by Paul Kinburn

From 1947 to 1952, I died “Death at an Early Age” in the same Boston public elementary school about which Jonathan Kozol wrote his landmark book of that title after the principal (who was my first grade teacher in 1947-48) fired him in 1965 for mim­eographing and distributing a Langs­ton Hughes black protest poem to his grade-school class.

She had previously forbidden him to wear a pin depicting black and white arms or hands intertwined, saying, according to Kozol, “It’s a nice pin, but don’t wear it here.”

By 1965, this working-class neighborhood school served mostly Afri­can-American children; in my time there, it was mostly Jewish.

That first-grade teacher, like all other Boston Public Schools faculty through my graduation from illustrious Boston Latin School in 1959 (third in a class of 312), prefaced the morning Pledge of Allegiance (which further dragged religion into the public schools with “under God” added in 1954 from Cold War anti-communist hysteria) with a Bible reading.

This puzzled me as a 6-year-old member of a secular Jewish family: I amused my mother, soon after the start of the school year, with the news that my teacher had the strange habit of opening a big black book on her desk before the Pledge and reading something from it beginning with a Boston-accented “Galawdiz my shepherd; I shall not want.”

The pre-Pledge Bible readings continued in my second- through 12th-grade homerooms, as indicated above, but with added elements of implied anti-Semitism and two instances of forced prayer in the second grade. 

This teacher frequently (perhaps every few weeks) and gratuitously expressed retroactive opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II with, “It was horrible how our boys were sent across the ocean to get killed just a few years ago, some from this very school,” with no further explanation, to a class that was at least 90 percent Jewish. 

Bad as this was, it had no direct connection to religion, nor was she personally involved in the two instances of mandatory prayer. The first came from a male substitute teacher who forced us to recite in unison, before eating our bag lunches at our desks as usual, “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.”

The second occurred when some male authority figure hitherto unknown to us came marching into the classroom thundering about the death of some bigwig alter ego, then demanding that we all stand, bow our heads “and think of some prayer” we might know and say it silently to ourselves. Being made to say, or even think of, a prayer I didn’t believe in, or have any idea about, made me feel very resentful and very angry.

So when I heard, in the early 1960s, that New York bureaucratic hack William J. Vitale had lost his case in the Supreme Court to continue to compel all New York public school students to stand up every morning and recite a prescribed prayer carefully crafted to sound non-sectarian, although it was certainly Judeo-Christian-oriented, I rejoiced – at last a hard-won victory for freedom from religion in the public schools nationwide! 

All women teachers, principals and support staff in the Boston Public Schools through at least sometime in the 1950s were unmarried or widowed. It was said that any woman teacher, principal or staffer who married would be fired just for that. It was also said that the entire school system was under de facto control of the archdiocese of Bos­ton. It made sense.

There are those who say, or at least hope, that such clerical hegemony over a public school system is a thing of the past that can never happen again in our country, especially in a major, highly cultured urban center. 

But then there are others who tug at the heartstrings of naïve people longing for simple answers to complicated social problems, pontificating that “only when little children are allowed to pray in public school once again” will “the good old days” return to “save America.”

But when children and adolescents are forced by political edict to recite, in unison, officially sanctioned prayers, restoring such bad old days will only compound, and further complicate, America’s social problems.

A native of Boston, Paul Kinburn, received a B.A. from Harvard with honors in music history in 1963 and an Ed.M. in educational psychology from Westfield, Mass., State College in 1969. He is a former music teacher, psychometrist, special-collections librarian and medical transcriptionist. Now retired, he lives in San Francisco. He is a long-time Americans United member.

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