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Not a Graduation Speech

It’s that time of year.  I recently attended my niece’s high school graduation ceremony.  Pomp and Circumstance and all that.  We were treated to no fewer than five commencement speeches by assorted valedictorians.  Okay, let them have their moment, a reward for hard work and dedication.

Something I found particularly noteworthy about these particular speeches was the content, a common theme.  Three of the speakers opted to speak at length about their religious faith, how they knew that God carried them through the hard times and all that.  Now, this was a public school, but I can’t say I found it especially surprising.  This school was in a relatively small town with a strongly church-going population, enough that there was a policy for the teachers to never assign homework on Wednesdays, because that was church youth group night.

Now I have no doubt some of you are bothered.  I know people who would be livid by this point, screaming about a grotesque violation of the separation of church and state.  Regardless of the fact that I am not a believer and I don’t much care for proselytizing, I cannot agree.  This is not a violation.

First let’s be clear: the Constitution is very specific in what limits are placed regarding church and state.  “Congress shall make no law,” it says, “respecting the establishment of religion, nor abridging the free exercise thereof.”  The first important point here is that the limitation is placed on legislation.  But no laws are created when a high school speaker invokes the name of Jesus.  Nor is it a violation when schools don’t assign homework so the students can attend church.  For one thing, the students aren’t actually being required to attend the youth group.  For the kids who don’t, it’s a night off.

But, say my acquaintances, it’s still the church exerting influence on the state, in this case the state instrument that is public education.  It is equally bad, they insist, if a teacher places a Bible on his desk in front of the students.  This is tantamount to compelling them to adopt his religious beliefs, thus violating the establishment clause.  Really?  Speaking as a former high school teacher, let me tell you how hard it is to compel the students to do anything.

Even more ludicrous is the idea that the students would be indoctrinated, that their minds will be filled with religion at the mere sight of the Bible.  Well gee, I’m pretty sure there’s also a math book on the desk; if showing the students a book is all it takes to fill their minds, shouldn’t they all be acing those standardized tests?  Face it, putting a Bible on the desk is not forcing religion on anyone.

But what about those commencement speakers?  They stood up and delivered religious messages in front of people who may not share those beliefs.  Yeah, so?  So, it’s an attack on those with differing beliefs.  Those people should not have to hear messages they don’t believe in.  Okay, I’ve already addressed this little bit of myopia.  But I’m intrigued in this case by how selective the objection is.

The argument goes, a student who says she succeeded by relying on her Christian faith is demeaning those who aren’t Christian.  What if she says she succeeded by working hard?  Isn’t she demeaning those who didn’t work hard?  One speaker talked about the life lessons he learned from playing sports; isn’t he demeaning all the non-athletes?  It’s strange how people limit their outrage to religion

Perhaps this is in part because, according to some perspectives, Christians are called upon to share the word.  Well, if you really believe in something, you are likely to want to share it with others.  We do that when we discover a great restaurant, or a a cool new band.  But we don’t take that as offensive; we say thanks, I’ll check it out.  And we may well have no intention of doing so.  I hate sushi, but if you tell me I should check out this great sushi restaurant, I won’t take offense.  I understand that you think you are doing me a favor.

So why do people take such offense when others come to the door and try to share the “good news” of Jesus?  Because, goes the answer, it’s arrogant; they assume they have the only “truth.”  Fair enough, but bear in mind that the truth they believe they have is the difference between salvation and damnation, and they are trying to save you.  Let’s try an analogy:  Suppose you see someone’s house on fire.  Further, you see him sitting inside, calmly watching TV.  Obviously he doesn’t know his house is burning.  So you go rushing up, bang on the door and say, “You’re going to die if you don’t get out!” 

Suppose you are the person in the house.  You have a poor sense of smell and can’t smell the smoke, so as far as you know, your house isn’t on fire.  Are you going to get mad and accuse the guy of trying to change your beliefs, since he believes your house is on fire?  Of course not; you’re going to check it out.  And even if he’s wrong, you won’t get offended that he thought he was saving your life.  And consider this: would you prefer he stay outside and not try to save you, because he doesn’t want to disrespect your beliefs?

No doubt you are calling this a ludicrous analogy.  Perhaps.  But to a believer, your soul is very much in peril, and he feels as obligated to save it from hell as he would to save your body from a house fire.  You may disagree with that belief (I do), but understand that it was well intentioned.  Nobody goes marching from door to door with pamphlets out of a sense of smugness.  Nobody.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because I feel rather like the proselytizer.  Having something to say that people don’t want to hear.  I must be very careful.  Religious people are filled with the spirit and spread the word and, while some may deride them as religious nuts, mostly they are accepted.  Vegetarians talk at length about the benefits of vegetarianism.  People go on and on about gay rights.  Or animal cruelty.  Or agrochemicals.  Or government spying.  Or whatever other thing they are interested in.  Some people, it’s all they can talk about.  At worst we call those people bores.  But, again, we tolerate them, because we have this thing called free speech.

But I talk about nudity and sexuality.  Notice that I must now rush to say I talk about other things as well.  This is not a website devoted exclusively to those things.  Even so, people are probably saying, are you going there again?  Dude, what’s wrong with you?  You are freakin’ obsessed with nudity and sex.  That’s a little creepy.  And you’re a teacher?  Eww! 

Got that?  I’m “obsessed” with nudity and sexuality because I talk about them quite a bit.  But there are people with websites devoted to vegetarianism, to Christianity, to parenting, to bicycling, to quilting, to old records, to science fiction, to… well, you name it.  But we don’t call those people obsessed.  They’re “passionate.”  And that’s okay.  We certainly don’t think there’s something wrong with them.  Nope, that’s reserved for people like me.

Well, so be it.  There’s more to come on this.  Read or not.  That’s up to you.  Stay tuned.

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The End of the Term

Just recently I learned that one of my best friends will be moving very soon to the other side of the country.  In the interest of full-disclosure I should note that he has lived the last couple of decades some 400 miles away, and, while in the past we managed to visit each other at least once or twice a year, over the last decade circumstances made that more difficult, and in fact it’s actually been several years since I’ve seen him, though we have stayed in touch through other means.  So this shouldn’t really bother me.  But it does.

True, we never managed to get together, but there always existed the possibility: “One of these days I should jump in the car and head down there.”  But when the mileage is measured not in hundreds but thousands, the reality hits: I may well never see him again.  Perhaps one of the worst parts is my recent realization that I have been missing seeing his kids growing up, which has been part of what has triggered the growing importance children have had for me.  Now, I will probably never be able to make up that loss.

Okay, this is pretty maudlin.  Who cares, right?  Nobody, except the timing of this event is significant, coming as it does at the end of the school term, when I’m already a bit vulnerable.  Something that most people do not realize is that teachers have a lot of experience dealing with separation and loss.  It happens to us on a regular basis.  No one warns you in the teacher ed courses just how hard it can be.  Good teachers become very attached to their students; they form a significant part of our lives, sometimes opening up to us in ways they do for few others.  This is particularly true for teachers who teach composition, where we see our students’ strongest opinions, experiences and values laid out.  We come to know them quite well.  And they get to know us, often more than we intend or even realize.

And then, it’s over.  The students are gone, and with very few exceptions, we never see them again.  There is a profound sense of loss that no one who hasn’t experienced it can understand.  We experience it at least once a year.  We steel ourselves for it, but it’s always hard.  And sometimes it can go wrong.

We read the news about this or that teacher accused of having an affair with a student.  We are shocked, offended, outraged, demanding justice for the “victim,” no mercy for the “predator.”  Well, at least we do when it’s a male teacher.  When it’s a female teacher and a male student, we make the appropriate noises, but we don’t mean it.  The men wink at each other, calling the student “lucky” and “a stud,” and fantasizing about how “hot” the teacher is.  Another example of a pervasive double-standard, though, thankfully, that’s changing.

But while most people are unanimous in condemning the teacher; other teachers remain largely quiet.  Not because we condone what has happened, but because we understand it, and are silently mourning a teacher who fell off the precipice that we all stand on.  When such an incident is reported, the teacher will insist he or she was in love with the student, and often the student will say the same thing.  Others say the teacher is lying and the student was an innocent who was corrupted by a master manipulator.  But in many cases (granted, not all), they are telling the truth: that tremendous emotional connection that forms between student and teacher went sour.  The teacher did fail, but not the way we think.

I feel strongly for my own students, and come to care about them, and I pride myself on the fact that many of them seem to genuinely like me.  But there is a barrier that I must always maintain, and never cross.  I cannot get too close.  I must limit the forms of contact.  I must remind myself that this is my student, not my friend.  And we cannot expect the students to play a part in keeping the separation, though many do so.  Any teacher can tell you how hard that barrier can be to maintain, and I’ve known teachers who slipped, and allowed students to get too emotionally close, with the cost of great pain to both parties.

I’m not making excuses for teachers who fail to maintain that distance, nor the ones who really do take advantage of vulnerable students.  I am fortunate that, as a college teacher, the danger is less than for teachers who teach minors.  Indeed, on occasion a former student has remained in contact and something resembling a genuine friendship has come out of it.  But that comes long after there is any chance of the student-teacher relationship continuing.  Though there is no explicit prohibition against college teachers having relationships with students who are not in their classes, it’s very strongly discouraged, and even the appearance of impropriety can destroy careers.

So we must keep that distance.  And it’s just as well, for it helps make the inevitable separation less painful.  As it turns out, while we feel we get to know our students closely, in most cases we really don’t, and, while we see them as a central part of our lives, that ends at the classroom door, and the barrier we fought so hard to maintain wasn’t really needed.  The emotional bond we work to prevent from occurring was never going to occur anyway.  We remind ourselves we are their teachers, not their friends, but they don’t need reminding; most of them do not see us as anything more.

That’s not a bad thing.  We already play a very important role in their lives, helping guide them toward the future.  This is true from kindergarten to grad school.  That role is why we became teachers.  If the cost of playing that role is a lifetime of sad farewells, it’s a cost well worth paying.

Not that it makes it any easier.  Nor easier to say farewell to my friend.

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