Inspired, I wrote a short story for my kids and am sharing it with you too.
The bus arrived in front of Hickory Falls Middle School at its usual time, quarter to the hour, granting fifteen minutes for the students to get to their lockers and get their morning acts together before class. Katie met up with her best friends, Lily and Carin, in the parking lot and they walked in together. At the brick and glass institutional-looking entry way, jolly Mrs. O’ Donald, the principal, was unpacking a large cardboard box, carefully handing gaudy orange and black decorations up to Mr. Carol, the head janitor and superintendent.
“Lovely,” thought Katie, “This mess again.” She’d been hoping that middle school would prove to be a more mature environment than elementary school, and that she might finally escape the foolishness of dressing in doofus-y costumes, the endless pumpkin themed art projects, and pretending to enjoy spooky pranks. Apparently this was not to be the case, at least not in sixth grade.
Lily and Carin were not on the same sheet of music as their friend. Catching sight of the fake spiders and plastic-bag ghosts, they immediately set off in an excited discussion of this year’s costume choices. Carin was, as typical, interested in out-grossing her older brothers and was leaning towards some sort of zombie nurse costume. Lily was devising ways to convince her mother to let her wear a Goth rock girl costume. At eleven years of age, she wanted to look more girl-y in her dress choices, but her mother was fighting her every step of the way. Lily was concerned, and with good reason. Knowing her mother, she could very well end up in last year’s putrid peach Care Bear suit again if she didn’t find a good way to successfully present her side of the argument. Katie followed quietly along beside them. “Traitors.’’ she thought to herself.
As the day progressed, after homeroom and between each class, more and more of the hallways filled with holiday décor and the students became more and more excited as the orange and black color spread throughout the school. Halloween was still two weeks away, but this initial display brought about an instant festive mood. Festive for most kids, but not Katie. By the time that she arrived at Language Arts class, fourth period, she was already sick of the whole thing. She was done with the decorations, the mood, the whole holiday! Her mood was definitely not brightened when her teacher announced this week’s class project. They were to be teamed with one of the kindergarten classes at the school next door, each student paired with a younger child, to read spooky Halloween stories and create small posters about each book.
She silently fumed about it all through class, only half paying attention, and found that she was still bothered by it by the time the final bell rang after 6th period. Hoping for some sort of exemption, Katie returned to her Language Arts class to talk with her teacher, Mr. Lars.
“Do we have to use a book on Halloween?” Katie asked. “I do not like this holiday and would much rather read a story on Autumn, or harvest time, or some other subject.”
Mr. Lars was taken aback. “Halloween is a day of fun and fright, and the little ones at the kindergarten are really looking forward to joining us in this project. It has been in the planning between our school and the elementary school for weeks now. I’m sorry, but the subject remains as it is, with the spooky books, and it is part of your grade this quarter.” Mr. Lars was a tall thin man with wire glasses. His blonde hair was long enough to pull back in a severe ponytail, which is how he always wore it. Katie had found him to be quiet, but quick to smile. He could also be very serious, and it was his serious face that he wore now.
Katie climbed onto her bus, uncharacteristically mad. This was not over.
By the time her parents had arrived home from work, Katie had already finished her homework and completed the few chores scribbled in on her column of the family white board to-do list. After dinner, obligations satisfied, she retreated to her room and spent the rest of the evening researching her case on Google. It was slightly past her bedtime by the time she finished her arguments.
The next morning, Katie didn’t wait for her friends in front of the school. She marched straight to the Principal’s office, and when she paused, trying to think of a good way to ask to speak to Mrs. O’ Donald, the lady herself walked into the room. Dressed in her normal navy suit and skirt, she looked much more professional than the casual outfit she’d worn yesterday when climbing ladders and stringing cobwebs.
“Mrs. O’ Donald?” Katie asked politely, “May I speak with you a moment?”
“Of course you can… um… you’re one of our new students, correct?”
“Yes ma’am. My name is Katie Lincoln and I am in 6th grade this year. I just came here from Yates Elementary.”
“Of course. Katie. Katie Lincoln.” she said, seeming to file Katie’s name away somewhere. “What can I do to help you?”
“Well, I don’t wish to be trouble,” Katie said hesitantly, “but I have an objection to one of my assignments. I don’t want to be forced to celebrate an occult holiday. However, my Language Arts teacher will not substitute an alternative topic. Studying what is considered a religion by pagans is a violation of my religious freedoms. I don’t think that it is appropriate for this to be promoted in school.” Katie talked a little bit more, laying out what she’d learned about the 1st amendment and some history that she’d researched about Halloween, or Samhain, as it was called in Pagan faiths.
“I see…” said Mrs. O’ Donald slowly. “This is a serious concern, and you have made a good point. I’ll talk to your parents and your teacher and we’ll see what we can do. Run along to class now and we’ll talk again soon!”
Katie walked out of the office with mixed feelings. She felt very satisfied with the Principal’s reaction and answer, but she was concerned about the call to her parents. As the school day progressed, she began to wonder about the wisdom of speaking to the principal before speaking to her family.
At lunch time, an older student who Katie did not know, found her in the courtyard where she was hanging out with Lily and some other girls, discussing the most recent episode of their favorite show, and he handed her a note requesting that she come to Mrs. O’ Donald’s office. As Katie walked into the office, she felt her heart drop down to her stomach. Mrs. O’ Donald was not alone. Sitting in the cramped room, surrounded by papers and files strewn about madly on all available surfaces, was her mother and Mr. Lars. Her mother did not look happy. Neither did Mr. Lars. The patient and kind look on Mrs. O’ Donald’s face was the only thing that stopped her from turning around and running away.
“Come in, Katie.” said the principal, “Let’s talk.”
Katie slumped into the room and sat meekly in the remaining empty seat, not looking at anyone.
“Katie,” began the principal “I had a good talk with your teacher and your mother about the issue that you brought to my attention this morning. You presented a very mature and well-thought out argument, however…”
“I can’t believe that you didn’t talk to us about this last night!” cut in Katie’s mom. “Or, this morning! Religious objections? We don’t have any religious objections! You’ve always celebrated Halloween!”
“But I don’t like it anymore!” Katie protested, her head finally coming up. “It isn’t right to force it on me when it IS a pagan holiday! That’s not even a real religion!”
“Your Aunt Carla is a Wiccan!” her mom countered, “Are you going to tell her that her religion is fake?”
“Uh… no…” said Katie, suddenly very unsure, “No. But I’m not pagan, so why do I… ”
“Do you go to church every Sunday?” her mom countered. “I’ll answer that. No. So, should we cancel Christmas, too? Should we stop attending grandma’s Easter brunches? I would sure miss her honey ham! And what about dad’s friend from work, Mr. Nazir? He invites us, every year, to celebrate Iftars during Ramadhan with his family. Are we going to start declining these events too? I thought you and Nour were good friends and that you liked these get-togethers!”
“Halloween, ahem, is a long-time tradition in the western world,” inserted Mr. Lars, “and a large part of our American holiday culture. You don’t have to be Pagan to celebrate. We are not asking you to participate in a witch’s Sabbath, or anything of that nature, no more than our singing Christmas songs in December is an attempt to convert anyone to Christianity. What we study in school is merely the literature, the history, and how the holiday contributes to our traditions and culture.”
“You WILL do the work that your teacher assigns you.” concluded her mother. “And while I am not upset to have been called today,” glancing at the teacher and principal meaningfully, “please do call us at any time... Right now, I have to get back to work. In future, it would be very helpful, and more appropriate, if you talked to us before starting any future protest campaigns at school. Are we understood?”
“Yes ma’am” replied Katie dejectedly. With a quick hug and kiss goodbye, shaking hands with Mrs. O’ Donald and Mr. Lars, her mother departed, leaving Katie with her teacher and the principal.
Mr. Lars cleared his throat, breaking the somewhat awkward silence. “Katie, I am sorry that you object to the assignment, but the topic will not be changed. Learning about the traditions of our culture, local and American, and why we celebrate as we do, is very important. It’s also very important to pass on a love of reading to the younger kids. This sharing project is a fun tool to use in accomplishing that goal. I hope that you will find a way to proceed with this assignment in a more positive manner, even if you do not enjoy the subject matter.”
“Yes sir.” said Katie. “You’re… you’re… not mad at me?”
“Well, I admit that I was, disappointed, at first,” said Mr. Lars smiling softly, “but Mrs. O’ Donald explained to me how you presented your arguments this morning and I admit to being very impressed with the research and mature conversation skills that you used to bring this to our attention. Keep it up and you will do well in Middle School – as long as you are as equally diligent with your assignments… ” he finished, giving her a one-eyebrow-up mock stern glare, and then he too walked out.
“Well then Miss Katie! Is there anything else we can talk about today?” asked the principal.
Katie lowered her eyes and shook her head.
“Now, now,” said Mrs. O’ Donald, “as Mr. Lars pointed out, you brought your argument to me in a very mature and intelligent manner. I like this. So what? This time, you did not win your point. That happens. You will not always get your way in life, but you presented yourself very well. This matters! All in all, Miss Lincoln, I am very happy to have had this chance to get to know you better and I look forward to the rest of the school year with you!” And with a gentle hug, and a promise that her door would always be open, the principal sent Katie on back to finish lunch.
When Katie arrived in Language Arts class, Mr. Lars said not a word about the lunch time meeting. He passed out the syllabus for the project and the books that would be read to their kindergarten ‘reading buddies’. He passed out permission slips for the trip to the nearby school – Katie had no doubt that hers would be signed. Other than reading and helping the children with a poster, the 6th graders had additional assignments. One was to write an essay on the importance of early reading and peer tutoring. “Easy enough.” thought Katie. The other part of the assignment was to predict how their assigned student would like the story, and later, to write up how their prediction matched the reality of the encounter.
Most of her classmates immediately opened these kids’ books and started reading. The class quieted as the students dove into their books, disregarding the difference between these and their own reading levels. Many enjoyed the opportunity to re-read books that were old favorites, and some even passed their books around to share with their friends. Katie looked at the book that had landed on her desk. “The Wolves in the Walls, by Neil Gaiman.” She had never heard of it. She looked at the pale girl on the cover, and without reading, skimmed through the pages. The dark coloring and odd angles were somewhat disquieting, so she penned her predictions based on those feelings… a dire warning of gloom and fear, confusion and nightmares. She wasn’t pleased to have to do the work, but she put good effort into it, not wanting to have to spend too much time having to redo it later. She was very relieved when the school bell finally rang.
The evening was a little awkward for Katie, but her mom had had a good day at work and her dad had a ball game to watch on T.V with friends, so she had a quiet few hours to herself. Having her mother sign her permission slip was not as painful as she thought it might be. The next morning she headed to school again, resigned to the field trip, reading the wolf book, and making sure that her assigned kid was ‘inspired’.