I am a divorced mother whose religious ex-husband has custody of my daughter. He chose to send her to a religious high school, which she has attended for 3 years. Recently, she started asking a lot of questions about her religion, which has caused people to suspect she doesn’t believe in God. Her science teacher, who caught wind of this when she didn’t agree with his disparaging comments on evolution, has now started to pick on her, getting into confrontations with her about subjects ranging from evolution to global warming to abortion, etc. This teacher is one of the angry, confrontational, red-faced types, who is always ranting about random topics, making disparaging comments at people, and spewing nonsense whenever he feels like it. Unfortunately, complaining to the school about this has achieved nothing, and the kids tend to egg him on into acting like this daily by purposely asking questions that rile him up, and then agreeing with him and attacking my daughter when she respectfully disagrees. I have no control to pull her out of the school, but my daughter is miserable and needs advice on how to deal with this situation. My ex refuses to help in any way. Do you have anything to offer?
Thanks and Regards,
Your daughter has a strong spirit and a sharp mind, and I admire her willingness and ability to challenge her teacher so bravely and so frequently. I have to wonder if she is quite as miserable as you think, since she voluntarily does this so bravely and so frequently. When her teacher foolishly allows himself to be goaded by the other kids into one of his rants, she could just sit there quietly letting him make an ass of himself, but instead she speaks up and challenges him with her respectful disagreement. She has not been cowed by his ad hominem attacks in return. She keeps doing it. She has more courage and pluck than I do at three and a half times her age.
I can understand her frustration because they don’t respond reasonably or honorably to her respectful challenges, but she may be unhappy for other reasons. One might be that her intellectual hunger is not being satisfied by the school. Some religious schools have high academic standards, but some push education through a filter that removes anything that conflicts with dogma. They also often discourage students from asking probing questions that go too far, and cannot be answered by whatever diluted, cliché, simplistic explanations have made it through the filter.
Another reason that she might be unhappy is that her need to ask tough questions about both religion and science sets her apart socially, and if other kids are beginning to suspect that she doesn’t believe in God, she might be feeling the beginnings of shunning by her peers.
The most important thing for you to do is to strengthen your bond with her. She needs adult allies, and you are the only suitable adult described in your letter. Since your ex husband has custody, your time with her is presumably limited. Make the most of it by making it easy and safe for her to share with you her thoughts and doubts about everything and anything. Help her to freely express whatever she discovers in her explorations of her beliefs, giving her full permission and license to believe, to doubt, to question, and to tentatively try on answers to see how they fit. Let changing her mind always be a completely legitimate option.
Give her access to any books or materials that will answer her questions about religion and science better than whatever is inadequate that the school offers. Encourage her to find friends who seem to have that same demanding curiosity, or who at least do not judge her for having that wonderful quality. Having just one or two comrades will get her through the last year of high school. If no one at school is suitable, help her find social outlets in a club or some kind of activity for young people that is not centered around religion.
Always take the high road when helping her deal with your ex husband. Even if she disagrees with her father on important issues, she will have natural loyalties to him as well as to you. Letting her know that you understand that will help to prevent tension building in her trying to satisfy both loyalties, like a rope stretched too tight. Let your growing bond with your daughter be an alliance for the two of you, but not an alliance against him.
Now for two sets of advice directly to your daughter:
Hello. Apparently these classroom discussions are not resulting in your getting called in to the Principal’s office or some other authoritarian tactic. It’s apparently something that the teacher is permitting to happen. If you are initiating these arguments by asking challenging questions or disagreeing, and if you don’t mind the attacks and whatever social fallout there is, then all you have to do is improve your argumentation skills. When the teacher or classmates attack you rather than what you ask or say, then with a nonchalant shrug say, “That remark about me does not answer my question,” or “Attacking something about me does not attack my argument,” or “Coming back with an insult means you couldn’t come back with a good argument.” If the teacher or a student makes an unlikely sounding claim, say, “Since this is a science class, I’m just curious what scientific evidence there is to back up that claim.” Always put the burden of proof onto the person making the claim. If they say “You can’t prove it’s wrong,” Calmly (always calmly) reply, “You’re the one who is saying it’s true, so it’s up to you to prove that it’s true. I’m just not convinced by you simply saying that it’s true.” Smile nicely, with no hint of triumph or smugness. Really be as open to acceptable, credible evidence as you are saying you are.
However I can understand that for a young person that kind of critical arguing and debating can be intimidating. If it seems too risky, or if you’re just getting tired of it all, then here is another way to channel the energy of your demanding curiosity into something that keeps you from becoming too frustrated:
Hold your tongue, and switch to Secret Psychologist Mode. Think of the classroom as your lab, and the teacher and the other kids are subjects whom you are studying. Quietly watch how they interact. Look for the intentions underneath the things that people are saying. See how some kids are the provocateurs who try to goad the teacher into some off-topic rant, probably just for the entertainment value. See how some kids are the yes-persons, looking for a chance to please the teacher by agreeing with him. There will probably be a couple of class clowns, who either provide release from mounting tension by making people laugh with a clever wisecrack, or who are sneaking in some frustration or anger of their own disguised as a sarcastic joke. Notice the quieter ones in the background. Some are interested but seem intimidated. Some are bored and are distracting themselves. There might be one person who sits there quietly and seems to be observing in the same detached kind of way that you are. Catch that person’s eye. You might have found an ally. Take notes about what you observe, and keep them safe.
The teacher himself? There’s enough material there for a Master’s Thesis. He might not be very good at teaching science, and he might be a boorish person, but you can think of him as a gift. You can turn him into something useful for you, a good practice subject for a young woman who is becoming a keen observer of human nature. Whatever walk of life you end up taking, that skill is extremely valuable.
Mother and daughter, I wish you both well. Love and support each other. Stay relaxed and positive. Find the useful thing, information, or lesson in every situation. Share what you learn. Both of you make the other person a lucky person.
**Update** The letter writer has left a comment under her own name that clarifies some important details, and so my response is amended in my reply to her to focus more on directly combating the teacher’s abuse of her daughter. Please find this in the comments below.