I haven’t talked much publicly (privately, I assure you, there has been endless discussion and hand-wringing and tears and bourbon consumption) about my decision to take Ruby out of the public charter school she’s been attending since pre-K and switch her to St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie. But there are many reasons – some big and some small, some very complex and some very simple – that we made the decision.
At first, I was worried that she might be teased or bullied as The New Kid, but that hasn’t happened at all, to my very pleasant surprise. The kids, faculty and staff have welcomed her with open arms, and not even two months in, everyone knows her name and her myriad quirks.
I was worried that she would be behind academically (she’s not), that she would hate the cafeteria food (she loves it) and that she would struggle to make friends (she’s already been invited to two parties). And one of the things I fretted about the most, because I never let an opportunity to be paralyzed by irrational anxiety escape, was that she would truly hate going to chapel three times a week.
We are not a particularly devout family. We do go to church on Christmas and Easter and probably every 10th Sunday, and our children are baptized, but we don’t pray before meals or really much as a family at all. Ruby isn’t a fan of church – or at least she wasn’t. The only thing she really liked was dressing up, and she would whine and complain about the smell of the incense and the length of the sermon and the hardness of the pews and the brightness of the sun and anything else she could think of. Now she was going to have to do this three times a week – and in a school uniform, without even the benefit of dressing fancy!
She had her debut as an acolyte yesterday, and I got a chance to see firsthand just why she likes it so much. She was extremely nervous about the whole affair, and when I walked into chapel, she was in tears.
“What’s wrong, Ruby-doo?” I asked.
“I don’t want to carry the candle,” she sobbed, all wet and snotty and pathetic. “I’m supposed to carry the candle in the procession, but I’m scared I’ll drop it and set my robes on fire.”
The priest, Father Michael Kuhn, could have done any number of things. He could have insisted she carry it. He could have pressured her into it. He could have cared more about traditions and ceremonial rules than a scared kid. But he didn’t do any of that. He just decided to have the processional with one fewer candle, and he found another banner for Ruby to carry, even though it’s not one that’s typically used in chapel. He gently instructed her on how best to hold it and didn’t make a big deal out of the candle fiasco at all. (Her friends, too, were supportive the whole time and didn’t make fun of her, not even for crying.)
“Thank you for accommodating her so nicely,” I whispered to him as he passed, the anxious mother hating for her anxious daughter to cause any trouble.
He just smiled at me and said: “That’s the whole point. That’s the whole reason we’re here.”
Then he gave a wonderful kid-friendly sermon about how every single person is unique and special and should never try to change to fit in. “You’re all puzzle pieces that God made to fit perfectly into His puzzle and make a beautiful picture together,” he told the kids, and I looked over at my gorgeous, smart, perfect, neurotic, green-eyed, crazy-haired daughter and was so thankful that no one was trying to jam her down with their fist to make her fit in a certain place in a puzzle. (Full disclosure: I do this with puzzles whenever I try to do puzzles, which is rarely.)
I don’t like religion when it’s used to shame people or treat them hatefully or make them feel bad. I don’t like using God as a way to scare kids into good behavior any more than I like using Santa Claus to do that. I want my kids to know right from wrong on their own terms, and I believe that religion can be a part of that, but I also think there can be moral atheists and immoral folks in church every Sunday.
But this feels right. It feels nice. It feels comforting.
Yet again, Ruby is the one going to school, and I’m the one who’s learning the most.