I love books. My house is practically overrun by them. There is something almost magical about them; someone's thoughts condensed and polished and sandwiched between two covers for the purpose of sharing one's mind with others. My son's school, like many, hands out periodic Book Club flyers offering children's books at a discounted price. My son gets new books and the school gets credits toward books for the classroom; it seems like a perfect set-up.
We normally get two flyers with names like "Dragonfly" or "Bumble Bee". This time, we received a third flyer, "Virtues". It only took a second of reading the book titles; Noah's Ark, Show God's Love, Bible Stories for Girls, The Lord's Prayer, Baby Angels, etc. before I realized that we weren't talking about "virtues" like patience, kindness and charity. We were talking about Virtues like following the laws of the Bible, going to Sunday school and saying prayers before bedtime.
My Humanist pride was wounded but I still wanted to see what they were offering inside the flyer for Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist kids. We sometimes buy books from varied perspectives in an effort to teach our son about the world around him. I was surprised (but should probably not have been) to find that there were none; not one single non-Christian "virtues" book. There were some non-religious books in the collection but all of the religious ones were explicitly Christian. This is a problem. What is the implication of a flyer entitled "Virtues" which includes only a Christian perspective? That non-Christian children are of a lesser moral quality than those raised as Christians. It sets the stage for these children for a life-long status of "less than". No child should ever be made to feel that way and the fact that this was given to first graders makes it even worse.
Most non-theists are well familiar with the challenges of living in a majority-Christian society and the discrimination that can often be a part of that. Many of us have lost friendships, jobs, even family, over the disdain others hold toward us for our lack of belief in a deity. You just never quite know how people will react once they find out. We are often stuck with a choice of standing up for ourselves at the risk of being shunned or keeping our mouths shut and receiving decent treatment. And sadly, when we do choose to stand up for ourselves, sometimes people elect to extend their discrimination to our children. I spent a few restless nights worrying about what was the right thing to do.
So what's an atheist mom to do? Because my son's school has stated repeatedly that they place a high value on tolerance, I decided it was worth a go to bring the issue to their attention. I figured in a best-case scenario, at least I could get them to stop including the "Virtues" flyer in our mailbox. I typed a carefully-worded e-mail explaining my point of view and then obsessively reviewed it multiple times looking for any trace of whining tone or "angry atheist" sentiment. Then I saved it as a draft without an address in the "To" line and waited until I felt brave. I sent it to a friend who works in education and she gave it her seal of approval. Still not feeling completely confident, I sent it to Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, and asked for his thoughts which he graciously provided. After incorporating a couple of his edits, I swallowed my fear and clicked "Send" and waited to discover whether or not I had just sealed my son's fate as school pariah for the next five years.
I received a reply that evening. I looked at the e-mail sitting in my in-box several times without opening it. At long last, I decided it was no use putting it off any further. When I finally worked up the nerve to double-click, I was prepared for just about anything. Much to my surprise and relief, I really didn't need to be so worried. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The administrator understood my concerns and was in agreement that the flyer should not have been sent out. She said she planned to contact the Book Club to find out if it was meant for parochial schools and was sent in error or if it was meant to be included and if it was intentionally included, she would discontinue their relationship with the Book Club. Wow. I had to read her reply twice to make sure I had read it correctly. This was a far better outcome than I had even hoped for!
I am so glad that I did not let my fear hold me back. If I had decided not to speak up, I would have been left wondering - wondering whether the teachers and administrators were bigoted, wondering if I shared their values as much as I thought I had, wondering whether in fact, this was the right school for my child. But now I know. And I can sleep soundly until the next challenge comes along.