For a school system that wasn’t supposed to be religiously affiliated, my middle school administration hired an extremely high number of religiously affiliated instructors. Lessons about the New Testament were taught to me on a consistent basis. My music teacher insisted that we sing songs about Jesus in the weeks before Christmas, completely disregarding songs that celebrated holidays of other cultures. My creative writing teacher kept a Bible on her desk for moments when I “just might need some guidance.”
Well, I’m a reform Jew. I definitely don’t attend synagogue as much as I should, but I did spend thirteen years learning how to read Hebrew for my Bat Mitzvah. I declined every Saturday night sleepover because I had to wake up for six hours of Sunday school the next day, basically making my childhood a living hell. I’ve never really considered myself to be an incredibly religious person, yet the more crosses and Bible quotes that began to appear in my classrooms, the more I prided myself in being Jewish.
Days of church-related history lessons passed by painfully slowly. Still, I didn’t mind too much—until my views were directly questioned.
As with every other middle-schooler, I spent my eighth grade year growing into myself. I bleached and cut up my shirts so I could look more like Kurt Cobain. I styled my hair to look like the main character of the book that I was reading that week. I listened to loud, angsty music that helped me express myself—and because of this, rumors began to spread that I worshipped the devil.
You read that right. According to them, a twelve-year-old girl wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and hipster glasses was actively worshipping the devil. I wish this was a story of fiction.
The rumors spread like a contagious disease. People thought what they wanted about me: some agreed with the rumors; others laughed at our school’s inability to accept diversity. As for me, I did what any young Jewish kid would do: I bought a Ouija board shirt from the closest Hot Topic and wore it around school. I became the first student in my middle school to participate in the GLSEN Day of Silence, a day where students are encouraged to not speak in order to show their support for LGBTQ youth. When my yearbook teacher brought out her Bible, I asked if I could bring out my Torah. I fought back as much as a skinny, twelve-year-old Jewish girl could, and I didn’t stop fighting until I moved away from the suburbs before the beginning of ninth grade.
My high school in downtown Atlanta was truly diverse; it encouraged self-expression and acceptance of all religions. Meanwhile, according to my suburban friends, nothing about the school I left behind has changed. Students still talk about me, simply because they have nothing more interesting to talk about—which is, in my opinion, the biggest tragedy of all.
Living in such a close-minded community made me appreciate how important diversity truly is. It also made me begin to question religion as a whole.
The students and teachers in my middle school used their religious beliefs as a way of establishing their superiority to others. They turned church into a social activity rather than a religious activity. They twisted the words of a book meant to inspire positivity and made it into an object that encouraged conformity. This experience truly allowed me to see how easily a single person’s claim can completely change the public opinion about something.
With today’s political leaders currently pushing for our country to consist of one religion and one ethnic group, I’m reminded of my middle school years. I’m constantly inspired by my own experience to push for diversity not only within local communities but also on a national scale. I truly hope that one day religion will be used as a tool to encourage acceptance rather than a means of enforcing hatred and conformity.