I learned much of what I know about other religions by teaching children and working with colleagues of other faiths in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. Having spent much of my childhood in an all-white, all Protestant, mostly evangelical town—where we had not even a Catholic or an Episcopalian—I had not a single conversation with anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the Maryland suburbs. This is the place where I learned to appreciate and understand the value of diversity of cultures and faiths.
Because of that, I watched with mixed emotions this week as the school system I work for made the national news when Board members voted to remove all references to religious observances from the school calendar. The decision followed a request in the spring from Muslim community leaders to give the Islamic holy day Eid al-Adha equal standing with the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, which falls on the same date next November. After some discussion one Board member offered an amendment to remove references to Christian holidays as well, and the Board, with only one dissent, voted in favor of omitting the names of the holidays from the calendar.
It was a decision that pleased almost no one in any of the three major religious communities in the county. And in a system where schools receive a calendar designating days when we are not permitted to assign homework because of religious observances, this decision will surely lead to more than a little confusion for teachers.
Federal law, of course, does not allow public schools to endorse or promote any particular religion. The school board reasoned that the system cannot, by law, close for any religious holiday unless there is a secular reason for doing so. The system began closing on Jewish holidays in the 1970s, when the rate of both student and teacher absenteeism was so high that it was difficult to staff classrooms where, in some schools, less than half the class was present.
For the moment, at least, schools will still be closed on Christian and Jewish holy days. How will the school calendar name those days next year? I’m not sure. It seems to me more than a little like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” We will all stand by and watch, but none of us who work for the system will be able to give voice to what is obvious to everyone.
So how do we have conversations about religious faiths that, for many of us, form the core of our identities? How do we teach an appreciation for all religions and none? How do we teach our students to value what can be learned from every culture and every faith?
Teaching here has not always been a comfortable education for me. In my early years here, I taught two cousins who were Sikh. One, a girl, was a delightful student, easy to engage and eager to read. The other, a boy, constantly questioned authority. When he was unhappy with a grade and threatened me bodily harm—something I’d never had happen up to that point—I assumed, as somewhat of a feminist, that he had learned from his culture not to respect women. When I shared that assumption with my principal, he supported me by addressing the student’s behavior but gently told me that he wasn’t comfortable with the stereotype I’d voiced. He was the first person to challenge my worldview, and I’m very thankful now that he did.
In the years since then, as I have opened myself to others, those who have been willing to share their perspectives with me have enriched my life. I have come to believe that our future depends on learning to share meals at a common table, to share stories of our lives and our children, to work together for a better world.
Our system offers a course in Comparative Religions, and I’ve watched over and over again as the students who elect to take this course come away from it changed. Yes, a few of them do begin to question their own faith, but most of them learn that every faith has something to value. And I wonder if our world might be a better place if all of us had such an experience.
If, somehow, all of us learned to value worldviews other than our own, perhaps we might be able to let go of the fear that grips us when we identify a religion only with its extremists.
How do we do that? I don’t know. But I think it’s imperative that we somehow find the answers together.