By Grace McDermott
Before lunch, before dismissal, Tuesday Mass, Friday Mass, morning broadcast – we prayed often at my Catholic elementary school. Our faith was an ever-constant presence in our lives and curriculum: we had religion classes four days a week (and morning Mass on the fifth day); we tacked on a “pray for us” to the end of the Pledge of Allegiance every morning; we had a crucifix hanging under the clock at the front of every classroom.
Maybe it’s because of those constant surroundings that I notice the absence of religion at Payton. I don’t suggest that a public school abandon its secularity, but I do wonder why we seem to tiptoe around the topic when we delve deeply into almost every other facet of identity – sexuality, gender, race, and nationality, to name a few.
The way Payton addresses faith and religious diversity isn’t necessarily positive or negative – it’s simply nonexistent. Aside from a few clubs (Jewish Student Connection, H2O, and Young Life, the last of which reportedly barely addresses its religious aspect during enrichment), the discussion of religion is a blank slate. PALs and the administration often work together to address important student identity issues, but it seems that religion is simply skipped over.
“Religion is an important part of a lot of people’s identities, but for a majority of students, religion is something that they don’t recognize, or it’s more an identity that aligns with spirituality,” said Manager PAL Lindsay Opie ‘17 speaking on the lack of religious diversity recognition in PALs lessons and videos. “I think that a lot of students might, in our super-progressive environment, not think that it’s okay to recognize their religion as part of their identity, or they might not think to, because when you’re interacting with someone, religion isn’t something that comes up like race or gender.”
Others think that opening a discussion on religion is necessary. Recently, Simone Wallk ‘17 created the Women’s Interfaith Seminar, in which a group of about 20 Payton women who identify themselves under varying religions, including Jewish, Roman Catholic, Hindu, Ethiopian Orthodox, and “questioning,” come together to discuss the history and application of religion in their lives.
“I think we don’t often recognize that Payton doesn’t really have any interfaith spaces,” said Simone. “Especially for religious people, the secular environment of school can sometimes feel strange, since we talk about so many other systems that affect our lives but not religion.”
People have a lot to say on the topic of religion, and it can often be a unifier – even for those of different religions who can connect on a level of shared spirituality. Discussing religion could open up a healthy, respectful conversation regarding differences in identity without people being accusatory or angry.
Many teens struggle with finding their identity during their high school years, and question the religious values they were raised with. Without a place to talk over this confusion with others who may feel similarly, religious identity can be lost along the way.
Dr. Bauer, Director of Student Engagement, asserts that religious identity is different from other aspects of identity that PALs and Payton more often address.
“The discussion of religious identity wouldn’t be in the same category as someone’s race or sexuality,” says Dr. Bauer. “Your religion is something that you choose, your race and sexuality are not. I don’t think it warrants the same level of discussion unless the students are saying ‘this is what we want.’”
Religion does not always hold the same clout as a controversial topic as other identities like race and sexuality do, but the recent surge in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism is an issue that needs to be addressed by Payton in a widespread way, similarly to how the PALs addressed immigration and race. These horrific events and opinions present an opportunity for Payton students to learn more about what religion really means to other students, many of whom are affected by anti-religious sentiment. There is more of a roadblock, though, toward addressing religious issues as a secular school.
“We cannot be a place that promotes a religion, so we’re in a different situation than creating other safe spaces when it comes to religion as a public school,” said Dr. Bauer.
The “public” part of Chicago Public Schools simply means that the schools cannot show discrimination against or favor toward a certain religion. However, it does not mean that religion must be erased completely from discussions on identity, discussions which would help educate students and enhance their understanding of the world. Unfortunately, while this productive side of religion is ignored, Chicago Public Schools, like other parts of the United States government, centers quietly on Christianity – school holidays revolve around Easter and Christmas, and while students are allowed to miss school for religious reasons, the problem is just that – they have to skip out on their education to observe a holiday.
This is not a proposal to make Payton a religious environment, but of opening a discussion on religion.
“The issue at Payton isn’t that we don’t respect religion,” said Simone, “it’s more that we don’t talk about it.”
In the Women’s Interfaith Seminar, the first discussion regarded the concepts of tolerance and pluralism in CPS classrooms – in simpler terms, the difference between “passively accepting religious diversity and actively affirming the validity of other faiths,” as Simone put it.
Simone, who identifies as Jewish, added that “in secular schools like Payton, the prevalence of Christian normativity needs to be discussed to embrace pluralism.”