Petty censorship

I was 16 years old and in the front-row desk of my senior physics class at Manhattan Prep in the Bronx, NY. I was in my usual morning reverie — that high school world of the mind where reality and fantasy, the present and the future, gloom and exhilaration all share a room together — when Brother Kevin interrupted. 

“Lockwood, go downstairs and get it for me. OK?” 

“OK, Brother,” I answered, jumped up from my desk and headed downstairs. There was only one problem. I didn’t hear what he wanted me to get. 

So I opted for a 16-year-old’s response. I hung around in the stairwell for five or 10 minutes then walked back upstairs and into the classroom empty-handed. The class looked at me. Brother looked at me. 

“Where is it?” he said. 

“I forgot what you wanted me to get,” I answered. 

Roar of classroom laughter. Another dummy was assigned to get the overhead projector. 

Small story that reminds me of two things. At 16, a person is generally not paying attention, and that it is hard to get through a high school day without a little dose of humiliation. 

Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old high school student and self-defined atheist, had her 15 minutes of fame recently when she successfully protested the existence of a prayer papered onto the wall in her school auditorium. 

Jessica said that every time she saw the prayer at Cranston High School West in Rhode Island it seemed to be saying to her, “You don’t belong here.” 

Jessica got a judge to weigh in on the matter. Alleged violation of the establishment of religion and blah, blah, blah. The offensive prayer is now covered with tarp while the school board debates whether to appeal that decision. 

The prayer was written by a seventh-grade student in 1963, unaware of the dangerous constitutional waters he was stirring. The little scamp.  

The offending prayer reads: 

“Our Heavenly Father, grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers, to be honest with ourselves as well as with others. May we be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. May we value true friendship and always conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West. Amen.” 

The gist of the prayer is a pretty universal sentiment that couldn’t offend anyone but bad sports. Except it is a prayer. It was the use of “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen” that sealed the plaque’s fate. That’s why a tarp now hides it. 

What Jessica clearly failed to realize is that about 95 percent of high school students are pretty certain that they don’t belong there on any given day. If you doubt that, just think back to physics class, the lunch room or gym. 

The problem isn’t Jessica. She’s just a kid who doesn’t understand the pilgrimage she is on, or that her free-speech rights cannot be built on denying the free-speech rights of others. A lot of teenagers have trouble with all that.  

But it is the adults who have used her, who have relegated religious speech to second class who need a refresher course on human dignity and human rights. 

And I know where to start. 

The Cranston school board should not appeal the court decision. They should keep that tarp over the prayer and inscribe it in bold red-letters with the legend “Banned Religious Speech” for every generation of high school students to see. 

That just might make a silent teachable moment for years to come that a lot of kids will remember far more than an act of petty censorship by judicial fiat.  

It might even make an impression on Jessica’s senior year. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.