Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Peanuts and Prayer

I don’t much read Peanuts anymore. All the strips that are in the paper now are ones that I likely read either when they first came out or in collections as a kid. Actually, I don’t much read the comics anymore. But every Sunday, when I gut the paper for coupons for Sofie to cut out, I have to pass by the comics section, and there, right on the front page, is Peanuts. And I always check to see if it’s a strip that I remember.

This past Sunday’s was a reprint from November 3rd, 1963. It’s not one I remembered reading before, but when I saw it, I immediately called Cheryl into the room.

“You have to read this,” I said. “And then I’ll explain it to you.”

If the link I put in to the strip isn’t working, let me summarize it for you. Sally Brown comes up behind her brother, who’s watching TV, and nonchalantly says, “Guess what?” After Charlie Brown takes the bait and asks “What?” she carefully looks around the house, and takes him to a spot where she’s sure that no one will hear her, and says, “We prayed in school today.”

Then I explained to Cheryl that she was to young to remember, since she didn’t start school until 1967, but I remembered school prayer, and it wasn’t as simple and innocuous as everyone thinks it was. At least not at Ashland School, in East Orange, NJ. It wasn’t a simple case of saying a little prayer at the beginning of the day; I remember the day in Mrs Celmar’s 1st grade classroom starting with the Pledge of Allegiance, a reading from the Psalms, and the Lord’s Prayer. And this was a scene that was repeated in all four sections of every grade from K-8.

That is, until the famous Supreme Court decision of June 1963 that “banned prayer from public schools.”

Someone once said that as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school.

The decision in Abington School District v Schempp did not ban prayer from public schools. What it banned were the religious exercises like the one I described at Ashland School. It banned them as mandatory, official activities of the school.

Those of you who know me, know that I’m a religious person, and you know something? Based on what I remember, and from what I’ve found out from researching this, the Supreme Court made the right decision. A simple non-denominational prayer, a simple moment of silence, would’ve been one thing; but requiring all students to take part in a religious exercise that may not even be a part of their religion is another.

And here’s the kicker. Whenever this issue comes up, everyone always thinks of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the famous atheist. But the original plaintiff in this suit, before his case was combined with hers, was Edward Schempp, a Unitarian-Universalist, who claimed that the daily religious exercises in the schools his children attended, violated their family’s religious beliefs. Schempp felt that it wasn’t enough for his children to be allowed to leave the room during the religious exercises, because being the ones who left, being the different ones, might make them targets for bullying.

In fact, O’Hair said that her son’s refusal to take part in the classroom religious exercises resulted in bullying being directed at him by his classmates. Bullying which school officials seemed to condone.

Being bullied for being different is something that we’ve gained increased sensitivity to over the past few years.

So go on, pray when you realize that there’s a test next period that you haven’t studied for. Pray that the cute little red-haired girl over there will go to the Homecoming Dance with you. Pray that when the principal calls you down to his office, it’s for a good reason and not a bad one. You can even pray for the victims of the most recent tragedy or disaster (and there seem to be far too many of those). It’s all OK. You can do this in public school. What the Supreme Court banned almost 50 years ago was the kind of coercive, mandatory prayer that I remember. And it’s a good thing.

I just pray that everyone else understands this.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Felony Insensitivity

Many years ago, a friend of mine came up with the term felony stupidity to describe certain incidents of what we call “date rape.” I liked his terminology because it implied no evil intent upon the perpetrator, but instead, that he got himself into a situation where he did something stupid with very bad consequences.

I like to think of the term felony stupidity as also applying to those cases where kids out on a lark drop water balloons, pumpkins, or even bricks, from highway overpasses onto the cars below. I’ve seen what a water balloon dropped from a 10th story dorm room can do to a car’s windshield, so I don’t even want to think about what a pumpkin or a brick could do. Did you ever wonder why so many pedestrian overpasses have chain link fencing to a good arms-length height above?

Once again, we have cases of people with no evil intent doing something stupid, with often tragic results.

And now, with the tragic events at Rutgers last week, I’d like to add another term to the lexicon: felony insensitivity.

Was it truly a hate crime when Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei used a hidden webcam to stream live video of Tyler Clementi having a sexual encounter with another man to the Internet? Did they target him because they knew or suspected that he was gay, or were they just out for a little “fun,” hoping to embarrass him by catching him with anyone, male or female, or maybe even masturbating on camera? Was what they did motivated by hate, by homophobia, or by simple stupidity and insensitivity? Felony stupidity and felony insensitivity?

Does the motivation even matter, as long as one person is dead as a result of these actions?

For that matter, does the person’s orientation really matter in cases like this? I have a dear friend who had intimate video of her copied off of her boyfriend’s computer by his roommate, and then posted to the Internet. Was it any less wrong that this was done to her because she was straight? It might have been less embarrassing, but it definitely wasn’t less wrong. Fortunately she had a good head on her shoulders, and lots of supportive friends, as well as a supportive family; and her body was not found floating in the Hudson River.

It’s worth noting that according to New Jersey law, collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a 4th-degree crime. Do you hear that? It’s not just a little prank, it’s a crime. Furthermore, transmitting those images is a 3rd-degree crime, with a maximum sentence of five years. These are things that everyone should know before they even open the shrink wrap on their webcam.

Before this story broke, I talked to my 6th, 7th, and 9th grade computer literacy classes about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. We concluded that knowledge is knowing how to do something, while wisdom is knowing whether or not you should use the knowledge you have. I was, however, particularly struck by the definition one young lady gave me when she said that wisdom is knowledge with a conscience.

“Knowledge with a conscience.” This appears to be something that Ravi and Wei didn’t have. They knew how to set up a webcam to spy on the private moments of a fellow student, but they didn’t stop to think that maybe this was something that they shouldn’t do. The conscience seems to have been lacking there.

It is unspeakably tragic that Tyler Clementi gave himself a permanent solution to a temporary problem, because as Ellen DeGeneres said in her widely circulated video statement about this, “Things will get easier, people’s minds will change, and you should be alive to see it.”

In the meantime, it's up to all of us to see to it that there are fewer cases of this kind of felony insensitivity.