Blurring the Lines: The Intersection of Church and State in One School District

For those of you who don’t already know, i work at an area school district.  i won’t say which one for obvious reasons, but there really are aspects of working there that can grind on me.  Most notably, i often have trouble with the fact that i feel the need to mask my true self at all times while at work… to put on a false face that is only marginally reflective of who i am inside.  Sure, i can feel free to express things like my genuine love of learning and the subject matter that i find myself teaching or my general nerdiness, but there are things–basic, integral aspects of myself–that i must keep a damper on any time that i find myself in a setting that is in any way work-oriented.  And, truth be told, on the face of it, there isn’t really anything wrong with that.  It’s truly not the business of either my students or fellow staff if i’m bisexual, or if i like being tied up and beaten, or if i’m an atheist, and if it were simply a matter of it not being anyone’s business, i don’t think it would bother me as much as it does.

But it’s not that simple.  To begin with, modern education is about building good working relationships with students, and that is actually one of my strengths.  Students like me, they find me relatable, and they tend to respect me because i respect them and usually don’t prejudge them based on their appearance like some of my colleagues do.  Unfortunately, building relationships with students can feel shallow and artificial when one feels the need to conceal parts of one’s self that do come up in conversation at the high school level, like it or not.

But i don’t merely hold back those parts of myself because they are my own business and i choose not to share them as a professional.  Instead, i am keeping those cards so close to the vest out of fear… fear of exposure and the social and professional consequences that it would entail.  For example, if a parent were to hear about my kinky side, or even just that i’m bisexual, it could result in them calling the school and saying that the don’t feel comfortable having me as a role model and instructor for their children.  Even without the parents getting involved, if it were merely to come out among my superiors, they might feel the same way or simply choose to get rid of me in order to avoid later potential problems of this nature.

And that’s to say nothing of atheism.  i think the need that i feel to conceal that is what rankles the most, and really most of that is because of the distinct lack of discretion shown by my Christian colleagues.  None of them feel any qualms whatsoever about being openly and unabashedly religious in their professional comportment.  i’ve heard reports from some students that one teacher (who has since retired) basically gave a full-on sermon to his class one day, the message of which was essentially “turn or burn.”  God talk has occurred in classes that i have actually been present in as well, leaving me silently biting my tongue to keep myself from engaging.  The uncaring freedom with which they express their sectarian views not only flies in the face of the First Amendment by giving preference to a single religion in a publicly-funded educational institution, it feels like a slap in the face to me because, even though they don’t realize it, i have to keep myself hidden as an atheist in order to avoid the inevitable personal and professional repercussions that would result in my being out.

It gets worse when one factors in the after-school program in which i work.  Another school-sponsored and funded program, the after school program gives elementary students a place to stay until their parents get off work and also works toward educational enrichment in the process.  It is primarily staffed by students at the local private Christian college or graduates of the same institution.  During the course of the program it is not uncommon to see program staff wearing explicitly Christian t-shirts… as many as 4 or 5 on some days, as if they all coordinate in advance.  Moreover, during art time, the staff member teaching art class provided old shirts for students to wear over their clothes while painting.  More than half of those also bore explicitly Christian messages.  The most egregious example, however, took place in a science class i was teaching.  During the course of the class, the students had gotten me off topic by asking me questions about the various Lantern Corps in the Green Lantern continuity–specifically what powers each corps.  When i finished with the tangent and was about to continue with my lesson as planned, the other staff member in the room (a fellow public school employee, bear in mind) interrupted my lesson to sermonize, saying “But of course there’s actually no power in the universe but Jesus.”  Those were her exact, unedited words, and they were absolutely inappropriate.  This caught me so much by surprise, that i actually had to stop in my tracks momentarily, collect my thoughts, then continue with my lesson as if she hadn’t said anything.

And if this were just a few individual teachers violating the First Amendment, it would be one thing, but this crumbling of the Wall of Separation goes all the way to the top administrative levels.  During our teacher in service meetings before the school year officially begins, lunch is provided every day by local restaurants.  Before each and every lunch in that three day period, one of the assistant superintendents got on a microphone and said grace before we were allowed to eat.  The school also brings in “motivational speakers” who are clearly religious, even if they soft pedal it a bit during their talks.  The most recent example was a group of those Christian bodybuilders who seem to have become a dime a dozen in recent years, purportedly just at the school to talk about “character.”  Nevermind the fact that immediately after their presentation they distributed flyers for one of their unrestrained evangelical performances at a local church that weekend…

These are the sorts of things that i have silently endured for the past few years working for the school district, and i’ve managed to do so because i could usually find places of refuge.  Unfortunately, this new year, the classroom in which i spend most of my time over the course of the day has a new teacher.  This new teacher likes to play music during the school day to help students relax and focus, etc.  In and of itself, i find this practice appealing, and would be very supportive. Unfortunately, the teacher’s musical selection tends to be stuff like Contemporary Christian music and other very religiously themed selections.  And i’m stuck in there with it for most of the day.  It drives me crazy on multiple levels.  to begin with, i find very little (if any) actual musical artistic value in Contemporary Christian music.  Secondly, i find myself being bombarded with one-sided devotional messages that do not receive any sort of rational rebuttal.  It’s like failing to answer an assertion in a debate that i didn’t ask to be thrust into.  Finally, she doesn’t seem to realize that what she’s doing is plainly illegal under the Constitution.  i want to speak out.  i want to tell her this.  i want to stand up to my administration and tell them that what they’re doing is wrong.  But that would mean exposure, and i can’t risk that right now, at this early stage in my career…

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