As I was writing this week’s story, “Faith on Their Sleeve” (see page A1), I was reminded of something my great-grandfather Hobert Wright said in an audio autobiography he recorded shortly before his death.
“One morning when we went to school . . . (the teacher) said, ‘Now, children, I want you to be good this morning. We are going to study for a little while, then we are going over to the church house,’” he said.
“The church was about a hundred yards from the schoolhouse,” he continued. “Of course we wanted to go; we always wanted to hear something exciting. She said, ‘There is a preacher coming out today to preach. I would like to hear him and I think it would be good for all you boys and girls to hear him, too.’”
That would have been at the old Black Creek School near Robbins, somewhere between 1913 and 1918.
But you don’t have to go nearly that far back to find instances of school-sponsored religious activities. Independent Herald publisher Paul Roy, as he was reading this week’s feature story, recalled his own school days at Oneida Elementary, when every day began with a prayer assembly.
By that time, of course, the first court rulings were already being handed down that would eventually banish such things; the first ruling was in 1952.
Eventually the “separation of church and state” movement even made it here to the Cumberland Plateau. And, along the way, something happened. It became taboo to discuss Christianity in school.
Not completely, of course; I recall very well my social studies teacher at Robbins — Hubert Terry, an ordained minister and one of the best teachers I ever had — bringing anti-abortion lapel pins and similar items to school and distributing them to students. That would have been in the early 1990s.
But for the most part, even students were discouraged from discussing Christianity. Ironically enough, the movement to protect the constitutional rights of non-Christian students hampered the constitutional rights of Christian students, because there was no clear understanding of who could say what, as it related to religion.
As a result of this taboo, kids became mocked, even bullied, if they were open about their faith. I clearly recall a student during our middle school years who was bullied because he belonged to the Church of Latterday Saints and was open about his beliefs.
In this week’s story, OHS baseball coach Shawn West says that when he first started teaching, eight years ago, “If someone mentioned God, you could see (the students’) eyes get big and they didn’t understand the parameters of what could be said, what couldn’t be said, that sort of thing.”
We will never go back to a day when schools openly sponsored religious activities, and that is not a bad thing. In fact, thanks to organizations such as the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, it is becoming even harder for coaches to lead their team in prayer after a practice, or teachers who are supervising events such as prayers around flagpoles to bow their heads when a student prays. (And that is not a good thing, but it is what it is.)
Students, though, have gone full circle. Today’s students have overcome the ‘80s and ‘90s, when you were belittled and mocked for your faith if you dared speak out.
Consider how far we’ve come. As OMS student Grace Kidd talked about carrying her Bible to school, and how two of her classmates have begun carrying their Bibles to school, her mother — Scott County Chamber of Commerce executive director Stacey Kidd — recalled her own school days.
“We had one person who carried her Bible and people made fun of her like crazy. It was awful,” Stacey Kidd said. “The only time I saw a movement in school was when they had a big revival at New Haven. It was better for a while, but it was still not the same level that it is today. Gracie has friends who are atheists, but they respect her beliefs. I think it’s cool that they’re like that now.
Even if they don’t believe it, they say, ‘You’re okay to believe it.’”
We’ve come full circle.
And that’s a great thing.
■ Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.