Are you increasingly nervous that somebody will take offense to something you say or do?
You aren’t alone.
Today, for some reason, we are offended for the sake of offense. In today’s world, it doesn’t matter if something gives joy and happiness to a group of teachers and kids. No, what matters is that in some sort of parallel hypothetical universe, somewhere, somebody might (maybe) take mild offense.
Offense to things like a little pink tree.
Bangor High School teacher Catherine Gordon, who has taught in Bangor for 30 years, has put up a pink Christmas tree with Hello Kitty ornaments in her classroom nearly every year, and according to her, no parent or administrator had ever complained. Until last Friday, when an email from her principal told her to remove it.
“The email said that he thought it favored one religion over another and he thought it was inappropriate,” Gordon told the Bangor Daily News.
I’m sorry, but unless that religion is the Holy Church of Hello Kitty, there was no religious oppression present in Gordon’s classroom.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, from which we draw the frequently misunderstood concept of a separation between church and state, was never intended to expunge any reference of religion or religious observance from our lives.
It was intended to protect the religious, guaranteeing that one religious denomination did not become an established, state religion imposed on the people of the country, and that the government would not use the power and authority of the state to force a different faith upon anyone.
Is that concept threatened by a secularized pink tree?
Apparently so, according to Superintendent Betsy Webb’s original 1984-esque statement after the tree’s removal:
“In alignment with national and state standards, the Bangor School Department educates students about culture, traditions and holidays through curriculum ties in English language arts, music, art, social studies and world languages,” said Webb. “Our focus is educating students to become global citizens with the necessary 21st century skills for college and career readiness for their future success.”
After Principal Paul Butler thankfully reversed the decision to remove the tree, we got yet another statement from the superintendent trying to explain the situation, which said, among other things, that one of the important questions they ask themselves around the holiday season is, “will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider by the concert, lesson, activity or decoration display?”
And herein lies the problem.
When the goal of a school is to anesthetize its students from any possible harm or offense, it is simply not teaching them. They are instead creating a joylessly bland, colorless version of reality for their students that will leave them ill-equipped for their adult lives.
We are all outsiders at times, and we should teach children that there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, part of growing and maturing is learning how to appropriately handle being an outsider and grow stronger from the conflict and struggle.
That doesn’t mean you actively oppress kids in school or seek ways to make them feel different. But you also don’t seek to create mindless drones who have everything that upsets them washed away from their field of view.
“When I first started teaching, we had parties the last day of school before vacation and the kids would bring in cookies and we played holiday music — none of that is allowed now,” Gordon said earlier this week. “I feel that this is definitely a turning point in our society — when everything offends everyone all the time — it just sucks the joy out of everything.”
And that is the true casualty of the society we are creating. Joy.
When I grew up, we had Christmas concerts and plays and were happy to celebrate who we were openly without being nervous that we were accidentally oppressing anyone.
My 8-year-old son, in contrast, had a “game day” on his last day of school before “Holiday” vacation. No concerts. No plays. But he got to play a game of Go Fish!
Are we so insecure in ourselves that we are afraid of harmless expressions of personal faith or secular icons like a pink tree in public schools?
It is time we stopped being so afraid, and celebrated those things that make us who we are. And to my liberal friends reading this column yes, that means celebrating non-Christian things I don’t myself believe in, but families in my community do.
That is part of what makes us who we are, and nothing about that violates the Constitution, establishes a state religion, or harms anyone. It is time we all grew up.