Saturday, August 30, 2014

Why I Called the Jehovah Witness Headquarters

This week I received an email from a librarian asking for assistance.  Here is the content of her email:

We have a student who is a Jehovah Witness.  Her language arts teacher came to see me today and told me that her parents have objected to just about every novel/short story that they are doing.  I’m looking for recommendations for YA books that would be appropriate for a Jehovah Witness.  From what I can tell, that means no profanity, sex, witches, spirits, etc.  Any thoughts?  I’d appreciate the help!!

After thinking for a few minutes I decided to go straight to the source.  I found the site and called the  number I found there.  I told the woman who answered the phone that I was trying to assist a librarian and teacher in providing reading material for a student who was Jehovah Witness that would not be in conflict with her religious beliefs but also meet the curricular objectives of her class.  She seemed a bit wary, put me on hold and then I found I had been transferred to a different person.  I repeated what I had said earlier only to be transferred five more times.  Finally I was connected with a man who was willing to try and answer my question but offered no concrete book title suggestions.  

That is when I turned to who I should have turned to in the first place, a former student who is also Jehovah Witness.  Having worked in education for 23 years I have built connections with amazing students who are now equally amazing adults, moms, dads, teachers, etc.  This particular student held morning meetings before school in my library for the other Jehovah Witness students in the school.  He use to also hang out in the library whenever he could.  He is also a master at sign language and would practice in the library by signing everything I said.  I found it fascinating to have my own personal interpreter.   Anyway.....  He asked some specific questions about the course and the student. Turns out the course was an 8th grade language arts class and the teacher was having her students explore various genres throughout the year.  The first genre was horror.  Since Jehovah Witnesses cannot read anything with witches, sorcery, magic, spirits, etc., finding a horror book to read was indeed proving to be difficult but not for my friend.  Here is what he suggested:

When I told my Voxer "support group" (you know who you are) that I had called the Jehovah Witness Headquarters I was met with a resounding, WHY???!!  

I grew up in the deep, deep, deep, Bible Belt South.  My parents were Northerners and we were also part of a religion that, at the time, only 2 other families besides ours practiced in the town in which I grew up.  We held church service in each others living rooms.  For those of you not familiar with the Deep South, if you are not Southern Baptist, do not drink Coke and sweet tea, and, for the love of God, do not say Ma'am and Sir, you will be branded the devil himself and ostracized.  

Well, being from the North, my parents taught me that saying Ma'am and Sir was rude (which it is in the North).  This won me NO points with my teachers.  With our religion I had to, as a first grader, excuse myself from the classroom when my teacher read from the bible.  I also excused myself from the classroom when the principal would pray over the loud speaker.  When birthday parties or field days or anything that happened where snacks and drinks were provided for students I would have to be taken to the teacher's lounge to get a Sprite because I could not drink anything with caffeine.  Can you imagine how this went over?  Did my teachers respect my religious beliefs and make accommodations without a fuss so that I still felt accepted and a part of the class.  HECK NO!  My teachers made sure to treat me with as much scorn as possible and made it clear to the other students that they were to stay away from me.  I also found out much later that the parents of the students also told their children to have nothing to do with "that devil girl".  

This is why I called the Jehovah Witness Headquarters and went the extra mile to get an answer to the question posed.  I know how it feels to be in the shoes of the 8th grade girl wanting to fit in but also wanting to remain true to her religion.  It is a hard and lonely place to be, but it doesn't have to be if we as educators learn how to respect others.  

I know that there is a movement to bring prayer and the bible back into our schools and I know that the movement is filled with good intent.  I feel, however, that these people have failed to take a step back and see it from the other side.  

Let's set up a scenario:  You are the only Southern Baptist in a mostly Pastafarian town.  In the public schools the teachers read daily from the Pastafarian religious text and recite Pastafarian prayers over the loud speaker.

How would you feel as a Southern Baptist child in that school? As a Jewish child?  As a Catholic child? As a Muslin child?

What would you do if you were a Southern Baptist child in that school? A Jewish child?  A Catholic child? A Muslin child?

This scenario is NO different than the movement to bring prayer and the bible back into schools.  Promoting ANY religion in a PUBLIC school where children come from a variety of religious persuasions is not only disrespectful but is terribly HURTFUL.  

As educators we need to tread lightly and be aware of the subtle ways we send unspoken messages to the students in our classes.  The bible on your desk.  Talking about Jesus and God in the classroom.  Having a "Choose Life" car tag.  Posting on social media your disgust over the Michael Sam's kiss.  Having a black velvet painting of Rush Limbaugh hanging over your teacher desk.  Pray for Obama Psalm 109:8 bumper sticker on your car.

Look at these tweets from a public school administrator below.  If you do not share his political views would you feel safe to express your own opinions in his school as a student?  As a parent?  As a community member?  As a teacher?

Do you find this next tweet ironic given the previous tweets? 

"If we reached one child it's worth it."   Knock knock. Could you reach yourself first?

Is this to say that as an educator you can't have your own personal religious or political beliefs?  No.  But these beliefs have no place in the classroom or on social media where you represent your school because when you do it HURTS KIDS.  I know because it HURT ME.

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