A recent conversation with my friend, Katherine, who I’ve known since we were in kindergarten together, had us reminiscing about our years in grade school. As we talked, we started remembering the annual Christmas ceremony that was held every year in the grade school library. We both had strong memories of being awestruck by how magical those ceremonies had felt to our younger selves.
Walking silently into the darkened room, the teachers didn’t have to tell us to be quiet. The library had been transformed from a place of study into a room filled with magic. The overhead lights had been turned off and the only illumination in the room came from the Christmas tree in the corner of the room. The tree was decorated with multi-colored lights and the hand-made ornaments that had been created with love in each grade’s art classes the month before. Every class got to select two ornaments to contribute to the decorations on the tree, and having your ornament selected was a source of great pride.
The tables and chairs had been moved out of the room, and hushed voices bid us to sit on the floor in rows that ran the length of the room. We waited patiently as each class walked in, slowly filling the room. In front of us, to the left of the tree, was a table with a cloth and candles setting on it.
As we watched in awe, two of the “big” kids, with the sophistication and wisdom of their sixth grade education, walked in and stood at the table. They stood silently for a few moments as they waited for all of us to be still. Then, majestically, they lit the candles and began reading the Christmas story to us. (Yes, Virginia, they read to us from the Bible in a public school.)
We could not wait to be old enough to be the ones that presented the tradition. When our turn came to hold the ceremony, one of the students in our class happened to be Jewish. Not a single child thought twice about it when this boy was asked to add to the ceremony by explaining his traditions along with the Christian ones most of us were familiar with. It made perfect sense to our young minds to include instead of excluding.
As we remembered that simple exposure to another religion in our sixth grade year, it struck both of us how naturally we were taught to accept those differences. Were we looking back at that event through rose colored glasses? Probably a little. That amazing tradition took place during the social upheaval of the 1960’s. There were no Blacks, Asians or Hispanics in our school. Jokes about other races and ethnicities were still sprinkled in some of our parent’s conversations.
The teachers who escorted us so quietly into that magical ceremony were not perfect. Mr. Harness had a hell of a temper, Mrs. Snyder was a mildly embittered divorcee, and Miss Patton hated the hippies that she felt were infesting our society during that era of history. We were not perfect children; we did not spend our recess sitting in a circle holding hands and singing Kumbaya. There was name calling and there was stigmatizing, but we were also taught to understand that people had different religions and beliefs. Instead of being taught that the other way was wrong, we were taught to study and try to understand those differences.
When we reached junior high, at least 50% of the school population was Jewish. No one questioned the fact that on the holy days of the Jewish tradition, half of the school would be absent. Those of us who were not of that religious persuasion enjoyed a day of study halls and fun events while those that were Jewish had a day off to observe their beliefs. There was no comment and certainly no protests. It was the way it was.
I understand a Christmas story may not make a lot of sense as Summer is winking at us enticingly. But for the last two years as the temperatures elevated, so did the racial and religious tensions that seem to haunt this country. This year, political and religious strife have everyone even more on edge than during the last two awful summers. Our country feels more divided and turbulent than any other time in my memory.
Asking people to try to understand each other, and to take the time to learn about the people who are different than you, may seem like a simplistic approach. But as I reflect on the simple, gracious way we were taught to understand someone different, I know that is the best way to deal with differences. Our teachers were never perfect, but they did their best to teach us how to understand each other during that other tumultuous era. I can’t help but be grateful for that lesson.