More times than I can remember, I found myself in the principal’s office of the Lutheran grade school where my parents sent me for eight years of academic, moral, and religious instruction. Various forms of childish insubordination landed me in the confines of the small, cluttered office of the boss whose computer was stuck on solitaire and whose intense stare struck fear inside the hearts of everyone who darkened his door, teachers included.
This principal introduced me to the music of Bruce Springsteen, made everyone laugh, and personally delivered a birthday card to every student every year, without fail, but he also had a temper with the fuse, fragility, and flammability of a ticking time bomb. All of the young Lutherans-in-training learned about the wrath of God, but we lived with the wrath of the principal. And it was good. It gave the educational community a visible and palpable presence of authoritative accountability that exercised itself through disciplinary action, fair mediation of conflict, and definitive decision-making.
Yet, despite his unchallenged reign over 225 students from Kindergarten through eighth grade, the principal infused his authority with the purest form of humility—the form that manifests itself through prayer. On those visits to his office he would sit me down, fiercely condemn what I did wrong, generously explain why it was wrong, uncompromisingly issue a punishment, and then offer a prayer. The prayer would never be something so simple as, “Help David learn his lesson.” Instead it would rest on the egalitarian wisdom of Christianity. In the eyes of God a twelve-year-old troublemaker is equal to a graduate-degree holding school principal.
The principal would pray that the incident in question and the conversation it provoked between pupil and leader would provide the basis for mutual understanding, growth, and maturity. He would pray that God allowed the experience to bring both of us closer to Him, and that through the means of spiritually upward travel we would better learn how to respect ourselves and serve others.
The prayer would rescue the visit to the principal’s office from becoming just a boring, rudimentary, and dubious encounter with an authority figure, and it would elevate it above the “because I said so” limitation which is all that most children perceive in most disciplinary discussions.
The prayer connected a worldly authority leader to one of his subjects on a human level by recognizing that both the disciplinarian and the disciplined fall under the guidance, rule, and love of a higher authority. Breaking school code or disrespecting a teacher was not condemnable and punishable merely because it violated a regulatory policy, but because it violated the Lutheran school’s bond of trust and communal connection of purpose that came directly from our shared story of Christians working to improve ourselves—students, parents, and principals alike.
In the middle of a playground basketball game, one of my classmates and I attempted to settle our dispute over a foul with fists. We each landed a swing or two before our bout was prematurely and forcibly ended in an early round by a male teacher acting as referee. We were both sentenced to stand on the wall at recess for one week, but we were also led in prayer by the principal. He asked God to fill our hearts with love for one another, rather than spite and anger, and asked that He help us grow together as friends, rather than break apart as enemies. “Help us to remember that we all must resolve conflicts peaceably with love and forgiveness,” he said before asking us to join in with an earnest “Amen.”
A couple of years later when I got into a fight in a public high school, two Dean’s assistants took my opponent and me to two different rooms. We were both suspended for two days, as mandated under their “zero tolerance” policy, and ordered to stay away from each other.
I became close friends with the student I fought with in junior high school. I never again spoke to the student I fought in high school. That certainly is not a coincidence.
A shared story generates meaning, and a common purpose produces unity. The recognition and celebration of solidarity in meaning and purpose enhances the possibility of understanding, forgiveness, and humility. With folded hands, bowed heads, and closed eyes, prayer provides the language, gesture, and ritual of sharing stories, finding purpose, and unifying around mutually-generated, divinely-given meaning.
At the University of St. Francis, a Catholic college where I studied as an undergraduate, an education professor once launched a campaign for “moral instruction in the high school classroom” for education majors to include in their eventual teaching, but made it clear that such teaching would make no mention of God. An English professor and practicing Catholic, my friend Vin, responded rather succinctly by calling it “bullshit.”
America is a pluralistic nation with a constitutionally enshrined separation of church and state. Although that phrase never appears in the foundational document of the country’s legal system, for over a hundred years the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to mean just that. For reasons both legal and moral, it would be unwise, unreasonable, unjustifiable, and even just flat wrong to force a Jewish child to say a Christian prayer or make that Jewish child stand silently while all of her peers and teachers recite the Apostles Creed. It would be an assault on the child’s dignity and an insult to her taxpaying parents.
Any discussion, debate, or dialogue about school prayer must remain loyal to the public calling of public institutions to serve all their citizens with equal distribution of respect and resources. The participants and followers of that discussion, however, must also remember that the conversation is about something much deeper, more profound, and more important than the recitation of grace in the school cafeteria.
The idea of school prayer is rooted in the need to give children coherent moral instruction as part of their daily curriculum that, without a textbook, includes conflict resolution, social cooperation, and execution of individual agency in complicated circumstances.
Newspaper headlines and television news segments routinely reveal the increasing mean-spiritedness, growing selfishness, and expanding self-absorption in a nation that is losing any concept of social responsibility. The problems seem overwhelming, stupefying, and insurmountable, and solutions are difficult to find and seemingly impossible to formulate.
The words my former principal used to make the transition from disciplinary meeting to spiritual dialogue may offer the beginning, and eventually the end, to solving problems, both large and small. In our homes, churches, and schools, when possible and legal: “Let us pray.”
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). He holds an MA in English Studies and Communication from Valparaiso University. For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.