Back to “School”

Children with their %22textbooks%22When I was in elementary school, we had Weekday Religious Education once a week. Yes, it was public school. And yes, of course they knew about the separation of church and state. That’s why it was held in a trailer, a few yards off school grounds.

I never went (I wish I had!). Instead I got to stay on the state side of the church/state divide, in an empty classroom, with a book.

Anyway, that was in Virginia in the 1970s. Today the situation is . . .exactly the same. I know that because a friend of mine recently fumed on Facebook about a similar class at her child’s school in Staunton, Virginia. So I was curious: was it possible that Plains Elementary still had that damned trailer?

I called the office, nervous. I didn’t want to sound like a condescending Northerner–or worse, like an atheist on the verge of writing a damning blog entry that tens of people will read.

(I am hopeless as a reporter: I hate to make people uncomfortable.)

The school secretary said, yes, students still go off-site for religious education, but they no longer call it Weekday Religious Education. They call it Released Time. Oh, I said. Released Time. OK, then. Thanks so much for your help.

(See what I mean?)

“Released Time” is short for Released Time Bible Education, a program in which children are “released” from the school day to have religious education. It started in New York in 1905. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1945 (McCollum v Board of Education), when Justice Hugo Black wrote that it was “beyond all questions a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.”

But in 1952 (Zorach v Clauson) the Court went the other way, since school buildings were not used in that instance; it decided the schools were merely making “adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people.”

To that sounds less like pausing for Christ during the school day and more like closing for Christmas.

Accommodation for religious holidays probably exists across all school districts in the country. My children’s 2015-16 school calendar includes days off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday. There’s a mysterious “Holiday Recess” that begins December 24. Easter is so early next year that spring break does not coincide; they have the day off for Good Friday, but that’s it. But we don’t really need a specified day off for Easter, do we? Easter’s always a Sunday, and we would never have school on Sundays because . . . our entire calendar accommodates the religious needs of the people.

But scheduling the required 180 school days around religious holidays (and federal ones, and Superintendent’s Conference Days, whatever they are) is a far cry from setting aside a particular time within the school day for children to go to church.

And it is church;* make no mistake. “Weekday Religious Education” sounds ecumenical and possibly even . . . educational. Every week a different religion! “Released Time” sounds bureaucratic—like what your boss might give you in exchange for working on New Year’s. But if you look at the actual materials, it’s clear they are teaching one specific thing:

“By approval of the School Board, pupils, at the written request of their parents, may be released to the teacher of Weekday Religious Education for the purpose of Bible study for one period a week during the school session” [my italics]. That’s from the school’s permission slip. The trailer church brochure itself states, “The Bible is our textbook . . . The Adventures in Christian Living Curriculum includes the following themes:

  • Living in God’s World and Children in the Bible (Kindergarten)
  • God’s Loving Care and Bible Heroes (Grade 1)
  • God’s Helpers and Worship (Grade 2)
  • How the Bible Came to Be and the Life of Jesus (Grade 3)
  • The Teachings of Jesus and the Life of the Church (Grade 4)

“Teacher.” “Study.” “Textbook.” “Curriculum.”

Just like any other class, right? Third-graders in Staunton schools this year will learn how to add and subtract three-digit numbers, why the seasons change, how to draw conclusions from historical fiction, and (if their parents sign the permission slip, which more than 80% of them do), the Life of Jesus.

You can put the trailer off school grounds. You can make attendance optional. You can have “volunteer walkers” escort students to the trailer church. You can use not a squirt of taxpayer funds. But if you put Bible study in your school day and allow the Bible to be called a “textbook,” you are equating learning Christian doctrine with, well, learning.

My friend is not the only one in Staunton who would prefer the school day to be set aside for school subjects. Ten years ago, some parents brought up the issue of Released Time at a meeting of  the Staunton School Board. (The Washington Post, in reporting the story, found it noteworthy that Staunton had 24,000 residents and 75 churches.) They felt their children were ostracized, or at least bored, on account of the program. By law, students who don’t go to trailer church can’t do anything particularly edifying with that time, lest the Christian kids fall behind.

The Board bravely tabled the matter, with just one member voting in favor of ending the program: Reverend Edward Scott, pastor of the Allen Chapel AME Church. As Revered Scott explained to the Post:

“It seemed to me the fairest thing was to leave every student in school all day long and provide them the best education we can deliver . . . We should leave religious education to parents and the institutions that are better suited to provide it—the churches.”

Radical. Well, Reverend Scott, maybe one day the children of Staunton shall be released from Released Time. Meanwhile, to be fair, the trailer church situation isn’t exactly the same as when I was a child. My parents had to get special permission to get me out of Bible study; now you have to have a parent’s signature to get in.

That’s progress, right?


Except on Long Island and parts similar, where the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education conducts a Jewish Hour because “your child has a right to know what it means to be a Jew and what it means to have a relationship with G-d.”

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The Church of Baseball

IMG_20150701_191617680_HDROn a railing in the stands facing left field in Camden Yards, seven large medallions, six orange and one blue, sport seven numbers: 20, 5, 4, 22, 33, 8, and 42. Baseball fans know what those are: the retired numbers of the team’s most honored players. Orioles fans know who those are.

I knew two when I was there earlier this month: number 8, Cal Ripken, and number 33, Eddie Murray. Cal was in his 10th season with the O’s when I moved in with Adam, shortly after which I began a pleasant habit of falling asleep to the sound of Jon Miller announcing games on WBAL. Please, somebody, if I’m ever in traction or trapped in a well, play me a recording of Miller calling a game—any game, any team.

That’s the thing about me and baseball: I like the game—I like the sounds and the sights and the deliciously complicated rules—but I’m not a real fan. My attachment to the O’s is purely a function of my attachment to my husband—and now my kids—and my past. I’ve been with Adam since I was nineteen, which puts us somewhere in our 25th season.

I am, in other words, a nonbeliever who married into the faith and allowed my kids to be raised as Orioles fans.

Eddie Murray, number 33, had left the O’s when I met Adam, but I got to know him when he joined the Cleveland Indians, who were beloved by Adam’s best friend from childhood, who became my best friend, too, thus affording me ample opportunity to tease him about Chief Wahoo, the Indians’ mascot. Chief Wahoo takes the racism inherent in naming a baseball team after an entire dispossessed people and pushes it to 11.

Wait: I actually knew three numbers: 8, 33, and 42. 42 is Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the majors. He was never an Oriole, which is why his number is blue, not orange. But we can all agree on Jackie. Since 1997, the 50th anniversary of his historic start with the Brooklyn Dodgers, number 42 is universally retired.

Seeing that number next to those of honored Orioles makes my throat go thick. What can I say? I am moved not so much by the saints themselves as by our reverence for them, and by what that says about our values and our beliefs.

Yes, 20, 5, 4, 22, 33, 8, and 42 are saints of a kind, and this ballpark is a place of worship. I had just come from a bar mitzvah, where I attended not one but two sabbath services, so I could read the signs. At Camden Yards we gathered before the service in traditional garb outside the gates, where we paid homage to the statues of the local saints. IMG_20150701_184704290_HDRWe spoke to strangers as if they were friends, whether they were black or white, rich (club boxes) or poor (upper reserve). When we crossed the threshold into the ballpark, we left our mundane lives and entered a magical place where we were willing to pay $8.75 for a can of beer. Shortly after we took our seats among the congregation, deacons began moving up and down the rows passing the collection plate—“Coke! Coke! Get your ice cold Coke”—and those who were able, gave.

Although I own an Orioles t-shirt, make annual pilgrimages to Camden Yards, and know who Ripken and Murray are, I would never call myself an Orioles fan. But I sure acted like one. The jumbotron singsonged, “Everybody Clap Your Hands,” and I clapclapclapclapclapclapclapped as hard as anyone. It exhorted, “Let’s Go O’s” and I yelled along. A fan in the next section tried to start a wave at some point, and I did my best to keep it going—you can’t just throw your arms up, people, you have to stand, too! I stretched midway through the 7th inning, per tradition. For some reason, at Camden Yards, smack in the city of Baltimore, they play, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” during the 7th inning stretch, and—loving to dance, knowing the words—I sang along. It’s catchy. I was caught.

A few days before, I similarly did not resist the various (Hebrew) equivalents of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” at the bar mitzvah we attended—all the songs with familiar tunes and words I absolutely do not countenance that I sang with gusto because . . . singing is a pleasure. Remembering a tune from childhood is a pleasure. Filling up a half-empty synagogue with sound seems like the right thing to do, even if ritually and obsessively praising a primitive god seems very, very wrong.

I call myself a Jew because that’s how I was raised; it’s not what I believe. But I have long maintained that attending church or synagogue is not the same as believing. People join in even when they have, doctrinally speaking, checked out. At the bar mitzvah, I was one of those people, wearing a tallis and chanting the prayers and bowing my head to read. When the Torah was lifted, I stood as instructed, in apparent homage to a scroll I considered to be about 13% thought-provoking, and otherwise tedious, archaic, and immoral.

There may be some tedium and archaism at the ballpark, but there’s not much codified immorality. In fact, number 42 represents baseball’s pride in expunging such immorality, as does number 20, Frank Robinson, the first black manager in the majors (I looked it up). Maybe they’ll even get rid of Chief Wahoo one day.

Mostly, though, baseball relegates such matters of import to left field. Mostly it’s just a game. Even the saints are beloved for things like playing 2632 consecutive games, for doggedness rather than dogmatism. Maybe that’s the real reason a non-fan like me can shout “Let’s Go O’s” at the top of her lungs and not feel funny about it. That essential frivolity frees me to enjoy—in the absence of belief—the sense of community and shared experience I seem to crave. That lots of us seem to crave.

In the top of the ninth, with two outs, we were up 4 to 2. We all stood: those of us who could identify 20, 5, 4, 22, 33, 8, and 42, and those of us who couldn’t. We stood together, willing closer Zach Britton to seal the win. Strike 1, and a cheer goes up. Strike 2, another cheer. Ball 1, politely ignored, breath held. And then, in answer to our prayers, Strike 3.

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“How Do We Know There’s No God?”

A different cartoon version of Lena–this time courtesy of BuzzFeed–and an attempt to answer her aforementioned question. (Click on the image to get to the piece. )

BuzzFeed Lena

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