Monday, June 09, 2008

Fostering Religious Diversity in the Public Schools

I received this email via the area LDS listserve today:
I'm doing some informal research for a presentation I am giving at a conference for soon-to-be teachers this Friday. My presentation is on creating respect for religious diversity in the classroom. If any of you have personal stories about:

a) A time during your school years in which a teacher/school official was not respectful of your religious beliefs, or said or did something that made you feel marginalized for your religion,


b) A time during your school years in which a teacher WAS respectful of your religious beliefs, and how that impacted you,

Would you be willing to share them with me, so I can use them as examples in my presentation? I won't use your name, or any identifying details, just the story. Also, this isn't meant as an opportunity to complain about persecution; rather, I'm hoping to use these experiences to help create awareness among my fellow prospective teachers of the issues that might arise in the classroom for their students who are religiously devout.
I remembered an experience and then another (and another and another--I'm feeling a little e-chatty, as you can maybe tell) and sent him the following:
In 11th grade American history class, my large, loud, and frank-faced sort of teacher began his lesson about the Mormons by saying these words: "Now, Joseph Smith was a crazy man. I mean--a crazy man. He thought he saw angels, got these gold plates, starting testifying. He was a crazy man." I, of course, am sitting there, 17 years old, wondering how on earth he could have taught me and two or three of my older siblings and not known that I was Mormon. Also, I was sitting there wondering what on earth I would say in this moment. I felt like I should say something--something--but I also felt like I was pressed up against a wall. I mostly wanted to cry. I finally raised my hand and said something like, "Mr. K? I want you to know that I'm a Mormon and Joseph Smith is important to me, and I believe he is a prophet, so please don't speak about him that way." I was, of course, beginning to cry from the sheer intensity and awfulness and something of the moment. My teacher stared at me from his lean against the front chalkboard and sort of sputtered. "Oh, yeah, no. I didn't say he WAS crazy. I said other people thought he was crazy. Didn't I? Didn't I say that?" He turned to one of my classmates for confirmation; she shook her head, no. He vaguely apologized, I remember, but that's all I remember. I zoned out for the rest of class, staring at my desk and wondering why that moment had been so awful. I was glad I'd taken a stand and was feeling embarrassed it had made me cry, but I was feeling sad that I'd had to take a stand at all. In a safe place like history class, no less.

Also, a related but more subtle moment. I was in driver's ed one day, in the driving car I shared with three classmates and my driver's ed instructor. We were talking about physical intimacy, unusually and for one moment, and I was trying to say something strong and clear but cool about my thoughts about physical intimacy, my decision to be abstinent before marriage and to stay well within romantic boundaries before then. And my teacher turned around, looked at me with wry, self-satisfied sort of irony, and said, "Sarah, are you saying that you're a prude?" He wasn't joking, kind of. And I felt stupid. And I wondered why I wasn't getting support for this (a) hugely important and (b) (I thought) hugely valuable decision of mine (growing, among other things, out of my religious convictions) from a teacher.

And a third, totally third-hand story. I've heard of teachers who, for fear of the law or social repercussions, wouldn't let students list their own religious rites as some of the most important moments of their lives on those "get to know me" posters that kids sometimes make. They weren't allowed, absurdly, to put up pictures of them in baptismal dresses or christening dresses or confirmation clothes or bar mitzvah attire to hang on their posters on the wall. This is ridiculous.

Also--one more (a good one): my brother's great friend from high school was Sikh, and he received his turban (apparently, a very important ceremony in the life of a Sikh man) during his senior year of high school. They let him wear his turban and not his graduation cap during his graduation ceremony, and we loved seeing him up there with his red turban (the color of the graduation caps, probably not coincidentally) with his '07 tassle swinging from the back of his turban. That was a triumphant religious diversity moment I thought.
You? Team, you? What have been some of these moments--good and bad--for you?

P.S. It's 11:45 pm. My goal is 12:20. Let's see if I can make it happen.


Marissa said...

good luck with your goal of 12:20 sleeping!
I had an experience the other day which, although not a school experience, is familiar to one of the stories you gave.
After I was baptized my mother and father started looking for things about the church online and of course eventually found out about temple garments and pictures of them.
My mother shared these with my neighbor. I babysit for my neighbor and one day after she had returned home she asked me about them. She told me she thought they were crazy, that I sounded brain washed for defending them, and then insisted that I needed to start wearing thongs and risque underwear. When I told her I didn't wear garments yet and that i wouldn't until I was older or got married she said "oh yeah, and you're life ends when you're married."
For a moment there I really felt like I was immature and naive for feeling like garments were great. This was a woman who babysat me when I was little and would invite us over to make gifts for our mother or cookies.
But then I was horrified... she was equating wearing sexually charged items of clothing to having a life. She's a wonderful lady, active in her church, constantly serving others but she felt like this was true.
She still brings it up every once in a while telling me "I hope you're wearing sexy underwear now" as if I had needed what she probably considered a pep talk.
I'm glad to say that now I don't feel so embarrassed when it is brought up but for awhile there I was.

Christina & Ryan said...

Sarah, you need to talk to my mom. She and Tim have stories that you could use. Let me know your e-mail address so I can tell her to e-mail you OR just e-mail her at and tell her what you are looking for. I had an awful experience at an interview (after which I cried) but I don't think I have any in a school setting.

Kate said...

Sarah, for my 17th birthday I received the following from a friend:

1) “Why I Am Not A Christian.” by Bertrand Russell
2) “Brigham Young´s 27th Wife.” A trashy novel about polygamy
3) “Orgasmo.” A trashy fictional movie about a Mormon porn star.

Wrote a post about it on my old blog

Laura said...


I was one of those eight year old third graders who was so excited to share "What I Did Over Christmas Vacation." What did I do? I was baptized a member of the Church. My teacher refused to put my picture up with my peer's pictures until I changed it.

I really, really did not like my third grade teacher.

As for good experience, I am sure i have had some - I wish they stood out in my memory as much as the first one did.