/ 16 April 2014

How my daughter found – and lost – God in school

'We came to accept Tatiana's prayers like we did the Barney song; slightly odd
'We came to accept Tatiana's prayers like we did the Barney song; slightly odd

Our daughter was three when we first heard her prayer. She was strapped in the car seat behind us, feet swinging, her words murmured in sing-song, when we noticed this particular monologue ended with "Amen".

My husband and I looked at one another quizzically and turned back. There she was, eyes shut, head folded down, hands pressed together. Our daughter was praying?

The next day, after dropping Tatiana in her preschool classroom, I headed to the school office.

The headmistress was a stern, no-nonsense woman, prone to sending curt newsletters lecturing us new parents on our lax approaches to discipline.

I was led into her office to run through what had occurred in the back seat of our car the day before.

Simple question
"I'm not sure who she's praying to," I said, trying to make light of the situation. "Buddha or Allah or Jesus?"

The headmistress pursed her lips.

"Here," she said, unimpressed with my heathen ways, "we pray each morning."

"I just didn't know this was a religious school," I managed, before I was sent on my way.

It was clear: this was a Christian place.

Marked parents
From then on, we were marked. We averted the thin smiles that shot past us when we dropped off our child. Tatiana continued to pray in the back seat, off and on, for that year. We came to accept it like we did the Barney song; slightly odd, but if it made her happy, well, pray on.

When Tatiana started public school, I found prayer more concerning. Each morning as the children lined up before class, their legs crossed on the cold concrete outside the main hall, they would recite their Christian-based school prayer.

The children were instructed that they didn't have to participate if they didn't want to – a good thing since more than a quarter of them were Muslim.

Why it happened at all bewildered me; what an alienating ritual for those not in the right club. How did this all jive with our Constitution? Why wasn't anyone saying anything? But, really, I knew. I had already learned why one would keep their mouth shut on matters of God.

Yet we had to say something after Tatiana's first-grade teacher told her she was Christian. It was our own fault. We didn't discuss religion much, other than to say that we believed in the universe and that there were a lot of gods and so it was difficult to commit to just one. Which, it appeared, was a not clear enough concept for a six-year-old.

Pick one
One afternoon the teacher went around the class asking each child their religion. When she came to my daughter, Tatiana said she didn't know. So the teacher asked which holiday she celebrated. Christmas, came the answer. Tatiana informed us that evening of her conversion.

The next day I scoured the shelves at the local bookstore and picked up What Do You Believe?, which presented the world religions in a simple, colourful format. My daughter, in turn, picked up my husband's old children's Bible and read it every night for a month.

After that, Tatiana told a few friends at school that she was not Christian, that she was not anything in fact. They teased her for a few weeks, insisting she was lying.

Tatiana is now in senior school. She tells me the headmistress at this public school sometimes recites a prayer, and the children are asked to lower their heads.

I'm still uneasy about prayer in school. But my daughter, seemingly comfortable in her secularism, doesn't mind. She dutifully lowers hers and says an "Amen" in closure, accepting it all with grace.

Tanya Pampalone is the executive editor of the Mail & Guardian. She oversees print and digital narrative features and special editions, including the annual religion edition. Follow her on @tanyapampalone.