One day last week, my sixth grader showed me something she got at school.
“A man gave me this,” she said, pulling a miniature paperback Bible from her knapsack. “He was handing them out on the sidewalk.”
Well, how terrific is that.
Which issue to talk about first. As a mother, The Priority Question can be difficult to parse. You have to weigh the big universal, the specifics, your child’s brain, the desired result, and then hit all the lessons in order of importance. This one was pretty easy.
Here, we have a strange man. Not much to ponder. Strange man, first, church v. state, second, and the forty-nine other appalling presumptions after that. Knowing I had already discussed, many times, both strange men and religion on public property, I was irked that my daughter didn’t put her knowledge into action. This child could sense unsavoriness in a mailman, in the next zip code. How could she possibly stretch out her hand to accept the book?
“Did you get close enough to him to take the book?” I asked.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “I have the book, Mommy.”
Wrapped in the “safe” and pre-approved ethers of school, the questionable presence of this person was diffused. Her antennae didn’t fly up and flicker purple. How dare a strange man who is clearly a strange man blur the demarcation for my eleven year old. How dare he trick her not to think in the way parents kill themselves to teach their kids to think. What if were not really a proselytizer, but someone dressed up as one?
“He was talking to the crossing guard. And every kid was holding one,” she said.
For a non-Christian New Yorker living in the Bible Belt, I have a hard time with bibles, and The Bible. Whichever one it is, frankly. There are crosses bolted onto houses, planted into lawns. On shirts, billboards, cars, foreheads. I have seen pendants that could drag a woman to the ground, they are so immense. Evangelicals are on television and radio all the time, not just on Sunday. In fact, when you turn on the cable and a station pops up, there one is. I do not want him in my living room. Religion is not private and personal here. It is assaulting. It’s like an ambush. What happens is, religious groups that are typically private and personal become less so, in order to compete. That is distasteful. Religion is like sport here, with jerseys and hats.
When I called the school administrator, though, I was cheered by the response. “We have been trying for years to get that guy to go away,” she told me. It seems, legally, he has a right to stand on the sidewalk, off of school property. Lawyers have advised the principal to ask him to leave, which she has, many times, but that is all the school can do. I told her that for kids who may not share his devotion to the bible, not taking one could be conflicting, especially with the perceived approval of the school. She hadn’t thought of that, but at least, she didn’t want the guy there.
We’ve experienced all sorts of liberties taken here. A soccer team of 12 year olds saying The Lord’s Prayer before games. An image of a crucifix in a different school auditorium. Santas at city hall, but no symbols of Kwansaa or Hanukkah or anything else that might be celebrated in December. But the man at school was different, because he got too close.
I found out that his next stop was the prison and the drug rehab center. Lost souls all over the place. My 11 year old is not a lost soul. The administrator asked what else they could do. I told her that a letter of warning could be sent home in the fall, so that parents, if they want to, can tell their kids to avoid the guy in a suit with orange books. Of course, now, we don’t need the letter.