The entire school district in LA slowed down on Tuesday to watch the Inauguration, which I believed was an obvious and reasonable thing for the schools to do. I would never, ever have questioned this activity as one that might possibly disrupt a child's world view in any way. Until N.
N is a boy that stands out the moment you meet him. His pants are pulled up very, very high. His eyebrows blend together in a fluffy, soft looking unibrow. There are often beads of persipiration on his upper lip. N is not tall, he is constantly in motion, and he rarely makes eye contact. He loves to read, loves to play computer games, and is often so deep in his own world that he doesn't hear his name being called over and over and over again by his patient, kind, friendly school librarian.
When Obama's speech was nearly over, I noticed that N was preoccupied. He was in and out of his backpack, knee bopping quickly up and down, looking for a pencil, looking everywhere but up at the screen. When I caught his attention, N shook his head back and forth, mouthing something that I couldn't understand. I crooked my finger at him (pleasantly) and he got up and stumbled over his pile of belongings to join me away from the crowd of kids watching the speech.
"What's up, N?" I asked.
Foot tapping, he replied, "I'm not comfortable with this. I'm a Jehovah's Witness."
Huh? So, I ask, "N, I don't understand. Is there something about watching a president speak that isn't ok with your religious beliefs?"
Does that sound harsh? I didn't think so, but that's when the waterworks began. From that moment on, it took thirty minutes, many tears, a call from N to his father, another teacher, and a lot of confusion on my part to finally come to these understandings about N and maybe about Jehovah's Witnesses (but I think N has got to be confused about some of this).
- N was made uncomfortable by the invocation. Ok. So was I.
- N was not able to make much of a distinction between the invocation and Obama's speech.
- According to N, the Jehovah's Witnesses do not recognize the president as a true authority figure, and so having the school stop to watch the inauguration was in some way a violation of the separation of church and state.
- According the N, he has no interest in voting (ever) because man's laws do not really matter, that people will do what they will do, and the consequences will be what they are.
- Because N was distracted, because he is often distracted, he is negatively representing the entirety of the Jehovah's Witness population. He commits "bad acts" and is ashamed. (In fact, N has ADHD and is 11, but apparantly that is beside the point).
- Boys in N's class make fun of him for his religion.
- N used to be bothered by the many religious activities in school, but he says he has mostly gotten used to it.
In the end, N elected to spent the remainder of the inauguration (what amounted to about 5 minutes at that point) sitting in the main office waiting area.
The questions this interaction brings up for me are ones that both surprise and infuriate me. My first reaction is simply HOW CAN ANYONE DO THIS TO THEIR CHILD? HOW CAN ANYONE CHOOSE TO CONFUSE A POOR KID INTO TEARS? The boy seems not to know exactly what is going on, and clearly his religion is being used to make him feel ashamed of his behavior. This makes me both angry and sad.
Upon further reflection, however, I think there are some issues here that I wouldn't have expected. First, of course, is that N has a point about the invocation and benediction. They don't really have a place in school, but I don't know how we would have easily worked around them to watch the speech.
Second, N and his family have the right (although I feel a little uncomfortable saying this) to reject the idea that any living person has authority over their lives. They have the right to stand away from politics and rely only on the ten commandments to rule their lives. Don't they? During our discussion, N mentioned that one of the commandments says that one should not worhip false idols. In N's mind, we were worshiping Barack Obama on Tuesday. He has a point, does he not? It may be as close to worship as I've come in, well, my whole life. So that fact that I do not see this worship as religious does not mean that someone else, like N, might be bothered by such an open display of reverence, sanctioned (even required) but the public school that he attends.
Now, I am going way out on a limb here. I do not actually believe that having kids watch the inauguration in school is anything like asking them to observe a religious celebration. But I can see how N would be confused. I can see that we blur these lines to such extremes on a regular basis (Halloween, Valentine's, certainly Christmas; all of these have religious and secular followings, and all of them are permitted in schools to a certain extent) that a child whose parents may not be clarifying things well would cry in frustration and fear of offending his god, or his mom, or his dad, or his whole congregation.
I am grateful that my parents never put me in this position. I am sorry that N is so confused, and that he was unable to see the greatness of what happened on Tuesday. I am sorry that I know nothing about his religion and therefore could not be a comfort to him. I am sorry that my immediate reaction was a biased, judgemental one that condemned his family's beliefs to the realm of kooky extremism. I hope he can one day reconcile his religious beliefs with his ADHD, with his responsibilties as a citizen of this (or any) country, with his peer group, with his parents' expectations. How will he manage it?