Saturday, July 18, 2009

Washington School Days: 4. The Fusion of Church and State

Dear George,


My father was a spiritual man but not religious.  Some years ago, he told us a family story about his own father who had owned and operated drugstores in Menominee and Marinette.  My grandfather was a devout Swedish Lutheran.  However, local doctors insisted that his pharmacies be open 7 days a week, including Sunday mornings, if they were to refer patients to him.   The Lutheran pastor objected strenuously to my grandfather’s business being open on Sunday morning.  Ultimately, my grandfather left his beloved Lutheran church.  My dad, who was a child at the time, remained bitter about this many years later.  While our family did belong to the Presbyterian Church, I think this was mainly because my father was  an elected public official and it was politic to do so.  We only went to church on Easter.  Vic sang louder than anybody else, and we  offspring all were humiliated.


In contrast to my father, my fourth grade teacher, Miss Hunnefeld*, was an ardent supporter of organized religion.  She awarded points to her students for various religious activities, and attending Sunday school was one of the important ways in which we could progress toward being Gold Star Generals.  I mentioned this fact to my parents several times, hoping that they would take me to Sunday School, but my pleas were ignored.  We had moved to a new house in the country on the Menominee River that year, nearly three miles away from downtown and the Presbyterian Church.  My father had no intention of driving me to town and back on Sunday mornings, whether for religious reasons or simply to get points from Miss Hunnefeld. 


In addition to her point system, Miss Hunnefeld had another incentive to encourage religious devotion.  Each Monday morning she asked the children who had attended Sunday school the day before to raise their hands.  Then she instructed the attenders to go up and stand at the blackboard.  The few children who had not raised their hands were instructed to remain in their seats, while the majority circled the room and stared at them.  Miss Hunnefeld questioned the non-attenders about their reasons for not attending church that week, although the little heathens never had much to say.


Miss Hunnefeld’s Monday morning ritual was very successful.  After a few Mondays, there were only two children who were regularly left sitting in their seats:  Marcus Peterson* and me.  In a way, Marcus had an excuse.  His family was so poor and downtrodden that nobody expected much of anything from him.  His childhood responsibilities included stealing large chunks of coal from the nearby coalyard and lugging them home to keep the family from freezing during the winter.  His family didn’t go to church, belong to the country club, or do much else of civic virtue.   I didn’t have as good an excuse as Marcus, though I did privately tell Miss Hunnefeld several times that we lived out in the country and it was too far for my father to drive.


After a couple of months, Miss Hunnefeld either gave up trying to convert us or got nervous.  One day she announced that there were “some children” who were unable to attend Sunday School.  Rather than denying them military points, she was going to make available an alternative religious experience.  If such anonymous children would listen to one hour of specified religious programs on the radio on Sunday morning and if such children would take notes on the programs and hand them in on Monday, they too could get points and stand at the blackboard.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  The next  Sunday I listened to the assigned radio programs plus a few additional programs for good measure.  I took detailed notes.  Miss Hunnefeld was pleased to receive my report and she read part of it to the class.  I joined my classmates at the blackboard that Monday, and some of them smiled at me.  Marcus’ family couldn’t afford a radio, so he wound up being the only child left in his seat.  I felt guilty about abandoning Marcus, but I went ahead and completed my Sunday radio assignments for the rest of the year.





*This story uses pseudonyms.



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