Monday, August 29, 2005

I'm about to criticize someone who wrote a letter to the advice column at, for being self-centered. It's about as fair as shooting fish in a barrel, but what the hell.

"Alone in Louisiana" is a "committed Pagan who believes in a divine, universal creative force and in reincarnation." Her husband is a lifelong Catholic, though, and thanks to his family business they have left the "enlightened West" and settled in small-town Louisiana. Thanks to Twoo Wuv, they've been making it work, but now, Crisis Time: Their son has reached kindergarten age. "Our only option is Catholic private school... Public schools in rural Louisiana are atrocious..." The first big parent-teacher orientation meeting left her in tears, confirming her opinion that the institution of Christianity is "a plague on humankind." How can she subject her child to years of this ghastly brainwashing?

Advice columnist Cary Tennis was more patient than I would have been in his response. While sympathetic, he urges Alone to separate her issues from her son's issues, to try not to think the worst of people she disagrees with, and (he says gently) to lighten up a bit.

Lightening up was NOT the order of the day, however, after this column hit the wires. The words "rural," "Catholic," and "Louisiana" really made a few good multi-culti omni-tolerant Salon readers lose their minds. "Mothers Who Think" has always been a misnomer; it's Mothers Who Tend to Rant and Rave. Not all the Letters to the Editor are hysterical, but a few of them, hoo boy. (Note to self: avoid the Psychiatry Department at the University of Minnesota.)

Where to start? First of all, I would never be a Catholic or a pagan. Admittedly, I haven't known many pagans (there was this one Wiccan gal I worked with, years ago), whereas I have known some Catholics, and some very decent, thoughtful, open-minded Catholics at that. So call me slanted, but offhand, between the pagan mom with her laser beam eyes, and the nuns in their penguin get-ups, I don't know whose bullshit is worse, I really don't.

Second of all, welcome to rural Louisiana, Ms. Alone. You say you've been living there for 10 years? Au contraire, chere. You have been living in the bosom of your family, your groovy husband and sweet baby boy who up to now you've been able to consider just a pint-sized extension of yourself. You haven't been really living where you're living, which is a red state with a particular context that you're going to have to accommodate or else flee. The first day of school is when the rubber hits the road.

According to the original letter, the pagan/Catholic couple met with the school's administration, discussed their concerns, thought they had an understanding, but that understanding was not reflected on Parents-Meet-the-Teacher Day. There's room for competing interpretations here. The letter writer seems to think she's being disrespected; I think what we have is a failure to communicate. There's got to be a meeting of the minds here: to wit, a parent-teacher conference. I'd nominate the father to attend, alone, since he seems to be bilingual in Catholic and Moonbat. Sorry, I don't begrudge the mother her beliefs, I honestly don't, and the teacher has to understand the family's position. But it's such an idiosyncratic position for small-town Louisiana (where out-of-the-broom-closet pagans are rare, I imagine), that I doubt the message has gotten through clearly via interoffice mail. This calls for sitting down with the teacher, looking her in the eye, and telling her what your child needs.

Alone in Louisiana and her defenders at Salon have set up this false opposition of Conscientious Mother versus Evil Agenda-Driven School. That's an intolerable situation by definition. The parents and the school have got to find a way to get on the same side. No decent school or teacher would undermine a mother in the eyes of her five-year-old son.

What a decent school might do is kick the boy out. Maybe no common ground exists. They can't very well allow the Pagan-ness of one student's mother to undermine the overall Catholic-ness of the school. The Catholics don't open schools out of the goodness of their hearts. (Well, Catholics would quibble, but you know what I mean.) And to be fair, Catholic schools don't exist to convert or harrass "committed pagans," but to serve the children of Catholic families, to educate them and inculcate the Catholic faith in them.

I guess my corny advice would boil down to: schools respond to pressure, and families don't have to be passive victims. They can join the PTA, get to know the teachers, volunteer, network, be diligent, etc. These are hard choices, public vs. parochial vs. home school. It's unfortunate, but a fact of American life nonetheless, that where you live dictates what your child's schooling options are going to be. Deal with it. Make the best of your options, or move.

(And hell, thanks to Hurricane Katrina the family may have much worse things to worry about by now.)

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