By Naomi Serviss / New York City
When I was a fifth grader in Mrs. Vinet’s class at Shoemaker Elementary School, we started the day with a sleepy, sing-song recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, right hand over our hearts.
Afterwards, we pushed our small wooden chairs under our desks and folded our hands. Heads bowed.
Mrs. Vinet was a no-nonsense, stern and joyless teacher who wore her hair in a strict bun.
No strands dared straggle.
She graded kids on personal appearance.
Apparently, I needed improvement.
The haves (many in Elkins Park, a wealthy Philadelphia suburb) never had an off-day.
Put together by their anxious moms, kids shined, neatly pressed and dressed.
Nice shoes, as well.
I always noticed the shoes.
But it wasn’t just the Pledge.
We sat quietly (as possible) on the small wooden chairs under our desks.
Next came the artillery.
Her thin lips began The Lord’s Prayer.
We followed along, voices softened by tutored sincerity.
"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Pledging Allegiance was practice for memorizing lines in school plays.
It didn’t bother me to repeat the lines by rote.
What’s symbolism to a fifth grader? Nothing was ever explained by the teacher.
No one ever asked: “What do ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ mean?” There was never time for explanation,
Mrs. Vinet’s agenda was not to be trifled with. She’d segue into math: “Time for fractions!”
My albatross to this day.
But the praying. It put me off.
Made me squeamish and uneasy. Felt like an interloper.
My family of origin is Jewish.
We didn’t do Christian prayers.
Or Jewish prayers.
But this was school!
Where I felt most safe and protected.
Shoemaker Elementary was my surrogate parent, whose teachers encouraged my reading and writing.
I wouldn’t dream of going against the grain (that was high school).
If the school ordained it, so be it.
We got used to saying the Pledge,
Kids mangled words on purpose.
“For Richard Stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
That was way more fun than a typical exercise.
Saying “God” out loud didn’t seem to bother anyone else.
But I word-played and repeated a favorite word.
elongating each note.
Hissing snakelike from my diaphragm.
The class sounded sinister in unison.
Shoemaker was not the only prayerful school.
Not by a long shot. Public school prayer was a commonplace practice in America’s schools during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Fortunately, people came to their senses in 1962.
The Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer would no longer be sanctioned.
Then this week’s SCOTUS landmine blew.
The United Ssstate’s Supreme Court ruled it’s now A-OK to bring prayer back to public schools.
In a blink, the religious Right scored with its Hail Mary pass.
Separate church and state?
That’s so 2020.
The court overturned decades of precedent separating church and state.
Good job, well done!
Of course, (hopefully) intelligent, rational thinkers will despise this turning of the screw.
It started with Joseph Kennedy, a public high school football coach and evangelical from a suburban Seattle community.
It’s a complicated case but here’s the gist:
In 2015, Kennedy sued the community he worked for religious discrimination.
The school objected to his public (very loud and attention-grabby) prayers on the 50-yard line of a public high school’s football field. Student players were encouraged (which is to say pressured) to participate.
He lost at the circuit and district levels.
In 2019 Kennedy moved to Florida. Always a bad move.
My lawyer friend told me that technically, his case should have been moot!
(I attended Moot Court, so I know what that means.)
The present conservative Supreme Court (unsurprisingly) gave a hearty
Thumbs Up to hearing the case! Wonder why?
It’s moot, technically, isn’t it?
Doesn’t matter, when you’re wearing ominous black robes and death-glares.
Maybe have an axe to grind. Across liberals’ necks.
The justices ruled (6-3) in Kennedy’s favor.
Mrs. Vinet would have approved.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com