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Religion in my public schools

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I’m told by people who grew up here that mandatory school religious exercises in Manitoba meant that the principal used to read The Lord’s Prayer to students each morning.

You can read my story on school prayer in Manitoba here.

When I went to ‘public’ school in Toronto and area in the 1950s and 1960s, The Lord’s Prayer and God Save the Queen were only the start of what usually took about 20 to 25 minutes each morning.

I don’t recall that there was an option to be excused from the exercises — certainly, I don’t ever remember any classmates leaving the room or arriving after it was all over.

We had a lengthy Bible reading each day, read by the classroom teacher where there was no PA, and by the principal over the intercom in high school. And there was at least one hymn sung each day, in which all were required to take part.

We were never allowed to ask questions about the reading, couldn’t ask for clarification of parts we didn’t understand in the scriptures.

Our teachers back then tended either to have been around forever, or had gone straight from Grade 12 to one year of teacher’s college, having skipped Grade 13, and then to a classroom when they were as young as 19 when they started. Mr. R in Grade 8 was the first teacher I had who’d been to university, and it showed.

Diversity in Toronto in the 1950s was usually about which part of western Europe from which we immigrants had come. The Canadian kids had different stereotypes for us depending on where we’d been born, and mocked our accents, without intervention by teachers, but that part’s for another blog, another day.

There was an assumption that if you weren’t in the Catholic school down the street, then you were mainstream Protestant Christian.

Each year, parents had to sign a school registration form, which included stating the denomination to which the child belonged. Like many of my friends, we didn’t go to church, though my mother was technically Catholic and my father theoretically Church of England, and he always wrote down that I was Anglican, though I had no idea what the word meant, and had never been inside an Anglican church.

A few of the kids were Jewish, there may have been other students of various faiths, and there may have been agnostics and atheists and assorted non-believers, though what their parents opted to write on the registration forms, I can’t say.

The new testament was read to the Jewish kids, the Jewish kids were expected to sing Jesus Loves Me just as loudly and enthusiastically as every other child in the classroom.

There was a family in high school who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, a boy and a girl, though not in my class, so I don’t know what they did about religious exercises. At assemblies, they would stay seated during the anthem, and no principal or teacher ever took a teachable moment to explain diversity to us, and if we treated those Jehovah’s Witness kids with contempt, no one intervened to set us straight.

I remember my Grade 6 teacher, Miss S, whom today we’d probably call evangelical. She’d extend the religious lessons to other parts of the curriculum, such as requiring us to read The Pilgrim’s Progress in class. If teachers want to comment below on whether it’s age-appropriate for Grade 6, go right ahead.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a heavy Christian allegory written in 1678, and Amazon lists recent editions at 378 pages. Again, if someone with one or more graduate degrees in psychology wants to comment on why people remember certain incidents from decades ago, feel free. I remember being bewildered as I slogged through The Pilgrim’s Progress, though I was an avid reader who trotted off to the public library every week, and I asked Miss S in which country this book was taking place. She got all misty-eyed, and answered, "This is OUR country," and after that, no one questioned, we just read.

I remember Mr. M in Grade 7 threatening us with a thick leather strap, because we weren’t singing hymns with the gusto that the education ministry required in 1959. It wasn’t, I should add, the only time he issued such threats.

The seminal moment for me came in Grade 9 in Scarborough. I was 13, was one of the best writers and one of the most eager readers in the class, and had a mad crush on the English teacher, Miss D.

There was a guy named Doug, a big guy, the kind you generally feared as a Fonzian punk back in those days just from the way he looked, but Doug was a gentle and cheerful guy who never bothered anyone.

I don’t remember what piece of literature we were discussing that day, or how the discussion turned to religion, or why Miss D called on Doug, but he stood up, and quite calmly said, "Miss D, I don’t believe in god."

It was the only time in my life that I’ve heard someone literally shriek.

Miss D was trembling as she backed up into a corner at the front of the classroom, all the time pointing at Doug as she backed away from him, and then spoke: "Blasphemer! Blasphemer!"

Miss D sent Doug to the principal’s office, and it was two weeks before he returned to school.

It began dawning on me that day that the government of Ontario had sanctioned one specific set of beliefs to be imposed on all of us, in a public school system, in a province in which there was freedom of religion.

When I graduated from Grade 13 and went to Glendon College of York University in Toronto, there was no anthem to start each day, no prayer, no hymn, no readings. We just went about our education, learning to think critically, studying comparative religions in humanities if we so chose, developing values and morals, getting along with each other and making life-long friendships regardless of what we individually believed.

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