The Battle for the Souls of Children

Today, Stephanie is chewing grape bubble gum. I don’t know why, but girls are always prettier when they smell like grape bubble gum. She and I walked home part way from school together everyday. I liked that her name was almost my name.

She had a star on her necklace. It was funny looking. “This is a star of David. It means I am Jewish.” “What does that mean?” “Your family is Christian and you go to a church, right?” “Yes.” “My family is not Christian. We go to a synagogue. We are Jewish.” “Whoa. Not everyone is Christian?” “No. There are a lot of Jews in the world. I will see you tomorrow, OK?” “Sure. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

How about that. There are people in the world who aren’t Christian. I knew she was different. I liked that about her. She was teaching me things too. Stephanie and I had our walks together in the second grade, which was the 1968-1969 school year.

Our teacher read us our daily devotions every morning after we said the pledge. The daily devotion as I recall, was an attempt to teach us values without being explicitly religious. I don’t know if it was my teacher’s idea or that of the school board.

One daily devotion I remember was about a butterfly breaking out of its cocoon and a woman tries to be helpful and cuts open the cocoon with a pair of scissors. The butterfly couldn’t fly. It needed to struggle out of its cocoon to strengthen its muscles so it could fly.

I also remember being very confused about one that referred to “an I for an I and a 2 for a 2”. I asked my mom about it and she said it was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. When she explained what it meant, I was shocked at how violent the adult world was.

In the third grade, Stephanie was gone. I always presumed that her family moved. I had two more classmates who were Jewish though, Rachel and Samuel.

One day we had special guests in our classroom. One man sat in a chair behind a table with a box on it. The other man was standing. The teacher said they were Gideons and they had gifts for us. The first man would call a name, made a checkmark by the name on a piece of paper and the second man reached into the box and handed that student a little book.

When Rachel got up and picked up her book, she wasn’t pleased. My name was called and I discovered that the book was a New Testament. I knew that this was a Christian book. I also knew why Rachel was unhappy. Then they called Samuel’s name. He was unhappy too.

In 1963, the US Supreme Court decided in the case, School District of Abington Township v. Schempp that public school prayer and Bible reading in the public schools violated the establishment clause of the first amendment.

Not to be thwarted, either my teachers or the school board, found other ways of working around the supreme court decision. They did this by using daily devotions and distributing New Testaments.

This incident stayed with my whole life. It is one of the reasons why I have strong feeling that church and state must be kept separate.

©2017 Stephen L. Martin

Photo: Star of David pendant

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