Monday, December 24, 2012

Boxes Are Good for Presents

One of my children has asked for, and will be receiving tomorrow morning, a toy that is clearly marketed to children of the opposite sex.  I am glad that my child felt it was safe to ask for this toy, but I'm frustrated that these categories of "boy toys" and "girl toys" even exist.  I'm frustrated that I've seen our nearest Target store increasingly segregate the toys into a boy section and a girl section; even the Legos are now on two different aisles.  One of my favorite children's clothing manufacturers, Hanna Andersson, used to make some brightly-colored unisex clothes (baby garments and items like sweatshirts, pajamas, and socks for older kids), but now the entire Hanna catalog is segregated, too, and formerly neutral items contain clear gender signifiers.

I regret some of my parenting decisions, but I don't regret buying my sons dolls they could cuddle and care for.  I don't regret the hours my sons spent make-believing with their sister and our wooden play kitchen, because, as we all know, men cook and eat, too.  I don't regret dressing my daughter in her older brother's hand-me-down pajamas with blue and red stripes, because she loved them, and because girls can look fabulous in colors other than pink.  I don't regret buying her Hot Wheels when she asked for them, or supporting her decision to wear pants last Easter because a skirt might interfere with her ability to be fully competitive in the front-yard egg hunt.  I don't regret saying, "The rainbow belongs to everyone," each time a stereotype about "girl colors" and "boy colors" found its way into our conversations. 

If anyone makes an issue about my child receiving this particular toy for Christmas, I am going to challenge that person.  Because I would deeply regret missing an opportunity to point out how placing people in stupid boxes prevents them from experiencing all of their humanity.

And if I'm in the mood, I might also sing a horribly off-key version of this song.  (If you listen, please don't miss the last verse.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Atheist Closet

I'm a big fan of the Out Campaign promoted by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.  The campaign urges atheists to publicly identify themselves in order to counter negative stereotypes about atheism, to help atheists locate each other, and to increase recognition of nonbelievers as a political force.  Still, I understand why many are reluctant.  One need only read the comments left after some of my posts to appreciate the disdain the word atheist brings forth. 

And yet, my recent activism has confirmed what I long suspected: there are dozens of other atheists (and agnostics) in my neck of the woods.  Unfortunately, only some of these people are willing to be open about their lack of belief in the supernatural.  The open ones I know are mostly under the age of thirty.

I don't have any particular ideas about the best way for someone to come out of the atheist closet.  I came out fairly gradually.  This fit my situation, because my transition from Catholic to atheist was a gradual one.  Yet it's clear to me that no matter how gradually one may arrive at atheism, the destination may come as a shock to many.

In the several years that my family has lived in our town, we've never been church-goers.  When someone would push the issue with me, I would simply say, "I'm (or we're) not religious."  But it's now clear to me that when I used the phrase "not religious," some people thought, "Oh--she prefers to get it straight from the bible," and others thought, "There's still hope." 

Revealing one's atheism to a religious parent is often an unavoidable part of the coming-out process.  I can say, from agonizing experience, that just because you haven't attended church in thirteen years and were observed reading The God Delusion on your last holiday visit doesn't mean your mother is necessarily prepared for the a-word.  But if you're lucky, after you've both cried a lot, she'll still love you and your kiddos anyway.

I came out as an atheist, to a few people at a time, because my own sense of integrity demanded it.  And I'm not very good at pretending.  I became even more out when I started blogging about atheism in June.  My reasons for the blog were many, but one was the mixed messages I felt I was sending my children.  On the one hand, I was telling them I was comfortable with my atheism; on the other, I was going too far out of my way to avoid discussing my unbelief with others.  I realized this when one of my children kept asking me if I was sure the First Amendment protected my statements that I didn't believe in God, and if it did, why I was so afraid to tell anyone outside our house.   Homeschool Atheist Momma Karen captures my thoughts perfectly when she says, "I'm fighting for atheist openness so my kids can take it for granted."

For readers considering coming out of the atheist closet--or for those who are simply interested in the different forms the process takes--I have stories for you.  Click on the links to read about:
Teresa MacBain, who was active as a Methodist minister when she came out at a national atheist convention;
Jerry DeWitt, a bible-belt pastor who accidentally outed himself with a Facebook photo;
Walter Petit, the president of Western Kentucky University's Secular Student Alliance, who came out to his mother while still a young teen;
Leanna, another Kentucky homeschooling mother who didn't want her children to think atheist was a dirty word.
I also welcome readers' own coming-out stories, as well as your thoughts about the Out Campaign.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Freethought Radio Interview, and a Memorable School Board Meeting

Last weekend, I was interviewed on Freethought Radio, a program hosted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.  We talked about the Muhlenberg County Schools' literature distribution policy, going all the way back to last fall when the FFRF convinced the board of education to end its practice of allowing members of the Gideons International to distribute bibles to fifth-graders during instructional time.  I recalled the details of my discovery that the board had, at its May 14 meeting, unanimously voted "to approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization," and my failed attempts to convince the board to prohibit all outside groups from distributing literature to students.  I explained my decision to request, along with the Western Kentucky University Secular Student Alliance, a presence at afterschool events (as long as the Gideons were permitted access), and described our experience "tabling" at Muhlenberg High School (which I also wrote about in my last post).

The Freethought Radio podcast is now available here.  I'm sorry about the hiss in the background, and I'm going to ask the FFRF tech folks if something can be done about it. 

In other news, at the Muhlenberg County Board of Education's November 12 meeting, Western Kentucky University SSA president and Muhlenberg North High School graduate Walter Petit asked the board to end its practice of opening meetings with prayer, and to close afterschool events to all outside groups.  While a portion of Petit's remarks made the evening news and the local papers, some interesting and important details of the meeting were omitted.

First, the meeting was opened with a prayer, led by board member Jerry Winters, that may have been the most sectarian and divisive prayer in board history.  The idea seemed to be to throw in the word "Christian" as often as possible, and to imply that anyone opposed to prayer at meetings could not possibly care about the children of Muhlenberg County as much as Winters.

Second, while SSA's Walter Petit was still at the podium after addressing the board, Winters stated, "If I had things my way, we wouldn't even be teaching that we come from monkeys and lizards!"  So there you have it: at a board meeting during which the importance of getting students "college ready" was frequently mentioned, a member of the board of education expressed his desire to remove the teaching of evolution from the science curriculum. 

Without missing a beat, Petit responded that Winters' statement revealed "such scientific ignorance" that he had no business serving on a board of education.  I think that the Kentucky Science Teachers Association--whose Position Statement on Evolution readers may want to check out for themselves--would agree.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Bigger Picture

One week ago, I (acting as an individual member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation) and three members of the Western Kentucky University Secular Student Alliance sat behind a table during Muhlenberg High School's Parent Night to distribute literature from the FFRF and SSA.  It was a positive experience.  School personnel were friendly.  Approximately two dozen people stopped by our table to pick up literature, ask questions, or simply chat. There were no unpleasant confrontations; in fact, several people remarked that they were glad to see us there.  Some of these people were Christians.

Currently all nonprofit groups have the opportunity to distribute literature at afterschool events in Muhlenberg County.  As I mentioned in previous posts, other districts that have considered such policies as a way to continue bible distributions have discovered  pagans, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Unitarian Universalists waiting in the wings to take advantage of the open forum.  Under such a policy, Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, Mormons, and Scientologists, among others, must also be allowed.
Although the SSA and I have received permission to distribute in the elementary and middle schools, we are still deciding whether to proceed.  We’re honestly not comfortable having a presence at that age level.  We would prefer that the school board rescind its open forum policy and not allow any outside groups to distribute literature on school property.  We think that public schools should remain neutral on such matters.  However, if the schools continue to allow the Gideons or other religious groups in, we understand that our presence may be encouraging to secular students by showing them that they are not alone.  

The SSA and I remain firm in our conviction that the school board should end its practice of beginning school board meetings with prayer.  Such prayer—often distinctly Christian in form—is not only divisive, but unconstitutional.  The United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999) found prayer at school board meetings a violation of the Establishment Clause. 

While my last post drew some support, it also attracted much criticism from those who remain convinced that school endorsement of a specific form of Christianity is not only acceptable, but desirable.  Some are unwilling to see the difference between protected personal religious expression and religious endorsement by school officials.  The many judicial decisions striking down such endorsement point out that among its dangers are the marginalization and mistreatment of minority group members.

I am going to end with two stories that illustrate these dangers.  The first is of a teenager in Alabama who founded that state's only high school "Freethinkers Club."  Duncan Henderson first tried to establish such a club in junior high, but says the principal of the junior high prevented it.  Henderson also received death threats from fellow students.  He was finally successful when he moved on to high school because he had a principal who was not only willing to follow the law and allow the club to meet, but to serve as the club's sponsor despite considering himself a devout Christian.  The principal has a good relationship with Duncan's freethinking family (he calls them "just very nice folks") and says that he's been impressed with the quality of the club's discussions.

The second story hits closer to home.  It was sent to me by a former Muhlenberg County high school student who gave me permission to share it minus a name and some other identifying information.  I think it's important to note that this is one of many such letters I have received from former Muhlenberg County students.

I'm pretty sure we've never met, but I lived in Muhlenberg my entire life before graduating high school and moving to --- to attend ----.  I am writing just to tell you simply thank you.  I stumbled across your blog and was shocked by your efforts. Growing up and attending school there I often felt quite alienated since my parents were poor and we did not attend church.  Since I was never exposed continuously to a church environment I quickly discovered I was an atheist, before I even knew that such a concept had a name.  But, my discovery I felt was in vain since none shared my belief, let alone dare respect it.  I remember being in 11th grade and my teacher asking my class to raise their hands if they went to church, what a question I thought, this is school, you can't ask stuff like this, but with a quick glance around the room I discovered I was the only one with a hand not raised and my classmates glared on at me as if I was a demon.  The alienation and ridicule I received for first not attending church and then affirming my atheist status was unmatched.  I had teachers all throughout my schooling try to ILLEGALLY force children into believing, from reading the bible in class to religious themed schoolwork.  I felt alone in my battle to not believe.  Luckily I managed to get away from Muhlenberg and into college where I discovered an array of beliefs and respect to go along with it. I truly believe in your effort. . . . I graduated from high school not that long ago!  Please don't let anyone discourage you or try to stop you in this campaign.  I know that there were many more like me that had to simply play along until they were old enough to be out on their own but I refused; if they get to openly voice their beliefs why can't I?  Students need an environment where their beliefs can be challenged, regardless what that belief may be, it helps us grow as people and respect others that don't believe the same as us.  This was unheard when I was in school and I am sure there are people feverishly campaigning against you but like I said please continue doing what you're doing!

Don't all Muhlenberg County students deserve a safe, supportive educational environment?  And don't we want to be the kind of citizens who provide it?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist: Coming to a School Near You

As readers may have guessed, I didn't receive a single response to the questions I asked of our Muhlenberg County school board candidates.  *(UPDATE: Since this posting, the letter I sent to Darrell Bowers has been returned marked "no such number, unable to forward," although the address on the envelope was the one listed on the Secretary of State's website.)*  This is disappointing, and I can't help but wonder aloud why all of the candidates were unwilling to respond.  My guess is that it seemed politically safer not to.  But how can one claim to be a voice for local citizens when he or she refuses to answer, even partially, some very earnest questions asked respectfully by a local citizen? 


In other news, I--your friendly neighborhood atheist--will soon be appearing at some of Muhlenberg County's public schools.  Specifically, I will be distributing literature from the Freedom from Religion Foundation at school-sponsored events.  This is the somewhat prolonged outcome of my accidental discovery this spring that the Gideons, booted from Muhlenberg County classrooms in 2011, were about to be allowed back into the schools (at afterschool events instead of during class time).  The complete history of my involvement is here, here, and here.

This is the email that I sent to school principals on October 15:
Dear [Principal]:
I am writing to request permission to distribute literature at [school name] during upcoming afterschool events.  I have been informed by Superintendent Dale Todd that any nonprofit organization may distribute literature at reading nights, open houses, and other official afterschool functions.  I am a local member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit group dedicated to the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state and to educating the public on matters relating to nontheism.
Please send me a list of the remaining events/dates during this school year that are available for this purpose.  I intend to distribute the Freedom from Religion Foundation publications Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children—a fun book that allows children of all ages to explore myths like Santa Claus and compare them with ideas like the existence of God—and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.  I will also be handing out bookmarks and "nontracts" promoting nontheism. The links that follow provide more information on these publications.
Thanks in advance for your assistance.  I look forward to hearing from you.  
Suzanne Lamb
The request was granted by all of the principals who received it, and depending on the school, I was either assigned an upcoming event or given a choice of events to attend.  (One middle school principal said I would have to wait until next fall's open house, as his school didn't have any other suitable events this year.)

A separate request to distribute literature, submitted by Western Kentucky University's Secular Student Alliance, was also granted.

I want to commend the school principals and the superintendent for making good on the school board's claim that when it voted to "approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideons [sic] organization" at the May 14 board meeting, it was actually creating a limited open forum that would allow any nonprofit group to distribute literature at afterschool functions. 

As anyone who regularly follows these types of stories can tell you, this is not how things usually turn out.  Many school districts maintain longstanding, privileged arrangements with the Gideons or other evangelical groups until someone complains; then officials say that, silly people, anyone can distribute literature, while crossing their fingers (or praying) that no groups representing viewpoints other than their own actually take them up on the offer.  As I noted in an earlier post, two North Carolina school boards decided to can literature distributions altogether after local residents tested so-called "open" policies by asking to distribute pagan literature.

If local residents are unhappy about my, or the Secular Student Alliance's, appearances at Muhlenberg County school functions, they can ask the board to craft a policy that prohibits all outside groups from distributing literature at school events.  School districts are in no way required by law to establish limited open forums.

While the Muhlenberg County school board has made much progress in complying with the law as it pertains to religion in the schools, it still has one practice to address.  The board's tradition of beginning school board meetings with prayer is in direct conflict with the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals' ruling in Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999), which found the practice to be a violation of the Establishment Clause.  As Kentucky is in the Sixth Circuit, that decision is considered binding.  Neither asking a student to lead the prayer, nor reminding those in attendance that the prayer is voluntary, makes the practice permissible.

I am so grateful for those friends and acquaintances--some of them Christians--who support my involvement with this issue.  And to my new atheist, agnostic, and freethinking friends in Muhlenberg and surrounding counties: your presence strengthens me. 


I am switching to moderated comments for this blog--at least for the time being.  This means that I will be reviewing comments before they are posted.  I am making this change because a few recent comments, which I have deleted, crossed a very obvious line of decency. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Questions for School Board Candidates

My interest in education is both philosophical and practical.  I have long been fascinated with how people learn.  My mother and one sister are former public school teachers, and my other sister teaches at a private school.  My professional experience includes teaching college English, helping nontraditional college students document their life learning for college credit, and assisting high school students from low-income families in preparing academically for college.  I am the mother of three school-age children who are learning at home but may one day choose to attend public schools.  I am an advocate for the constitutional principle of church-state separation and for children's civil rights, both of which have obvious educational implications.

I have compiled a list of ten questions for the Muhlenberg County school board candidates running for election (or re-election) next month.  I am mailing the list to each candidate with a request for a response to be shared on this blog.  I have no idea if any candidates will respond, but I hope that some will, because as far as I can tell, no one else is asking most of these questions.

If you are a local reader with different questions, I encourage you to contact the candidates yourself.  They are listed at the bottom of this post.

Questions for Candidates:
  1. Do you support continuing the district’s drug testing program, which requires all high school students to submit to random drug testing in order to participate in extra-curricular activities and to park on campus?  If so, what do you make of a large-scale national study showing no difference in drug use between schools that use drug testing and those that do not? 
  2. The current school board recently voted against videotaping its meetings, which would allow citizens to view meetings on cable access.  Given the fact that it is difficult for many people to attend the five p.m. meetings, and considering that meeting minutes include only board decisions and not complete discussions of issues, should the meetings be videotaped?
  3. Do you support the district's continued use of programs like Character Counts! and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), given that these programs have been widely criticized for promoting unquestioning obedience to authority as the ultimate value?  (See, for example, Alfie Kohn's "How Not to Teach Values" and Chris Liebig's "Sacrificing Thought for 'Good Behavior.'")
  4. Our district's school board meetings are opened with prayer.  Do you think our school board should continue this practice, given the fact that the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999), found beginning school board meetings with prayer to be a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause?  If you support continuing the prayers, do you think local taxpayers should be willing to pay plaintiffs' legal fees should the practice be successfully challenged in the courts?  (Note: Kentucky is in the sixth circuit.)
  5. Do you approve of the current school board’s recent decision to create a limited public forum that allows all non-profit groups to distribute literature at official afterschool functions?  Should religious organizations such as the Gideons be allowed to distribute bibles at these events if that requires the district to allow all groups--including those representing Muslim, pagan, and atheist viewpoints, among others--to distribute literature to students?
  6. Of a case in which a New Jersey public school teacher claimed that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific, the famous American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it's about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers."  Does the teaching of creationism have any place in our district’s classrooms?
  7. What stance would you like to see the school board take on school policies that reward perfect student attendance with special picnics, pizza parties, etc., considering that such policies encourage parents to send their children to school sick in order to avoid missing out on these events? 
  8. Many parents are concerned that the increasing use of high-stakes standardized testing (to evaluate students, teachers, and schools) is compromising important educational values.  Would you support a policy that would allow parents in the district to opt their children out of such testing?  
  9. Parents in our district who homeschool their children provide tax support for our schools, and may be the kind of involved, supportive parents who can make positive contributions to the school district.  As such, do you support allowing homeschooled students in our district to participate in extra-curricular activities? 
  10. Our district’s schools are very different from the schools most of us attended as children.  Students are surrounded by armed security personnel and security cameras that record their every move, and subjected to unprecedented amounts of standardized testing.  What can be done to make the schools in our district more humane environments for our students?

Muhlenberg County Board of Education Candidates:

Kevin Rice, 2nd district
Margaret Ann Williams, 2nd district
Sylvester "Sly" Johnson, 3rd district
Dr. Kelly Tarter, 3rd district
Scott Bivins, 3rd district
Darrell Bowers, 5th district
Jerry Winters, 5th district

Sunday, September 16, 2012

There's a Name for That

It is fashionable these days to talk about how spoiled children are, and to speculate about the causes of the spoiling (see, for example, Elizabeth Kolbert's "Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?" from the New Yorker, and this popular Facebook meme).

It is less fashionable to point out, as Alfie Kohn did in a 2010 Washington Post essay, that Americans have been churning out nearly identical complaints about children since the early 1900s.

And if one wants to be so unfashionable as to be considered radical?  He or she might note that all of these discussions about spoiled kids do a really good job (as they have always done) of calling attention away from the fact that many of our beliefs about children are self-serving.

Here are some of the beliefs I'm talking about:
  • Children's needs, feelings, and preferences are less important than the needs, feelings, and preferences of adults.
  • Children have it easy compared to adults, and we should frequently remind them of such.
  • It is appropriate for adults--even strangers--to correct children's grammar and quiz them on their reading ability.
  • Children who aren't spanked will become entitled adults.
  • There is nothing wrong with stores and public facilities holding children to rules different from the ones to which adult patrons are held (e.g., only two teens allowed in store at a time; even older children can't handle merchandise that adults are permitted to handle).
  • Children shouldn't have any say in what, when, or how they learn, because they can't possibly know what's good for them.
  • Children are lazy; if we don't force them to complete the lessons we provide, they won't learn anything worthwhile.
  • Going out for recess, talking during lunch, and getting drinks of water are privileges that children in school should be required to earn.
  • Religious groups have the right to evangelize children, even those who have not reached the age of reason, and even without the children's parents being present.
  • It is okay to laugh at children when they do something that strikes us as cute (e.g., mispronouncing a word, making a mistake in a play or performance, confusing some idea that most adults understand).
  • Because children are so cute, it is okay to dress them in uncomfortable clothing, spray them down with hairspray, and enter them in contests where they compete with other children to determine who among them is cutest. 
This list is my own, but my thinking on the subject has been influenced by the work of John Holt, a teacher-turned-unschooling advocate best known for the books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967).  Holt's lesser-known 1973 book Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (out of print but still available in used copies) is arguably the most thorough examination of how harmful attitudes toward children affect public policy, parenting methods, and children's well-being.

In Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, published posthumously in January of this year, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl provides a name for the problem.  Praised by such diverse thinkers as Diane Ravitch, T. Berry Brazelton, and Carol Gilligan, Childism focuses primarily on how prejudice toward children is embedded in public policy (i.e., institutionalized), and at work in cases of abuse and neglect.  Young-Bruehl's argument is complex, and I don't share all of her conclusions.  Nonetheless, I think that the book is important, and that her justification for adopting the word childism is spot-on:

The history of the word "sexism," coined in 1965, shows how important it was to put under the same conceptual umbrella different acts, attitudes, and institutions that targeted women as a group.  If you understand that domestic violence against women and wage discrimination against women are similarly rationalized or legitimated by a prejudice--sexism--you can develop ways to explore the prejudice and resist it.  Without a synthesizing concept, you do not see that child poverty and child abuse are both rooted in and rationalized by prejudice against children.  (Young-Bruehl, from the book's page)
Respecting children's rights takes both time and energy, which is why it seems so much easier just to spank children, or take away their recess, when they won't do what we want.  And while honoring children's rights in no way diminishes the rights of adults, it tends to undermine adult privilege, which is another reason childist attitudes are so easy to justify--even when we, as former children, should know better.

Monday, September 10, 2012


This is a story about a seven-year-old girl--a girl who had recently taken a knitting class and happened to spot, on a street corner of the pretty town where she was vacationing with her family, a little yarn and crafts shop that had beautiful things in the windows.  Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and the shop was closed, and the girl had to accept her parents' reassurances that she could return some other day.

When this other day arrived, the girl bounded into the shop with her mother, and with great enjoyment began working her way around the shop's perimeter.  She looked at many things, asked her mother some questions, and gently caressed a few skeins of gorgeous hand-spun yarn, as did her mother.  The girl had spending money, and she noticed a glass bowl full of decorative pewter buttons.  She told her mother she thought they were beautiful, that she could use them for some projects, and that she wanted to look at the different designs to see which ones she liked best.

At this point, the girl's mother left her to look at the buttons, and walked about ten feet away to select some yarn for herself.  She looked back at her daughter several times, the last time just as the shop owner walked up to the girl and said, "I must ask that you not handle anything!" in a rather severe voice.  The girl quickly dropped the buttons back into the dish and walked over to her mother, reaching her just in time to release a torrent of tears.

After escorting the girl outside to the car where her father and brothers were waiting, and comforting the girl, and reassuring her that she hadn't done anything wrong, the mother went back inside and had a talk with the shop owner.

The conversation went like this:

Mother: Are you the owner?

Owner: Yes.

Mother: I believe you said something to my daughter.

Owner: Oh--um, yes.  I just asked her not to touch anything.

Mother: She was handling metal buttons, correct?

Owner: Yes.

Mother: And they were in no way breakable or fragile?

Owner: Well, that's true.  But I have a lot of kids who come in here and aren't supervised.

Mother: I was watching her carefully the whole time, taking responsibility for her.  You could see that I was with her.  If you had a concern about anything she was doing, you could have addressed it to me. 

Owner: I'm glad you're responsible for her, but I can't tell which parents are going to be responsible for their kids and which ones aren't.

Mother: Can you remember what it felt like to be seven years old, and how scary it was when an adult who wasn't your parent scolded you, especially when you weren't even doing anything wrong? 

Owner: (Silence)

Mother: Did you know that my daughter is learning to knit, and that she was going to spend money here?  That she spotted this store the other day when you were closed, and that we made a special trip back so she could shop here?  Now she's out in the car, sobbing.

Owner: Well, I'm sorry I upset her.  I had no way of knowing all that.  And if everyone handles things, then they aren't so nice to sell.

Mother: I understand your concerns as a business owner, and how frustrating it must be when people aren't respectful with your merchandise.  But my daughter wasn't being disrespectful.  There was no way to see the different designs on the buttons without picking them up.  And I noticed that the other customers who were in here were handling things as well, and you didn't say anything to them. 

Owner: (Stare)

Mother: Well, you've lost two customers.  I was going to buy some things as well.  I do hope I've given you something to think about.

* * *

There's a sort of happy ending to this story.  A week later, in a different town on our vacation, we found another yarn shop.  Understandably, my daughter was nervous about going inside.  I suggested that I hold her hand the whole time, and that before we started browsing we tell the person behind the counter that she and I were both new knitters.  The person at the counter introduced us to the owner, who was friendly and gracious.  She actually urged us to touch all the yarns, and she told my daughter she'd learned to knit at age seven, too.  We bought some yarn.

I shared the story about the first shop with a relative, who went on to tell me about how she'd broken a candle holder in a store, and how the store employee had come over and starting scolding her daughter, assuming she'd been the one who had broken the item.  As soon as the employee learned the mother was responsible, she changed her tone completely, and starting assuring the mother that she wouldn't have to pay for the item.

I have more to say in an upcoming post about prejudice against children, though I'm aware that the mere assertion that such a thing exists seems to infuriate some people.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Four Thoughts on a Wednesday Morning

1.  When people go out of their way to say, "I'm praying for you," to an atheist, do they realize it sounds pretty much like "F*** you," only with more syllables?

2.  Are Jehovah's Witnesses now sending lots of households in Muhlenberg County handwritten letters in the mail, or is my family just lucky?

3.  How would I look next month at Downtown Trick-or-Treat, standing on the corner near the Gideons, handing out little copies of the United States Constitution instead of those little orange bibles?

4.  Does anyone know where I can get little copies of the Constitution--or even just the Bill of Rights--at a price that would allow me to purchase fifty or so copies? 

I welcome your responses.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Grades My Kids Aren't In

Here is something new.

When someone who knows we homeschool asks what grades the children are in, I'm no longer going to spout off a number. 

Instead I'm going to say, "We don't do grades, but this one is eight years old, this one is seven, and this one is five."  If the person looks at me with confusion--or contempt--I'm going to try very hard not to add, "If they were in school, they'd be in such-and-such grades."

The reason for this change is that I've stopped thinking of my children in terms of grade levels.  I no longer care what grades they would be in if they were in school.  It's no longer important to me that their skills are at or above grade level, whatever that means.  In fact, that goal seems utterly incompatible with the kind of deep, joyful learning my family values.

I have seen each of them, in turn, learn about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln because they were interested in money. 

They have learned about fractions because they are interested in being fair.

They are learning to write, at different paces and in different ways, because they have things they want to say.  Yesterday, one of them set up a booth with our face/body paints (the safe kind, in case anyone's wondering) and a sign that said "TATTOO CITY."  The other two paid a quarter each for custom-designed body art.  A few hours later, I noticed a discarded piece of paper that read "TATTOO SITTY."  I don't know the process by which the spelling was corrected, but neither I nor any other adult was involved.

By the way, I didn't come to this decision (realization?) about the kids' grade levels by myself.  A few things Sandra Dodd wrote crossed my path at the right time.  One was the essay, "How Holly Takes the World for Granted," from Moving a Puddle, though there may have been others.  Sandra has written a lot, for which I am grateful.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Gideon Problem, Part 3: The Board of Education Says There Isn't a Problem

The Superintendent responded to my letter of complaint about the Board of Education's plans to bring the Gideons back into Muhlenberg County Schools under a revised policy.  The main points conveyed in his letter are that 1) the Board of Education believes its new policy is protected by the district's "Community Use of School Facilities" agreement; 2) the Board will allow any nonprofit group to distribute literature at designated school functions, even if doing so results in controversy; 3) the Board has no plans to put the new policy in writing, or to take any steps to make the public aware of it, since the press already attends Board meetings.

What puzzles me about the Superintendent's response is that the district's "Community Use of School Facilities" agreement, which is supposed to justify the new policy, seems only to set forth the conditions under which nonprofit groups can rent school facilities during non-school hours.  It would, in fact, be constitutionally permissible for the Board to rent district facilities to the Gideons, during times the district isn't using them.  (And if the district rents its facilities out to any community groups, it must not discriminate against groups simply because they are religious.)  But that is not what the new policy, as explained by the Board and Superintendent, is about.  The new policy is about allowing the Gideons to distribute literature at official school functions such as open houses and reading nights.  The distinction is not a small one.

I'm also dissatisfied with the Board's unwillingness to put in writing, and announce, its new policy.  Doing so would actually offer the district some measure of protection by making it clear that the policy is not being amended on a case-by-case basis to include or exclude certain groups.  And if the Board's intent is to establish a constitutionally defensible open forum, in which various religious and non-religious viewpoints are represented, then the boundaries of the forum need to be better defined.  It remains unclear if all school-sponsored events are included, or just open houses and reading nights.  What about basketball games and other sporting events?  Will nonprofit representatives be confined to a table, or permitted to circulate among students?  As I've said before, refusing to clarify these issues gives the impression that perhaps the Board doesn't want those with religious viewpoints different from the Gideons to know that the forum exists.

I want readers to know that I am sticking with this, although it might be a while before I have anything new to report.  I also want to answer two questions that have reached me, in slightly different forms, through numerous channels--including the comments section of this blog.

Q: If your children aren't in school, why do you care if the Gideons are there distributing bibles?

A: Liberal homeschooling parents have been accused--most notably by Slate columnist Dana Goldstein--of withdrawing much-needed support and involvement from our nation's public schools.  What kind of citizen (or human being) would I be if I didn't care what goes on in the schools simply because my children don't attend them?  As I said in my first post on the subject, I am particularly concerned about recent trends that infringe on students' civil liberties.  While the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause guarantees freedom of religion, the Establishment Clause offers citizens protection from state-sponsored religion.  Because these two clauses work together to provide Americans with tremendous religious freedom compared to other countries, the cause I am taking up does not belong solely to atheists.  I admire the work of Americans United, an organization made up of American citizens of various faiths and "dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all."  The organization is headed by the Reverend Barry Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

Another reason I am voicing my concerns is that I recognize the many ways in which speaking out against religious proselytizing in the schools is a risky proposition.  Many who share my concerns will not speak out for fear they will be socially ostracized and harassed, or even lose their jobs.  I also think it's a good idea for people to identify the cause of church-state separation with a local citizen, as it helps to dispel the myth that challenges to state-sponsored religion are always the work of "outside agitators."  It seems too easy for some to ignore the fact that the reason local fifth-graders aren't still receiving bibles (and an exhortation to read them!) during instructional time is that a local parent of a fifth-grader reported the violation, albeit anonymously.

Finally, in justifying my interest in the district's handling of the Gideons, it seems ridiculous that I should have to point out the fact that I am a taxpayer.  Our public institutions--including libraries, roads, parks, and schools--belong to all of us.

Q: What if you are wrong in your disbelief, and hell is a real, terrible place?  Aren't you concerned about your and your children's salvation?

A: No.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Muhlenberg County Schools and the Gideon Problem (Part 2)

On July 25, I sent an email to Muhlenberg County School Superintendent Dale Todd asking him to clarify the district's new policy on the distribution of materials in schools by the Gideons and other religious groups, as originally explained to me by Board of Education member Don Richey.  My phone call to Mr. Richey was the result of stumbling across the Board of Education Meeting minutes from May 14 and noticing the Board's unanimous vote to support and collaborate with the Gideons--an action that raises some very serious Establishment Clause concerns.

Here is the Superintendent's unedited response:

Ms. Lamb,

In previous years Gideon's were allowed into the schools to distribute Bibles to 5th grade students who wanted one. This was found to be a violation so in October the board announced that this would no longer be allowed. However the board requested I research any way in which non profit organizations could be legally allowed to distribute literature to students and or parents. 

There is no policy related to the May motion. The board voted to allow non profit organizations to be allowed in school during open houses and after school events such as family reading night. If an organization request an opportunity to distribute literature, this is the time designated by the board that it would be allowed and would not disrupt instructional time.

I hope this helps answer questions you have about the board action.

I wasn't surprised that the new policy remains unwritten, unannounced, and vague--despite the fact that Board of Education member Don Richey had mentioned this week's back-to-school open houses as one of the "designated times" when the Gideons and other groups would be able to distribute materials.

This morning I sent the Superintendent a letter outlining what I see as the obvious problems with the district's new policy. 

Dear Mr. Todd:
I appreciate your response regarding the distribution of materials in Muhlenberg County Schools by the Gideons International and other organizations.  I am now clear that there is no written, official policy on the matter; rather, there is an unofficial, unwritten policy that the Gideons and other nonprofit organizations may now request in advance permission to distribute materials at school open houses, reading nights, and other unspecified after-school events.

The purpose of this letter is to encourage you and the Board of Education not to implement this new policy, and to keep not only instructional time, but all school events, entirely free of proselytizing by religious groups.
I believe that the new policy as described to me by both you and Board member Don Richey is constitutionally problematic in several ways:
·    The policy is not set in writing, and is vague; therefore, it could be viewed as too easily subject to alteration in order to accommodate organizations that reflect the personal values of the Board’s members, or to exclude groups that do not align with the Board members’ personal values.

·    The policy has not been announced in the local newspapers, on the Muhlenberg County School District web site, or anywhere else where the public might reasonably learn of it, or where nonprofit organizations other than the Gideons might learn of the opportunities it affords them to distribute material.

·    The policy as described by you and Mr. Richey does not have any discernible secular purpose, as per the first prong of the Lemon test (see Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 1971).  Indeed, the Board’s unanimous approval at the May 14 Board Meeting of a motion to “approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon’s organization,” the fact that the new policy remains unwritten and unannounced, and your own previous statements to local newspapers about the Board abandoning its previous policy only at the urging of the attorney for the school district, could together be interpreted by the courts as evidence that the new policy is not sincere, but rather a sham policy designed to allow the district to continue endorsing a specific religious message (see Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 2000) by providing the Gideons access to local schoolchildren.

Furthermore, the new policy may be incredibly controversial and/or divisive.  In order to implement the new policy, the Board of Education will place itself in the position of having to allow nonprofit organizations whose missions and literature are likely to be deemed offensive by many Muhlenberg County parents.  These organizations could potentially include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Sacred Earth Alliance (neo-pagan), American Atheists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, of which I myself am a member.  Please review the enclosures, which include some sample “nontracts” that the Freedom from Religion Foundation distributes, as well as articles describing two different situations (in Buncombe County and Brunswick County, North Carolina) in which Boards of Education halted their plans to allow any religious literature on school property, rather than opening the door to pagan literature being distributed to students.
Please share this letter with the Board of Education.  I ask you to provide me with a written response as to whether the district intends to continue with its new policy.

Suzanne Lamb

A note about the enclosures referenced in the letter: while I can't reproduce the Freedom from Religion Foundation "nontracts," they are available for purchase here.  The Asheville Citizen-Times article about the Buncombe County, North Carolina controversy is available only as a paid service, but a relevant blog post that I also included with my letter can be read here.  An article and a blog post describing the situation in Brunswick County, which were among the enclosures, are available here and here.

The situation in Buncombe County, North Carolina played out this past spring.  Either the Muhlenberg County Board of Education and Superintendent didn't hear about it, or they felt that their actions were unlikely to generate a similar response. 

Let me be clear:  I don't think the ideal outcome is for the schools to have a slew of different groups showing up to distribute literature at every school function--and I'm not sure that having to compete with pagans and Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses and atheists is what the Gideons have in mind.  If our Board of Education wants to remain neutral on matters of religion, its best bet is not to let any groups use school events for religious proselytizing. 

I can only hope our Board members see the light.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Muhlenberg County Schools and the Gideon Problem

Though my kids don't attend our local public schools, I care about what goes on in them.  I think our public schools should be pleasant places that encourage critical thinking, individualized learning, democratic participation, and compassion.  I'm concerned about some trends in our Muhlenberg County schools, including their growing resemblance to minimum security prisons (requiring high school students to submit to drug testing in order to participate in school clubs, for example; and specifying that kindergarten students hold their hands behind their backs and "walk two white squares from the brown squares" when moving through the halls).  I'm also concerned about the lengths to which some of our school officials seem willing to go to keep Christian proselytizing alive in our district.

Last fall, the Muhlenberg County School District received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a watchdog group for the separation of church and state, complaining that the Gideons had visited Longest Elementary fifth-grade classrooms to distribute bibles to the students and to urge them "to read and learn from the bible."  The FFRF had been notified of the Gideons' visit by a parent of one of the fifth-grade students.

Superintendent Dale Todd distanced himself and the Longest Elementary principal from the questionable activities, claiming in his written response to the FFRF attorney that "the principal was at a conference that day and not present at the school."  Todd also assured the FFRF attorney that he had "instructed all schools to not allow members of the Gideons International organization to come into the school and distribute Bibles on school property."  However, Todd later indicated to the local newspapers (whose archives are not available online for me to link to them) that he and the school board approved of the Gideons visiting classrooms; in fact, the visits were described as a longstanding tradition that neither Todd nor the school board wanted to end.  Todd explained that the only reason for doing so was that the attorney for the school district had assured them a legal fight would be expensive and nearly impossible to win.

Some local residents grumbled.  In the months that followed, one unhappy resident (who likely never read The Handmaid's Tale) wrote an op-ed letter blaming separation of church and state for a variety of social ills.  Another started a petition that showed a distressing ignorance of the constitutional issues at hand.  But the golden age of bible distribution in Muhlenberg County public schools seemed to be over.

Naturally, I was surprised to notice that the minutes from the May 14, 2012 Muhlenberg County Board of Education Meeting included unanimously-approved "plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization."  Would the board of a school district recently in hot water for violating the Establishment Clause make its support of the Gideons' mission a matter of public record?

Because the person who initiated the motion is no longer a member of the school board, I decided to contact board member Don Richey, who had seconded the motion.  I tried to obtain Richey's email address from the district office, only to learn from the board secretary that district policy didn't permit her to give it out.  She suggested I call Richey at his home number.

I called Richey and identified myself by name, noting that I was a citizen who liked to keep up with what was going on in our schools.  I asked Richey about the minutes from the May 14 meeting, reading verbatim the portion of the minutes that mentioned the Gideons.

Richey said of the motion, "As I recall, that was about our position, which is now that everyone should have equal opportunity.  Any group that wants to can pass out materials at a designated time."

I asked if by "designated time" he meant a specific event put together for the sole purpose of giving groups an opportunity to distribute materials. 

"No, no," he said.  When pressed for examples, he said that such times might be Reading Nights at the schools, or the upcoming Open Houses before fall semester begins. 

I asked if some kind of announcement would be made about this, and Richey said no, that groups would be allowed if they requested ahead of time to participate.  He said that bible distribution would no longer take place "during class time."

I asked if by "any group," the board meant religious groups specifically. 

Richey responded, "No, no--any group."  When asked if the board might object to some of the groups wanting to distribute material, Richey didn't answer the question.  Instead he said, "The law's the law.  We're about equal opportunity now."  He repeated that bibles would no longer be distributed in class.

One wonders why, if the Muhlenberg County Board of Education is truly interested in "equal opportunity," it is producing meeting minutes that speak specifically of "collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization." 

I sent an email to Superintendent Dale Todd asking him to explain the district's current policy on the distribution of materials by the Gideons and other groups.  I will share his response when I receive it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Knitting, Knowing, and Cultivating Passions

I am learning how to knit.

This was not on my summer to-do list.  What was on my list was getting halfway through revisions to my novel.  And getting back to regular yoga practice.  And spending more time with the fiddle, which I began playing two years ago but have neglected the past several months.

Of course, being my children's learning facilitator/guide/partner is always on the list, which is why, when my super-crafty seven-year-old daughter wanted to sew with a machine, I signed her up for some sewing classes at the nearest fabric store.  While my husband and I often take turns serving as our children's "competence model," to borrow a term from unschooling writer Robyn Coburn, in this case there was simply no competence to model: I don't own a sewing machine, and have never even used one.  I drag out the needle and thread once every few months to sew on a button.

Hadley loved the sewing classes so much that she decided to spend the summer trying every single children's class the fabric store offered.  I negotiated her down to a slightly smaller, more affordable list of the classes that most appealed to her.  Knitting was one of them.

Fifteen minutes into the first of two knitting sessions, Hadley and the only other student, an eight-year-old girl, were discouraged; they hadn't expected it to be so tricky.  The teacher, a kind and patient expert knitter named Becky, said to me and the other mother, "You know, they will pick this up a lot easier if you learn, too."

I had been afraid she was going to say that.

It's not that I'm completely uncrafty.  Though my sewing skills are a bit limited, I adore weaving potholders on those nifty little metal looms, and I went through a counted-cross-stitch phase that began when I was nine and lasted until I was thirteen.  But knitting?  It just seemed so big league.

I'd considered learning once, years ago, after it was recommended by a therapist I was seeing during the lows of our infertility struggle and the constant anxiety that accompanied my medically complicated first pregnancy.  Afraid you're never going to get pregnant?  Knit!  On bedrest to stave off premature labor?  Why not knit with all that free time?  The therapist even loaned me some needles and patterns, which I looked over for about fifteen minutes before deciding I wasn't up to it.  Instead I spent weeks poring over The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding  and Your Baby and Child from Birth to Age Five and watched, for the first time, The Godfather and its sequels and a mountain of less memorable movies that my husband brought home from the video store.

But there was my daughter in knitting class, imploring me with her huge brown eyes, and the other mother, who had snatched up an extra pair of teacher Becky's knitting needles and, after glancing at the handout on the casting-on process, was now casually whipping loops onto her left needle.

I walked out into the store and bought the big needles and oversized yarn from the class supply list.  Becky suggested I let her cast on for me, so that I could start right in on the knit stitch.  She modeled the stitch several times, but when I attempted to imitate her, I'd insert the needle in the wrong place, or the loops would slip off the end of the needle, or I'd lean over to help Hadley and forget where I was with my own work.  Then I'd need Becky to get me back on track.  By the end of the session I had four imperfect rows of stitches.

When we returned two days later for the second and final session, Hadley had a few rows of knitting to show for her efforts.  I had a tangled mess of yarn and empty needles, having made some mistake eight rows in and, in the process of trying to fix it, pulled the whole thing apart.  (I tried not to notice that what the other mother brought back practically qualified as a blanket.)  Fortunately, I was more rested than the first afternoon, and I'd had more time to adjust to the idea that I would be knitting.  I also had an obscenely large latte in hand.

After multiple demonstrations and attempts, and the entire enormous latte, I finally got the hang of casting on.  Then I caught on to the knit stitch.  As my hands began knowing what to do, I realized that knitting might be something I could enjoy for my own reasons.

Before we left the store, Hadley and I walked back to the yarn section and examined the various types to see which we liked.  I traded in the scratchy acrylic starter yarn for a super-soft skein of organic cotton.  I also picked out some smaller needles.  Hadley decided to stay with the large needles and yarn, but she picked a new color--a lovely mulberry shade--that she hopes to work into a scarf.

Two evenings ago I finished my first simple project: a small purse for Hadley.  Yesterday morning I sat down with the knitting books we checked out from the library and attempted to do the purl stitch.  I'm happy to report that I had some success before I had to stop and help my five-year-old prepare lunch.

Knowing how to purl will give me access to a whole new world of knitting projects, and allow me to model purling to Hadley, if and when she's ready to use it.  My knitting competence--however little or much I have by then--will be available to her in the same way as my competence at calculating sales tax and baking bread and resolving health insurance billing problems and pronouncing the names of Greek goddesses.

The idea that people are learning all the time is central to unschooling.  Instead of dividing children's activities into categories like "educational" and "recreational," unschoolers strive to take all of their children's interests seriously.  Reading a classic novel is not regarded as an inherently better use of time than playing with Legos; a fascination with Beyblades receives as much parental support as a fascination with The Scholastic Atlas of the United States.  A list of my three children's interests through the years would include--in addition to sewing, knitting, Legos, Beyblades, and The Scholastic Atlas of the United States--construction vehicles, the Eiffel Tower, Pokemon, chess, Barbie dolls, marble runs, rocks, Caillou, the First Amendment, face painting, woodworking, satellite dishes, surveillance cameras, the Titanic, Star Wars, Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions, constellations, The Kentucky Driver Manual, and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Some of these interests have sparked related interests, some have grown into passions, and some will surely accompany my children all the way to adulthood.

I've learned from all of them, even when I wasn't expecting to.

Hadley's first piece of knitting, which makes a perfect rug for Ariel

My first project: a little purse for Hadley

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why I Can't Stand Those Pledge of Allegiance Memes Circulating on Facebook

Maybe it's because Independence Day is upon us that the Pledge of Allegiance memes are once again making the rounds on Facebook.  Perhaps you've seen one of them in your own news feed.

One version reads:


Another version replaces the actual pledge with an illustration of schoolchildren saluting the flag.  The caption reads, "We no longer do this for . . . fear . . . of offending someone!!! Let's see how many Americans will re-post this."

I want to go on record as saying that I find these memes aggravating.  (Can we say excessive capitalization and exclamation points?  Garbled syntax?  And what's up with that very weird use of ellipses?)  I also find them dishonest.

A whopping thirty-six states require public schools to lead recitation of the pledge.  Another six states give schools the option of requiring it.  Clearly, it's absurd to claim that "we no longer do" the pledge.  Further, many who have objected to the pledge being used in public schools (which isn't quite the same as being offended by it) have done so because of the phrase "under God," which wasn't part of the original pledge at all.  It was added in 1954, sixty-two years after the original pledge was written, during the fear-mongering era of McCarthyism, when invoking God was a handy way for those with political ambitions to prove they were hard on Communism.  My own father grew up saying the pledge without the "under God" insertion.  Anyone who is advocating a true return to tradition would more sensibly call for a return to the secular version of the pledge.

Because we are unschoolers, my children do not say the pledge of allegiance at school.  And, unlike some homeschoolers, they don't line up and say it at home.  (Some homeschoolers also pledge allegiance to a Christian flag, as depicted in the documentary Jesus Camp, but that is another story.)  Personally, my husband and I are not fans of forcing kids to pledge allegiance to anything.  Those who have spent time with us know that we are kooky in that way.  As part of living in our house, our children are, however, part of an ongoing conversation about the history of this great country and the Bill of Rights and the real meaning of democracy and freedom and standing up for one's convictions even when it makes one very unpopular.  I have, for the record, never known one of my children to respond to someone of a different opinion by telling that person to get the f*** out of the country, like the friend-of-a-friend who defended one of those Facebook memes.

And, just in case those circulating the memes didn't know, the pledge's author, Francis Bellamy, was a socialist.