by Constance Daley
The American Reporter
St. Simons Island, Ga.
September 27, 2005
DIVERSITY IS WHO WE ARE: HEAD START AND THE FAITH-BASED INITIATIVES
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- It was in Cleveland, Ohio, 1961, that our Jack climbed aboard the temple van to start "school," or so he called it. It was nursery school. To him, he became a big boy that day, going out into the world. He would be learning things, like colors and how to use them; shapes and dimensions, sounds and textures.
He'd do a little counting and a lot of singing. He'd memorize little jingles and make figures out of clay. He would take something with him to "show" to the others and "tell" them about it. He'd be center stage and he'd watch as the others took their turn. He drew pictures of his family and we proudly put them on the refrigerator.
And, this place he went to five mornings a week was in the basement of some "faith-based" organization - or, as we called them then, a church or a synagogue.
Jack's place was the nearby synagogue, Temple Emmanuel. No, we're not Jewish. Nobody even asked if we were. I knew it was Jewish, and I knew they wouldn't be celebrating Christmas; that was okay, we celebrate at home.
Our other children went to faith-based nursery schools - none of them was our particular faith, but that was not ever, ever, a consideration.
What was important was learning. And, learn they did. In fact, the children coming from these nursery schools then going into the public school system were ahead of their peers. These places scattered around the suburbs and cities of America were not about learning the three "R's," they were about the "S" that goes along with those "R's" - Socialization.
These children faced their integration into the school system with confidence. They all had a "head start."
About this time, reports were coming out saying some first graders couldn't spell their names. Upon careful analysis the experts decided that the children who could spell their names, count to 100, and say the alphabet were all children who had a "head start" in nursery school.
Ah, ha! Well, the powers that be knew what they had to do, but they didn't have the money (read tax dollars) to fund similar places. So, they went to the faith-based organizations and said, "Suppose we pay for the underprivileged children to attend your classes?"
"No problem. Sorry we can't afford to subsidize them ourselves, but if you're willing to pay, we'll certainly welcome them" - or words to that effect. They might have added: "It's the (multiple choice) Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim thing to do."
As always, money talks. And grant money has a lot to say. This week, however, Ben Feller, AP Education Writer, reported "Churches and other religious groups are allowed to receive federal money to provide preschool to poor children. Now, the House says, they should be allowed to hire based on religion."
How quickly they forget. It's now 40 years since the National Head Start Association went with hat in hands to try to provide for all children what the faith-based organizations had been doing for generations.
Does Ben Feller's report indicate there had been some question about hiring practices in these early learning centers? He writes they are still eligible for federal grants. "The Republican-led House said the move protects the rights of religious groups, but Democrats blasted it as discriminatory."
Thankfully, no such argument was on the table in 1961 or I might not have one of my most precious memories. Jack was home each day at noon that frigid winter in Ohio. Each day, the dedicated teacher stuffed him into his snowsuit, jiggled the zipper up, tugged and guided the red boots up over his shoes, clipped his mittens in place and tied his scarf high up over his chafing chin, before leading him out.
Each day, he brought home something he had made or drawn. On this day close to Christmas, he came in with a Menorah! And he said, "Look, Mommy, it's a menorah!" Sure enough, it was the nine candles of a menorah - I had seen them in store windows in Shaker Heights.
I told him it was beautiful and noticed how perfectly he had fashioned the clay into the candles representing 85 what? I knew what it was but I didn't know what it meant. He saw my hesitation and said: "Mommy, did you know they once only had enough oil to light a lamp for one day and every day there was still more oil for one more day and one more day and one more day and one more day," he's counting the clay tapers as he speaks, "and one more day until eight more days. It was a miracle."
He learned something that day and I learned something, too. He was not only getting a head start before entering school, he was getting a lesson in diversity.
They have taken the Head Start children out of the faith-based basements painted brightly with primary colors, decorated with hand prints of the little ones around the walls and moved them into the sterile Halls of Congress. Here we now listen to words like "restore power to Head Start parent policy councils" or "we would oppose HR2123 on final passage if the religious discrimination amendment was attached to it, as it was."
There was no such thing as a Parent Policy Council in 1961. Why would parents have anything to do with "policy." The Nursery School gave us a list of their policies and they were firm. We paid $20.00 a week and never asked what they did with it. I know for certain it didn't cover the supplies for the children's art work.
I'll agree: that was then, this is now. George Bush the elder spoke of "a kinder, gentler time." He was laughed at, but not by me. It was indeed that.
Why, today, is there such suspicion about someone else's faith? Right is right and wrong is wrong - what difference does it make where you heard that first. Daily news reports tell us how George W. Bush will vote on an issue because of his church's teaching.
Along with the things we hear about President Bush and his faith-based initiatives, comes the memory of our late President John F. Kennedy who campaigned for President bucking the tide of criticism from those who thought he was beholden to the Pope. He said:
"If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people."
Since my eyes have been looking back to 1961, I guess mine are the eyes of history, and historically speaking, sending my child to a neighborhood nursery school for $20 was wonderful for me and rewarding for him.
Today, as the Head Start program engages in homeless outreach programs and programs for seasonal migrant workers' children, I see it is no simple thing. It's admirable that we have "No Child Left Behind" as our national goal.
And these same eyes turned to the past also see our culture as it evolved in the sixties, the infamous sixties. From 1965 on, kids were given a head start and more and more stayed in school instead of taking to the streets.
From age three on, kids learn to live by The Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Oh, wait. That sounds so biblical. That is a faith-based statement if ever I heard one. Not only that, every faith known has it as part of their doctrine. Even Atheists and Agnostics espouse that rule.
Of course, I'm sure the line has been secularized into "In a given situation, you are to treat others the way you would wish to be treated in that same situation."
Diversity! It brings out the best in us and the worst in us. Like it or not, it's who we are.