Friday, December 30, 2005

Yes, Virginia, there really are some clueless teachers out there

Christmas was meant to be a time for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. I've never liked the idea of a magical man in a red suit encroaching on that. I never told my kids they'd get presents from Santa if they were good; I wanted them to understand that the gifts came from Mom and Dad, because we loved them. I wanted to teach them that among Christians, the December 25th gift-giving tradition is a rememberance of God's grace, and it never seemed to me that giving gifts according to whether someone has been naughty or nice was the best way to demonstrate unconditional love.

Years ago I had an opportunity to share that point of view with a Christian friend who asked whether she ought to withhold a special gift from her teenage son because he'd been a stinker all month. I advised her to think about the message she'd be sending: I will show you my love only if you are good. If God took that attitude toward us, I told my friend, we'd never make it to heaven.

But back to Santa Claus. The Coulter family always pretty much ignored the bearded fat guy in the red suit. We never cared if other families liked to pretend about him, but he was nobody to us, except as an occasional joke ("There's no tag on this present. Is it from Santa Claus?") and the subject of a darling poem, Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which I read to my boys every Christmas. But we never interfered with the Christmas traditions of other families. The boys were very good about that, never mouthing off to their little friends about how "stupid" it was to believe in Santa. One by one, the other kids figured out all by themselves that Santa was only pretend.

Too bad substitute teacher Theresa Farrisi, who was left in charge of a public-school music class just before Christmas, believes it's her job as an educator to correct children whose parents have taught them to play the Santa game. This is from the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Daily News (thanks to World Magazine Blog for the link):
One of [substitute teacher Theresa Farrisi's] assignments was to read Clement C. Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” to a first-grade class at Lickdale Elementary School.

“The poem has great literary value, but it goes against my conscience to teach something which I know to be false to children, who are impressionable,” said Farrisi, 43, of Myerstown. “It’s a story. I taught it as a story. There’s no real person called Santa Claus living at the North Pole.”

Farrisi doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, and she doesn’t think anyone else should, either. She made her feelings clear to the classroom full of 6- and 7-year-olds, some of whom went home crying.

Read the entire article to learn what some of the distressed children went home and reported to their parents.

This lady didn't have to "teach" the poem at all. She was just asked to read it as a story. Would she have taken such pains to explain to the students that Thomas the Tank Engine and Winnie the Pooh aren't real? Somehow I doubt it.

Ms. Farrisi had an obvious agenda (see her letter to the editor of the Lebanon Daily News), and she shoved it on those kids--and their families--in a way that I, a conservative, evangelical Christian who has never promoted the Santa myth, can only deplore as grossly insensitive. I can well imagine how livid some of those kids' parents must have been.

It's hardly any wonder that so much of the world despises evangelical Christians. Sometimes I don't like us very much, either.


Bonnie Calhoun said...

I agree completely!

There have been quite a few instances lately when I understood why the world thinks us Christians are closing church on Christmas Day so that families can enjoy the holiday?????

Our service that day was beautiful...with standing room only!

Cindy said...

My daughter is four, and I have discouraged the Santa myth for her. But I would never presume to tell someone else's child that he isn't real! And her imagination is none the worse for this lack; right now she's building a gate out of her presents and pretending she's the jelly bean guard of the castle...

Kristin said...

Just curious, Brenda, did you also not have the Easter Bunny visit your house?

I am Lutheran, and we celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve only (I think this is a traditional German thing). First, we went to church, and then we came home to open our presents from Santa (who had somehow visited our house while we were at church). It was a magical time, even after I knew Santa was no longer 'real.' Children have such great imaginations for only a short period of time. And I think it is wonderful to give them the same thrilling experience I had walking into my living room--which had been empty only hours before--filled with presents! For some reason, I don't think it would have been as special to me had I known they were from my mom.

I understand your reasons. I don't think my faith was diminished by celebrating a secular holiday, but I can see why you might feel differently.

Brenda Coulter said...

Kristin, I experienced the "magic" of Christmas as a child. My parents encouraged me to believe in Santa Claus, but that wasn't something I wanted to continue with my own kids.

Yes, I gave my kids Easter baskets and egg hunts, but we never pretended there was an Easter Bunny. We were very much into pretending about other things, however; things like imaginary friends. But before you ask--no, there was no Tooth Fairy at our house. When somebody lost a tooth, I'd just say, "Wow, that's a great looking bicuspid you've got there, kid. Will you take a dollar for it?"

pacatrue said...

I remember really wanting the Tooth Fairy to come when I was a child. I knew the Tooth Fairy was my parents (I was also that annoying kid who figured out who Santa was early and if someone asked told them) but it was still cooler to have money appear next to you in the morning than for my dad to pull out his wallet. There was something about the tradition and the pretend mystery. I also remember my mother saying things on Christmas Eve like, "alright, you have to go to bed so Santa can come. Your father and I are about to crash." I still preferred to see the toys from Santa in the morning than in the little gift wrapping the night before with a label.

1 L Loyd said...

The Bible says to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Too many of jus Christians forget the last part. Love, joy and peace are fruits of the spirit. We should encourage their growth.

"Santa" visited my house when I was little. By the time I was old enough to remember, I knew better. The main gift was LOVE. =)

Shelbi said...

Sheesh. I don't know what makes me madder, the fact that she took it upon herself to foist her views on unsuspecting first graders, or that she used Christianity to justify it.

It's no wonder so many people think we're a bunch of fanatical freakin' fundamentalists. That woman was just plain mean. And that bit about Santa being a "distorted substitute for the Judeo-Christian God?" Puh-lease!

My grandma used to quote a verse where Jesus said something like, "Anyone who causes one of these to lose faith should have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea." (looked it up, it's Matt 18:6).

Those kids [and their parents] could very well be turned off to all things Christian for a very long time. Ms.Farrisi should be ashamed of herself. What she did was irresponsible, self-righteous, and wrong.

sally apokedak said...

OK I don't have time for a big fight but thought I had to weigh in for the poor teacher. I would have done exactly what she did. I had a teacher who did just that, in fact. Told us about St. Nick and how Santa evolved. It was the right thing for her to do. Why would anyone object to a teacher teaching truth???

My kids don't go to public school but if they did I sure would like them to be told the truth and not lies. Yikes! That child was right to go home and ask her mother why she lied. If parents are caught lying to their kids why don't the apologize instead of blaming the person who spoke the truth? Have we gotten to the point where we call evil good and good evil? The liar is the blameless victim and the one who spoke truthfully is castigated and called all kinds of evil names.

You are speaking ill of your sister in Christ and siding with a women who tells lies to her kids. Yikes!

Shelbi said...

I feel like I'm siding with the children who were hurt, not the parents.

If that woman was an athiest had been telling the kids that believing in the birth of Jesus at Christmas was just a myth [and then told the history of Christmas with the pagan holiday parts put in], she would have been 'telling the truth' in her view but would have made every Christian parent furious at her for doing so, and rightly so, since it's the parent's choice what they teach their kids about religion, and about Santa*.

She would have been wrong because regardless of what she believes, it is not her job as a teacher to share those beliefs with the kids, unless they ask.

She was supposed to read a poem for entertainment purposes only. No one asked her to lie and say that Santa was real. If a kid had asked her if Santa was real, that would have been the perfect opening for her to tell the truth, and no one could fault her for it. They didn't, though, and she should have left well enough alone.

Also, if she felt that strongly about it, she could have found a different story to read, thus avoiding the topic altogether.

*Although the mythical Santa has been proven false and Jesus hasn't, to an athiest He would be a myth. Hence the comparison.*

Marianne McA said...

It's hard to say why I'd object so strongly, Sally: it's something about breaking the trust between teachers and parents - I believe we ought to respect and value each other.

As someone who taught in a state school in the UK, I'd believe that any parent bringing their child to be educated in a state school has the right to expect their values and beliefs to be respected by the school. I think a teacher who felt she needed to be free to proselytize during lessons ought to teach in a faith school. [I don't know the US system, so that may not apply.]

I did learn about Santa from my P5 teacher (I'd have been eight) who blithely asked: 'Who still believes in Santa?'. I couldn't help but notice that I was the only one in class who put my hand up, and went home pondering the connotations of that word 'still'.

sally apokedak said...

This is not about parents being allowed to bring their children up to believe in the big bang or evolution. I think that creationism and evolution should be taught side by side as two religious systems, neither one provable. But belief in Santa is not a religion like Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism.

Santa is an historical figure. Saint Nicholas was real. And it is well and good for schools to teach this. But there is no fat man in red who comes down the chimney and leaves presents. All the parents know he's not real. The presents don't suddenly appear while everyone is asleep and mom and dad realize this when they get their credit card bills.

So why would the parents have the right to expect teachers and the other children at school to go along with the lie?

If the parent wants to lie to the child then so be it. But what right does she have to get mad at others who don't lie? That's backwards. That's not how it should be.

When my children are caught lying they are not allowed to yell at me for finding them out. They must apologize for telling the lie. That child had every right to ask her mother why she lied and the mother should have apologized instead of calling the school and complaining. Lying is sin.

Marianne, you were eight when you learned Santa wasn't real. I never was told he was real-I always knew he was make believe. So I can't relate to how you felt. But I wonder . . . wouldn't it have been better if your teacher had asked it when you were six and maybe some other kids would have put their hands up, too and you wouldn't have been all alone? What if the teacher had waited until you were twelve?

The older a child is, the harder it is to learn the truth. It really hurts to find out you were deceived all those years. It feels like you've been kicked in the stomach. It's awful. It's awful. It hurts.

Parents shouldn't lie to their children. The children who went home crying did so because their parents chose to lie to them. They weren't crying because of the truth, they were crying because their parents had broken trust. It is a terrible thing the first time you find out your parents are liars and sinners. They are supposed to be perfect and strong and good and trustworthy. And it hurts to find out they lied. It must hurts even worse when their lies make you feel publicly humiliated. Let's not blame the teacher who told the truth when it is the parents who injured the children.

Dr. Lisa said...

Well, at the risk of getting involved in a heavy discussion, as a bit of an ethicist, there are a couple issues here that need to be separated out. There is a difference between going out of your way to disabuse children of the myth and telling an outright lie. Did the school tell her to tell the children that Santa was real? Or did the school tell her to read the poem and keep the little buggers from setting the school on fire while the regular teacher was out? Because as an educator, I can imagine being able to do both of those--and discussing the poems literary merit (um, with little kids, yeah, sure, lady)--without going to the length of hammering the point home that Santa is not real.

I have both Republicans and Democrats in my classes, and I work like a dog to make sure different points of view get treated with *respect* even when I don't agree with them because that is what constitutes civil discourse. I am consistently complimented as one of the few teachers neocons and Christian conservatives receive respect from in my college. Gee, golly. What gifts do I have? It's called...respect for my role and my students and the commitment to use my power as an instructor appropriately.

If a secular teacher--an impassioned follower of Betrand Russell went out of her way to try to prove to your impressionable 1st grader that Jesus was merely a historical evangelist who was victimized by the Romans and not the son of God because there is no God, you would be furious. And you would be right to be furious. That is one reason why we don't want teachers acting like it's their personal belief system that matters more than anything else in public classrooms.

It would be even more egregious if the teacher were a substitute teacher, as in this case. This is a teacher who has little if any long-term experience with these children. She doesn't know their families; she has not met with them during parent-teacher conferences. She doesn't know who is feeling fragile because a puppy died last week and needs to have the scales dropped from his eyes on Santa Claus like he needs a hole in his head. Her action was like throwing a punch and standing behind a wall--hey parents, I undermined your ideas and way of doing things and off I go! Because I'm right and you're wrong boo boo nyah nyah. And I used my power to make sure everybody knows that.

This is the crux: how we handle beliefs in public classrooms is a co-constructed, negotiated process where teachers work with families--if teachers are doing their jobs. Respect for each other is important. This teacher is not a hero; she's a self-important drama queen who has no business in education until she starts to learn to respect that children who come into her care have rights, as do their families. If she can't deal with that, then she needs to limit her substituting in Christian schools where the ground rules for handling beliefs are more in line with her own.

Dr. Lisa said...

In just re-reading that, I rather blithered on when what I wanted to say was that this teacher's actions are deplorable because she violated her role's ethics. We have limits on how and what teachers do. I don't care whether kids believe in Santa or not--but it's a sad day when a teacher unilaterally takes it upon herself to violate family traditions. I personally think Barbie is damaging (really damaging) but you are not going to catch me snatching them out of my nieces' hands and subjecting to them to feminist diatribes.

Ack. More blithering.

Jesus didn't teach this way.

Marianne McA said...

Sally, it's clearly not true, so I understand what you're saying, but from the other side of the fence, I have to say it doesn't feel like a lie.

I suppose I would try and call it a folk tradition. My mum's great line was that Santa represented the spirit of unselfish giving - giving without the expectation of receiving thanks - and that the sense in which Father Christmas was alive was in the sense that every generation of parents passed that tradition on.

I so cherish the memory of us earnestly debating which were Daddy's very biggest socks, and of waking in the middle of the night to feel the chosen sock lying heavy and knobbly on the covers, and going back to sleep content. I wanted my children to have that memory too.

Strangely, I don't actually remember being upset when I found out about Santa - I was probably of an age to know - but I do remember being severely annoyed to find out the truth about the tooth fairy.

Happy New Year.