Secondary Education

Bye Bye, Billboard.

I love my job. I really do.

I’d been waiting for a job at this prestigious suburban school since I first began my teaching career. My old job, where I toiled for eight years, wasn’t really satisfactory in many different ways. The department – and, to be honest, all of my coworkers – were either part of the “perfect people” club or they were depressed and stagnant. I taught angry 18 year olds that mostly just wanted to graduate so they could take over dad’s cow (or sheep, or pig, or chicken) farm. The administration hated me for a myriad of reasons, and I wasn’t too happy with them, either.

While working at this hell hole, I started examining my beliefs. Throughout my early years, I was a super Catholic on the outside, but on the inside I was imagining sex scenes in my head during church and giggling at the thought of an omniscient god getting off to some toriparker porn. I’d sing the word “breast” (oooh, naughty!) instead of the word “breath” and amuse myself during the boring service. When I got to college, I started out as a sweet Catholic girl who had never knowingly met a gay person or an atheist, and ended up a slightly less sweet (but much more fun!) agnostic who had dozens of gay/bisexual/anything goes friends. I loved to criticize religion. Still, I thought I’d better believe in a god “just in case”, and I lived in a cozy little in-between area devoid of church and rules but full of no-holds-barred fun.

I lived in this belief inertia until just a few years ago, when a friend introduced me to the world of skepticism. He sent me a book on cold reading and I was hooked. I devoured Hitchens and Harris (not literally, although I’m always up if you’re looking, Sam Harris – rawr) and used my critical thinking superpowers to discover that I actually was an atheist. Once I figured that out, I joined groups and atheist organizations and became out and proud, if you will.

One day, I emailed in response to a request from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. They were looking for people to be on billboards in the largest city near to me. I sent in a proposal for a billboard that said, “I refuse to teach my son a lie”. They responded back that they liked it, and I was all set to be on a billboard. One of my goals in life is to have as many billboard-sized images with me as possible, so this fed right into my evil scheme.

However, at the same time, I got a job offer from my dream school. I had literally been applying to this school since I had graduated from college, and they finally accepted me. Of course, I didn’t have to disclose my religion (or lack thereof) during the interview process, so they had no idea that I was an atheist. I began to suddenly become nervous about my beliefs. I knew they couldn’t rescind the job invitation if they found out I was an atheist, but what if I didn’t get hired back the following year? What if my coworkers had preconceived notions about me?

So, sadly, I emailed the Freedom from Religion Foundation and told them that I couldn’t be on the billboard. My dreams of shooting to atheistic stardom were shot. I missed the opportunity, and though I was sad about it, I was also really happy in my new job.

Now, two years later, I know that people probably wouldn’t have cared too much about the billboard. I’m teasingly known as the English Department Atheist, and I get into friendly “discussions” with my outspoken religious coworkers. However, there was no way of knowing what their reaction would have been before I had been a part of the department. I know that there are many people across America – across the world, even – who dislike atheists, who have horrific preconceived notions about what an atheist believes or wants.

I still have to hide my atheism in many ways. I’m comfortable discussing atheism around my coworkers. If an issue of religion comes up in my class, I’ll vaguely slide by any mention of religion and carefully direct the discussion in a different direction. Some students have picked up on this and asked me privately if I was an atheist. They typically are critical thinkers as well, and are looking for a role model who agrees with them. I tell them that I am, and we discuss it.

But I draw the line at mentioning atheism in anything that could be looked over by parents. I won’t put my atheism in writing, at least at work, and I think that it’s sad that I can’t. Students have so many religious role models, and it’s not a problem for a teacher to run a Bible group or mention that he went to church on Sunday. But if run a Hitchens group, or if I mention that I was teaching my son to critically think instead of blindly following Catholicism, then I’m sure that I will hear about it in one way or another.

I’m wondering — what is like in your schools, fellow atheist educators? Do your students know that you’re atheist, or do you keep your feelings to yourself? Do you teach critical thinking in your classes, or do you ignore the subject all together and move on to more safe topics? And what would you do if a parent confronted you?

Where do we draw the line between job security and personal honesty?

Why should we even have to?

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Tori Parker

Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.

5 Comments

  1. March 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm —

    I’m sorry you had to give up the billboard. I’m fortunate in that the people at my university don’t care at all about my atheism–or at least no one ever says anything about it, and I am completely “out.” In fact, I have lovely relationships with many of the Baptist College Ministries kids; one of the seniors asked me just last week to write a recommendation letter to seminary for him. I know lots of people who aren’t so lucky, though, and of course it’s not only at work that we can be harassed. My community overall is aggressively religious, so we can’t help but be aware of our marginalized status. I was on CBS Sunday Morning a few months ago (VERY briefly) and my husband was worried. (It’s here if you want to have a peek: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50137205n.) I post on Facebook about atheist and secular issues but I never talk about it in class. Every now and then I get an “I’m praying for you” note from a student, and I did get one course eval a couple of years ago asserting that I was hellbound, but that’s the worst of it.

  2. March 6, 2013 at 2:20 pm —

    The Facebook group “Atheist” (linked in the Website field) shared this blog post 🙂

  3. Tyler
    March 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm —

    You are a role model is right. Most people dont consider that there is no god until an atheist tells them. I’m coming up on my senior year at Indiana University of PA where I have had countless professors who were open atheist and openly argued against a god in class. It is my belief that education breeds atheism, while ignorance is the spawn of religion. At first, science and history scared me because they made me question my faith. I had thought there was something special in about believing even if it was illogical and irrational. Most people wouldn’t believe in god if they simply had the knowledge us atheists have. Once you learn the history of the Bible and how it was written and put together you easily realize the god of the bible was made by man. Also, when you understand evolution and the big bang, you realize how superfluous a god really is. All it took for me was one person to tell me there is no god. I did the rest of the work myself. I really enjoyed your article! Please keep up the good work .

  4. March 6, 2013 at 5:44 pm —

    I didn’t read the name of the author when I clicked on this post, so I didn’t realize this was my very own, beloved Tori P.!!! But, by the second paragraph, I could tell from the smooth and whimsical prose who this was. Sure enough I scrolled up and once again discovered that my instincts are both flawless and prescient as ever.

    Enjoyable read that I could relate well with.

    For me, my “yikes” moment was having to explain to my department chair why I needed the day off to attend the Reason Rally on Ash Wednesday while he had a smudge of ash on his forehead. Erg

  5. March 6, 2013 at 5:48 pm —

    Oh! Almost forgot: Yes, to Sam Harris.

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