A gift from the giving tree

"Bellview Elementary School Principal Michelle Zundel has removed a holiday giving tree at the Ashland school after a family complained that the tree was a religious symbol "¦ 'These children felt somehow less welcome at their own school, having that symbol so prominently displayed,' she said."

— Last week's news

And so I was revved up for this week's column. I'd nearly finished writing it when I read Wednesday's headline: "Ashland school's tree will be restored," after it is "modified so as not to favor any faith." That story covered a community meeting where people had plenty to say. My first thought was, Wonderful, now I get to re-write the damn thing. My second thought was, Wonderful. Instead of hunkering down to beat back criticism, or churning out press releases to control damage, the school district brought people together to talk about something we haven't been good at talking about. Instead of a fight that leaves people defensive, resentful, ticked off and just as clueless about each others' viewpoints as when they started, we get a shot at a conversation where most people admit they're not exactly sure of the right answer. That's rare. It's also more courageous than a swift either-or decision that "settles" the matter — temporarily.

I admit I winced at the original story. I've carried an ACLU card in my wallet for a long time, and the importance of keeping schools free from religious influence is one reason. But in this case I liked the words of an Ashland High student who went to the meeting: "I think it's ridiculous how we're making everything so separate. The smallest little details are turned into huge things."

What makes this complicated is that the smallest little details have also led to horrific consequences when state institutions start favoring one faith over another. We know that, and understand when the situation is clear-cut. We nearly all agree we don't want public school teachers declaring to our children the glory of Jesus Christ (or Moses, Mohammed, Buddha or Vishnu). And most of us don't want to see crucifixes, the Ten Commandments or Stars of David on classroom walls.

But a tree in school? Yes, it was a conifer, broad at the bottom and tapering up to a point, strung with ornaments, the kind that all of us grew up calling a Christmas tree. Some children, according to the principal, "felt somehow less welcome at their own school, having that symbol so prominently displayed." If that's true, it shouldn't stay. But the somehow in there caught my attention. We should know more before junking the tree. Did the children feel "somehow" less welcome at the outset, or only after a grownup told them they felt that way?

One grownup in our community, a passionate civil libertarian, sent me a note when told I was writing this column. He sees Santa Claus and the Christmas tree as "important symbols to get young children to love Christmas, and whether these symbols have pagan or non-religious origins, have come to stand for Christmas, a religious holiday. It takes courage for minority (Jewish, other non-Christian or atheist) parents of youngsters to complain about these symbols, and even more courage for public school administrators to risk public anger by disallowing them in the public schools. I think its a shame that the Bellview principal was excoriated and pressured into changing her initial responsiveness to minority rights."

There's wisdom there, along with vigilance that comes from attention to history. What's absent is any invitation to learn from this. I don't think anything shameful happened here. If she was "excoriated," it wasn't by religious bullies or fanatics, but by people who might wonder if we're letting our battle scars and suspicions crush the parts of us that want to accept and celebrate with each other. Or perhaps by people who wonder if the important principle of protecting the minority from the faith of the majority means that the discomfort of the very few (the article said three or four families "found the display offensive") should settle the matter for everyone. And if she was pressured, maybe it wasn't to "change her responsiveness," but rather to bring people together to grapple with questions that have no objectively correct answers. Much of what was said at this gathering was worth hearing. And some of it was heard.

That is good news. People managed to climb out of familiar ruts, ruts that lead nowhere satisfying, to consider something new. They're thinking hard (and together) about how to celebrate the season and its intended generosity in a way that honors tradition, leaves nobody out and shows our children the best we have to offer.

I don't know how this expedition will turn out. But assuming we all still buy into Peace on Earth, goodwill to (hu)man, the effort alone's a good gift to ourselves.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

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