hints of Christian privilege in Roanoke

I have serious misgivings over private schools, which strike me as exemplarily libertarian and intrinsically disposed toward widening the opportunity gap. Furthermore, i have dire concerns over the proliferation of religious schools, which introduce the added effect of confounding wealth, privilege, and influence with Christianity, pseudoscience, and authoritarianism. Let me, at the outset, set aside these concerns and affirm that no structural restrictions should be in place against the founding of private Christian schools, and that the burden of averting their spread rests with the adequate funding and management of public educational institutions, hence ultimately with us.

I therefore wish to raise no objection to Charnika Elliott’s newly opened Noah–Christian Academy. The Valleys are ripe with well-(enough)-to-do isolationist Christian parents that should keep the academy funded for several years (although — as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have argued, albeit orthogonally to one another — one of the best catalysts against organized religion may be institutionalized religious education).

What everyone should object to is what passed for a hearty endorsement of Elliott’s character and devotion (to her students, presumably, as well as to her god) at the outset of the article:

When she was a third-grade teacher at Roanoke’s Forest Park Elementary School, Charnika Elliott would play gospel music softly in her classroom. She’d pull aside students who shared her religious faith and quietly pray when no one else was around.

(Note for the record that Forest Park Academy is a program of Roanoke City Public Schools.) An array of infringements upon personal liberty are compactified into this portrait. To identify some, consider the following flowchart for an arbitrary student’s reaction:

Granted, this comes not from my familiarity with RCPS but from my own brittle memories of high school and beyond. I also don’t mean to suggest that RCPS is rampant with such incidents (and friends suggest that it is not). Still, the situation is illustrative of Christian privilege, particularly by its tone. What would happen if a Muslim teacher decided to pull students aside during the class to perform salah (which, depending on the time of day, she might consider compulsory)? How would students react? I have a guess:

Such a teacher might better be reprimanded or required to attend some sort of diversity workshop . . . but would anyone be surprised at her being terminated outright? Back to the article, consider this introduction:

When she was a third-grade teacher at Roanoke’s Forest Park Elementary School, Charnika Elbaz would play anasheed softly in her classroom. She’d pull aside students who shared her Muslim faith and quietly perform salah when no one else was around.

Is it even conceivable that such a paragraph would lead into such a delightful, supportive story in the RT as the one above?

Elliott appears to be an enthusiastic, engaging teacher whose students come to school rapt with anticipation. I’ll gladly grant her this, and i hope that it’s true. I hope teachers with her evident joy and dedication are as common now as they seemed to me in elementary school.

She also appears to have considered the experiences of any non-Christians in her class, presumably keeping her music soft and taking her prayer group aside as gestures of respect. (For all i know there were never any other students in the room; i’ve contacted the author for some clarification but have not yet received a response.) But i don’t see that this absolves her of misconduct, because it does not address the problem that her prayer group created: She divided her class into (a) a favored group of like-minded worshippers and (b) outsiders. However it’s done, no one benefits from a segregated classroom. (How long will we have to keep learning that?)

I get that privilege is a difficult concept. I don’t always catch it (and neither do many headstrong residents of Roanoke and Salem). I don’t think we should be expected to develop a strong sense of privilege without the institutions in place to help us hone our senses.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this predicament: Don’t pray during school hours. In fact, don’t pray in the school building. In fact, if you really care about your students’ emotional well-being and social maturity, don’t pray with them ever — unless you happen to find yourself at the same church (or mosque or temple or shrine or pastaria). And here’s why: You are not your students’ friend, or classmate, or cousin, or neighbor. Not first. First, you are their teacher. You are an authority figure. Your students emulate you, and they rely on you to prepare them for life in the pluralistic, cosmopolitan society that is ever-more-rapidly imposing itself upon them. And you will shape their understanding of communication, influence, compromise, and everything social. We don’t need to terminate every Christian — or Muslim, or nonreligious — teacher who abuses her authority, provided we clearly address the abuse and curb it in the future.

Personally, i aspire to witness a generation of schoolchildren who can hone in on the important part.

I won’t be praying for them. If they can do this then they’re already faring better than most of us.

A version of this post originally appeared on Cory’s personal blog.

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