As a hearing teacher, I work one-on-one with students. I had the following conversation with a second grader just a few days ago. For the purposes of this blog post, I will call him Sam.
Sam: Did you know that God made me?
Me: Oh, that’s really special.
Sam: I hate God.
I inquired a bit further as to the reason why he would say that, and his answers were pretty much what I expected. There’s something coming up in Sam’s life that he’s not looking forward to, and this reaction makes sense, and is probably also healthy, in that he’s working through his feelings. Still, it made me a bit sad to hear him say what he said.
What struck me about the conversation, though, is that it was about God, and that it took place in a public school setting. At that moment, Sam really needed to talk about God, because God was the framework he was using for working through some difficult stuff in his life. The stuff he’s working through right now is related to his hearing loss, and so it was a perfectly reasonable conversation for him to have with me.
Except that I felt like it was a conversation that couldn’t happen, because once he brought up God, I felt like I had to be super-careful about what I said and didn’t say. What if he went home and told his mom that we talked about God? What if I managed to say something about God that didn’t match his idea of God, which is likely different from mine. What if I somehow (unintentionally) made him feel as if there was something invalid about his beliefs? So many what ifs to contend with.
In this case, we were able continue our conversation without referencing God again. I stuck with the simple question of, “Why?” and he answered with the reason I expected. I asked another question to clarify further, then expressed how I understood why he might feel what he’s feeling. God didn’t get mentioned again, and that seemed to work just fine for this conversation. But what if it hadn’t? What if Sam had needed to talk about God some more in order to work through his feelings?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the separation of Church and State, and not mixing religion with education within the public school system. I think this separation is an important tool for creating a safe space for all students, regardless of their backgrounds. I have no problem with students learning about different religions, and what their beliefs and practices are. Quite the opposite. I think it’s a wonderful idea. (I frequently find myself explaining my own religious practices to my students, some of whom are shocked when I tell them I don’t celebrate Christmas, or that I go an entire day each week without using my cell phone.) But to have a conversation from within the framework of religions beliefs, talking about what God did and didn’t do, and what my student’s opinion of God is at a given moment, that feels different. That feels risky.
I now find myself wondering whether it may sometimes be worth the risk to ask the deeper questions within a safe space. Are there times where it would be okay to have a conversation about God in a public school? If so, what are those times, and how should those conversations be handled? It’s something I hadn’t really thought about until this week.