When we enrolled Natalie in first grade last September, we opted out of religion class. Even though we share some fundamental beliefs with the Roman Catholic Church, we weren’t comfortable with her learning doctrine as an academic subject. Frankly, I find it incredibly dangerous when any religion is painted in the same black and white lines as grammar or algebra—right versus wrong, subject to a grade—and I’d like to think that we would have opted out of the class even if it had taught our exact beliefs. (Sunday School is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but it’s easier to discuss what the girls learn there without having to discredit the entire academic system.)

I was at peace with our decision until we picked Natalie up after her first Friday at school. She was as cheerful as ever, happily recounting how she had gotten to go out in the hallway during religion hour and watch the other teachers have their coffee. I was… less cheerful. Bit by bit, Dan and I uncovered that Natalie was the only child in the entire elementary school in the entire course of its history to opt out of religion class, and the teachers didn’t know what to do with her other than send her out of the room. My heart thudded straight down onto our granite tiles.

I know all too well what it is to be the odd child out… the only kid at the grocery mid-morning, the only girl in our homeschool group wearing a jumper, the only teen not pledging for True Love Waits. I remember the icy sense of exposure and the sharp loneliness, and I’ve never, ever, evereverever wanted to subject my daughters to them. However, that’s exactly what I found myself doing that Friday, wielding religious principles that banished my six-year-old to the hallway.

I hurt all over for her, but Natalie was clearly not bothered by skipping class, so Dan and I didn’t push the issue. Instead, we talked to the teachers and arranged for her to join the other first-grade class while hers was doing religion. Some of the other parents overheard us, and the next Friday, Natalie was joined by a little boy. For all the countercultural drama we were putting her through, at least she was no longer alone.

The subject of religion class hasn’t really come up in the months since, but this morning, the little boy’s mother caught up with me after school drop-off. “Guess what I found!” she chirped, taking my arm as if this were the seventy millionth instead of the very first time we’d talked. (I immediately wanted to kick myself for not introducing myself sooner. Or, you know, at all.) “Looking through my son’s workbook, I found a little note he had written during religion hour: ‘Dear Natalie, you are beautiful!’” We laughed together, and I felt a little like crying and a little like skipping all at once. She asked about our church (evangelical), and I asked about theirs (Muslim), and it didn’t matter a single bit that some members of both our religions dedicate energy to hating each other. Our faiths didn’t affect our ability to be friends.

And yes, I know I’m realizing things all the time on this blog that are probably common sense to most people and it’s got to be irritating by now, but I realized in those three minutes of conversation that this is the lesson we’re teaching Natalie with our lives here. She and her classmates might not attend the same church, but our families’ homes are open to each other. We share meals and swap recipes and give each other’s children rides, and if I hadn’t been bracing myself so hard against alienation, I might have noticed sooner that there was no need. Our differences don’t prevent us from loving each other well. Our separate journeys with God don’t make us enemies. That this is even possible makes my soul giddy with hope, and I find myself grateful in a way I couldn’t have imagined last September that my daughter gets a front-row seat.

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  1. I relate completely! Well, almost completely. 🙂 I certainly didn’t have the same experience but I feel very similar in terms of meeting my Muslim friend (whom I love). After moving to GA I’m so enthralled that there are all kinds of different ethnic backgrounds of people I have yet to meet. I love it that it’s a melting pot here and we don’t all look, act or even think the same.

  2. awwww! ( and that little note?!) what a beautiful post, bethany.

  3. That little boy is so right 🙂

  4. i have the sweetest muslim friends who have often been kinder to me than my christian friends. sigh.

    i totally support your pulling them from the religious classes.

    i really understand the reacting-from-past-personal-experience. i have to remind myself that i’m not the same parent mine were with me. when i was in therapy, my counselor said to me, “Ame, your parents abused you, but you do not abuse your children.” he’s right. my kids don’t have a clue what i went through! woo hoo! so sometimes i have to figure out how to re-filter my knee-jerk, deeply-emotional-chemical-changing-sweat-forming-panic-enducing, responses to things that go on in my girls’ lives realizing that they don’t get it and they will never get it b/c they are being raised in a healthy home. now they’re old enough to come back w/the, “Mo-om, that’s *your* life; not mine,” thing. and it’s oh-so-awesome!

    you’re doing a GREAT job, Momma! your kids are going to do GREAT! sometimes they will be different, but they will not live a life of being different and resenting and hating it and/or you. their differences can become celebrations of who they are and fertile ground to instill and develop confidence rather than petri dishes to multiply fears (oh, i need to remember that myself)

  5. ah.
    that’s amazing.

  6. Liz is also right, that the boy is right. I think it is so brave to stand up for your core beliefs that way. I would have gone along with the crowd, and I probably wouldn’t have thought about it…pardon the expression….”When in Rome…” But I love that you live an examined life. My life sort of pulls me around. I think I need to look around my life too.

  7. Steph – I had that same sensation when moving out of TX eight years ago, that I was in a melting pot. I loved (love!) it too.

    Rain – Thanks, dearest. Natalie has decided, based on that note, that the little boy she agreed to marry back in Pre-K might finally have some competition.

    Liz – Isn’t he? 🙂

    Ame – Thank you, thank you, thank you for your comment. It can be so hard to keep in mind that my children’s perceptions of life are always going to be drastically different than mine. They don’t have any reason to panic the way I do, and it’s beautiful relief to be reminded of that.

    Beka – 🙂 🙂

    Meg – I know exactly what you mean about “When in Rome…” I apply that to so many of my decisions here, but I tend to have hugely emotional reactions when it comes to religion. Honestly, I think I tend to examine and analyze my life too much

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