Originally published in The Dallas Morning News September 17, 2000
When the Supreme Court announced its decision that prayer wouldn’t be allowed in the schools, I couldn’t help but smile. I work in the Dallas public schools, where controversy seems to be a mainstay.
During the debacle with the district’s most recent superintendent, I prayed for our district and the school board and enlisted the prayers of people all over the world via the Internet. But that wasn’t the first time that prayer had entered the schools.
When I began my teaching career at the age of 40, I was as hopeful, bright-eyed and energetic as any 20-year-old. Little did I know what awaited me in an inner-city classroom. Upon my first day, a tiny kindergartener no higher than my belt buckle pummeled my back and yelled words at me that grown men shouldn’t know. Welcome to the real world.
Now, prayer had gotten me through college, and I knew I needed it here. This particular one was simple and to the point: HELP! I turned and faced my adversary, a golden-haired, blue-eyed bombshell with the face of an angel and the disposition of a … well, need I say more?
He glared at me with steely blue eyes and dared me to strike back. “Well, hello to you, too!” I said, “What’s your name?” He eyed me warily. “Chris,” he mumbled under his breath like a threat. I extended my hand. “Well, I’m Mrs. V” (short for an impossibly hard name for a kindergartener to pronounce). He drew back at first, as if expecting the hand to strike him. Then, he grabbed it with all the fierceness he could muster in his 5-year-old body. “Nice to meet you, Chris,” I said, smiling. The prayer continued on silently. “Would you like to read a book with me?” He nodded reluctantly and snatched one from the nearby shelf. I sat at a table with several chairs. Chris sat at an arm’s length from me, just barely close enough to see. I held the book between us and began to read. By the end of the story, we were shoulder to shoulder. I knew this truce was fragile and temporary at best.
The prayer continued but more fervently now. “Can you write your name?” Chris’ face clouded immediately as he shook his head. I continued on hurriedly. “Oh, I bet you can! Let me show you how.” I finally was beginning to feel like a real teacher. Little did I know that I had lots to learn. I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and stopped just as I reached for a crayon. “Hey, Chris, what’s your favorite color?” He rummaged through the box and scooted one across the table to me. “Oh, yellow, I like yellow,” I said. The tiniest hint of a smile appeared on his face. “That’s not yellow, that’s blue!” he said. “You know, you’re right,” I agreed. Most children enjoy being able to “teach” the teacher. “Now, does Chris start with an R like rrrabbit or a C like cccat?” I sounded out each letter and traced each carefully. By the end, Chris was beaming. “That’s my name!” “Yep,” I agreed, enjoying the moment. Now, the hard part began. “Can you show me your pointer finger?” Up it popped, the nail dirty and bitten down to the quick. “Let me show you a trick.” I took his hand, and we carefully traced each letter with his fingertip. Chris nodded thoughtfully when we finished and agreed to try it with a crayon. He held it like a miniature spear in his fist and carefully copied each letter.
There would be time for learning how to hold a pencil later. For now, each attempt at a letter was a reason to rejoice. He smiled when he finished. His teeth were discolored and broken, but it was the most beautiful smile in the world.
I was hooked. My long journey as a teacher had begun. Yes, there is prayer in the schools. It is coming in through a means not even the Supreme Court envisioned: in the hearts and minds of the teachers as they walk in the door.