By the time I had to make the public vs. private decision for my own children, I saw the world differently; I felt there were some important things I had missed growing up "parochial." I wanted them to attend public school where they would have friends who varied in skin color, religious beliefs, national origin and economic advantage. In other words, they would grow up in a world that mirrored at least somewhat our melting pot of a country.
The first couple of years were hard. The school was bigger than any I had seen. Without religion class in school, we had to delay Sunday brunch and hang around for "Sunday School" instead. And yes, it seemed silly that they had winter parties with snowmen instead of Christmas parties with Wise Men. Weren't we all just pretending it wasn't Christmas?
Years have passed, my 15-year-old has reached high school, and the seeds of diversity have grown a crazy crop. A recent walk through the Godwin High School cafeteria left me breathless: Talk about exotic! The piercings and tattoos, the crazy hair, clothes of all cultures, hundreds of unique young adults, milling about, laughing and talking. It was almost too much for me, and this is a "boring West End" school! As I watched my son navigate the scene with ease, I realized that he really is more comfortable with diversity of all kinds than I am. Though still in Christmas season, I had a distinctly Epiphany moment: we aren't all anything ... except human. And what my children understand better than I do is: It's OK.
This same son recently attended a night of festivities at the home of his friend, Akash, who is Hindu. At the evening's end, my son and several classmates tumbled out of the door loudly asking: "Who has the next feast day? When can we do this again?" Akash's mom brought out a plate of holiday sweets to share. We chatted while the kids continued their "goodbyes," and she told me how wonderful the feast had been, how Akash had been so glad his friends could come. "The Feast of Ganesh," she explained, "is our happiest feast day."
Ganesh, I now know, is the Hindu god of domestic harmony and of success, the "Remover of Obstacles." How appropriate that, in honor of harmony and removing obstacles, Connor (Episcopalian) celebrated the Feast of Ganesh with Akash (Hindu), Sam and David (Jewish), Chase (Methodist) and Ava (vaguely Christian, she thinks). A few weeks later, my middle-schooler gathered with a group of classmates and their unorthodox assortment of band instruments to play during a service at a friend's Methodist church. Band members' religious backgrounds varied as widely as their instruments: Sikh, Catholic, Mormon and various Protestant denominations. In their diversity, they created amazing music, and worried much more about hitting the right notes than the holding the "right" theology.
We can't afford to take it for granted, the miracle that is our melting pot. At bar mitzvahs and Ganesh celebrations and Christmas pageants where kids invite their friends, young people are able to celebrate one another's beliefs because they got to know each other first as friends, as musicians, as teammates, as students in a great secular public school. I'm thinking of inviting my friend from work who is Muslim to come with me to my church's Christmas pageant this year. Who can resist nervous little angels in sparkly paper wings singing "Peace on earth, goodwill to all"? I'll say a little prayer of thanks myself for the secular public schools that just might be the "pot" that makes our "melting" possible. S
Terry Dolson teaches writing to undergraduates and also works in the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of Richmond.
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