uncomfortable doing so. We also said grace in the cafeteria before lunch! Our Chrstmas program included reading the Biblical texts of the season along with wisemen etc.
    Years later, while teaching in a public school, it was easy to see how diverse the population had become. I was always grateful for not being responsible for the prayer life of the multicultural students!
    As a parent and SS teacher, it is my joy to encourage young people to pray wherever they are, in whatever manner they choose!

  2. Jeremy Potts says:

    Very well written, I rather enjoyed it! I particularly liked the part where you said “The memory of Mr. Smythe’s attempted atheistic evangelism undergirds my conviction that religion has no place in public schools. Some Christians advocate for teacher-led school prayer in the name of “Getting God Back Into the Schools” (as if God could ever be absented from anywhere – by the way, the implied ability of humans to expel God from school or any other space does not enhance the argument that God is omnipotent)”. I too think that attempts to “put God back in school” are unwise though often well intentioned. God is the most important relationship in my life by far, yet yet imposing things with power or coercion (even God) is not how God works – he works by invitation and choice and so it seems that we should as well.

  3. Tim Foster says:

    My favorite teach of all time was a quiet atheist…until he got cancer…it would seem that God allowed him to experience this ‘tribulation’ to bring him closer to Himself and finally acknowledge the truth about His existence…

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