To the School Board (any of them)

This post is an open letter to all school boards and administrators, but it was written in repsonceto this post about Strasburg, Colorado by author John Green over on his Tumblr.

I have read that there are some members of your community who have registered complaints that certain books currently being used to educate your teenaged students are “profane, pornographic, violent, criminal, crass, crude, vile, and will result in the irreparable erosion of my students’ moral character.” I am familiar with most of these books, and with the broader world. I counter their claims by saying that the world is profane, pornographic, violent, criminal, crass, crude, and vile, and that we need young adults who are prepared for that. We need them to learn empathy and problem solving. We need them to be aware of the struggles of others and to be able to imagine the thoughts of people who have lead very different lives. That is what fiction can do for us.

We can only protect children for so long. That time is better spent preparing them to be adults. We can give them books full of bad words and bad decisions, and offer a safe place to talk about how those choices effect the outcomes. We can show them young people involved in adult situations, and if those situations are written well, as in “Go Ask Alice” and “The Fault in Our Stars”, our children can learn to make better choices while at the same time learning empathy for those to whom life has been less kind.

There are bad books written for young adults. There are good books which were not written for young adults. Don’t let the content be the primary thing on which you judge them. Look at the language, the style, the overall theme, and determine if there is something in them that your students can learn from. We don’t learn unless we are exposed to new ideas. We aren’t even able to judge our values if they are never questioned. If you want your students to be able to defend the values you hope to instill, then you have to train them in that defense, and this can only be done by challenging those values in safe, structured environments, like the classroom of a dedicated teacher.

Please consider the value that comes from bringing the big, crude, profane world to your children on your own terms before they are let loose into it. We don’t teach kindergartners about witches and wolves anymore. We shelter our kids far too long. As a member of Generation X, I can tell you that the tendency to sterilize fair tales and choose impotent novels has set up a lot of young adults for failure. They don’t know how to make the tough choices. No one taught them how to have emotionally healthy relationships or to defend their ideas and values in a world where you have to stand for something.

Children need fiction. They need stories that challenge them and ask them to look at the world very differently. They need to learn from the mistakes of others, or they will have to go out and make those mistakes themselves.

Thank you for your time.
Thomas Earthman


30 Days of Gratitude: Nov. 10

Today I want to say how grateful I am for my stepson. He’s a lazy pain in the butt most of the time, but he is the closest thing I may ever have to a traditional son of my own. Today we got to play some random board games, and it was really nice to share something fun with him. I know he’s got a good heart, and he shows random flashes of real brilliance. If he can learn to focus, and to pay better attention to the people around him, he’s going to be a good man. I just hope it takes him less time than it did me.

FYI: A reply to Mrs. Hall

As a father with 2 boys and 3 girls in my care, I feel I have to respond to FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). If you haven’t read it, and don’t care to click through, let me give you a quick breakdown.

This is a mother who loves her kids. She clearly understands that she needs to be involved in their social lives, and monitors their social media, looking with them at posts made by their friends. The thing is that she is putting on notice the young girls who are friends with her sons: if mom thinks a post is too provocative, the friend is blocked. No warning and no second chance. She doesn’t initiate a conversation. She doesn’t tell her sons that she has high expectations of them. She puts it on the girls not to temp her boys. And she does it in a post that features pictures of her sons, topless, in their bathing suits.

I applaud the effort. I thank her for being a concerned and involved parent. I question her assertion that a teenaged girl bares the responsibility for her sons’ impure thoughts. I disagree, strongly, with her assertion that one picture that she finds mildly offensive is grounds for ending a friendship, or even just an on-line connection. I dispute her claim that “once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it”.

Girls do not owe it to the world to hide their bodies. You are allowed to find it offensive or appealing, but they do not owe you their modesty any more than they owe the world their nudity. Each of us has a body, and it can be argued that it is the only thing that we truly own. I’m sure that you are teaching your boys to respect women, but they need to know that every woman, and every man, deserves respect. Even the scantily clad woman on the street corner could be an  addict in need of health care she can’t afford, a single mother trying to keep food on the table, or even an undercover police officer. Who are you to judge any of them? It isn’t the job of a woman to guard herself against the impulses of men. That is the job of society as sure as the need to guard one person against the murderous rage or the felonious greed of others. We teach that it is wrong, we instill responsibility and respect in our kids, and we prosecute those who act on their impulses.

As I have said before, though never written into a full post, this is the kind of misogyny that is as damaging to men as to women; it claims that men can’t help themselves, and that they shouldn’t be blamed when they act on impulses that they were never told to control. I can see a woman in a towel, in a hospital gown, or a burqa, and still get to know her as a person of inherent worth and dignity who deserves the chance to earn my respect. And a second chance. And if the second goes badly, there are always opportunities to earn another by embracing your inherent worth and being good for the world. But, unlike Mother Hall, I not only believe people can change for the better, and that teenagers can do so in a very short time, but that you can change the world for the better while wearing a bikini. That’s what I teach my kids, too.

If you just can’t get through those two points, though, please remember that people do change. People learn from their mistakes, and they do it faster and more effectively when the people around them help them, lovingly, to see the errors that they have made and support the effort to fix the problem. Everyone can be better today than yesterday, but they have to believe that there is a reason to try. We all have inherent value, as humans, to one another. Each of us has experiences that we can share with the rest of the world. When we recognize that and nurture it in those around us, we gain so much more than we ever could through shame or derision. These young women might be the ones most in need of good boys in their lives, who will value them for more than their appearance. They may be looking for validation, and by refusing to let your sons communicate with them, they might continue down a road of self doubt and manipulation when all they really needed was a good friend. Then again, they might just be that self-aware, which could make them excellent influences on your own kids.

In short, congratulations; you are a good mother who clearly wants the best for her kids and who hopes to instill in them a sense of self confidence and self respect. Your heart is in the right place, and I am sure that you are doing many things well. This policy, though, is not one of those things. I doubt you will read my reply, with over 600 comments on your blog already. I couldn’t ignore the core of your message, though, because I think the consequences of your actions will be at odds with the intent, and I hope that writing this will help someone, if not you, see that there is a better way to teach your boys to respect women than by telling them that these young girls are unworthy of their friendship.

How can we better support college-aged Unitarian Universalists?

I am posting this as a place holder, to give people a place to make comments on the topics of campus outreach and ministry and how we can better support our young adults emotionally and spiritually.

Please post your thoughts and ideas and any experience you have. Please tell us a bit about yourself and where your opinions and ideas are coming from.

A Young Adult On “The Rise of the ‘Nones'”

I am going off schedule to respond to this post by UUA president, Peter Morales, in which he talks about the number of Americans, especially young adults, who do not identify with a particular religious group. These people are spoken of by religious groups as “Nones”, for the common reply on surveys about which religion they identify with.

I am a Young Adult, according to the UUA categorization. I shall be for a another year and some months. I admit that I, as a parent in a stable relationship, am not typical of what the UUA is targeting with their category, but they define it only by age.

I am also an agnostic. Were I not a UU, and had I know idea (or the wrong idea, still) what UU was, I would likely be one of the Nones. I used the term “pagan” for quite some time, and it still fits as well as it ever has, but it is not really a very good label, as it is generally too broad and doesn’t link one with any actual tradition or organization. On any survey that asked for an affiliation, I would likely put “none”.

But, I was looking. I wanted a community that would support my search for truth. I wanted to be part of other people’s search, as well. Early in my 20s, I sought that in a Unitarian Univeralist congregation. It was the only one within 30 minutes of where I lived at the time, and it was not a very good fit. They were too humanist, and it felt to me like there was little searching going on, with the majority of the membership being on the other side of middle-aged.

I sought the congregation out again when I had children, to see if things had changed. They had, indeed, and I was very pleased to see it. It still wasn’t perfect for me, but it was still not quite right for me, though this time through no real fault.

The key thing to take away from this story is: I was looking. I kept looking. I was seeking something that Unitarian Universalism ultimately provides.

Not all people are. We can’t focus our efforts on trying to lure people to our cause by modifying the cause to suit them. We can’t worry about how to bring people into a religious community when those people aren’t looking for a community. We shouldn’t change who we are in order to gain market share.

I am a member of a small religion. It is a religion that has a lot to offer the world, but it is a young religion that hasn’t quite got its message in order. I am alright with all of these things, because it has created a community where I am loved for who I am, but I am not merely accepted; I am challenged to be better and to do more. Not forced. Not pressured. Challenged by people who became my friends, learned who I was and what I was capable of, and challenge me to be my best, while supporting me (as little as necessary) spiritually, emotionally, and on more than one occasion, financially. They encourage me on a free, but responsible, search. And that is what I was looking for. I love being a part of that.

I am not alone.

But I know plenty of Nones. Young Adults who know who we are. They’ve seen the Belief.Net quiz. They’ve read up on the web. Many have even visited, some frequently. They don’t join because we don’t have what they are looking for. Maybe it is just the local congregation. Maybe it is the whole movement. There are lots of reasons, but we aren’t a good fit for everyone. That’s part of being a liberal religion: accepting that people have different needs. We are not in a position to meet them all.

How can we honestly change that? First off, if you want to reach a new demographic, you have to do things differently. If you want to do that without loosing current members, it means starting new programs, embracing new ways of organizing, and maybe even new congregations with that demographic in mind. You want to reach Hispanics? You might consider Spanish language services. If you want to reach Young Adults, follow their lead and rethink your organizational structure to create better networking opportunities.

Still, there are people we cannot reach. We should not try to change to accommodate people who don’t want a religious community. One Facebook commenter said that he wanted swearing in services, and advised us to “Stop being so f-ing square and we’ll show up.”

These aren’t people who will feel at home in our congregations. They aren’t people we would feel comfortable having. We should welcome them to our events. We should invite them to social action. We should include them where they are comfortable. We should not try to change so that they feel more comfortable, because that would require us to further dilute our spiritual message of unity, love, and justice. It would require that we cease to be a religious community. Too many congregations have already gone that route, in my opinion, and we should be trying to work against the trend.

In short, most of the Nones are Nones by choice. I am sure there are a percentage that we can reach, by offering them a different congregational experience. We might have to be satisfied with more, smaller congregations, or with offering new services within current congregations. In reality, though, what is going to allow the UUA to grow is offering a powerful, consistent, and transformative message to those who are seeking religious community, but are dissatisfied with what they have found. We cannot be all things to all people; can we please focus on being something that we already claim? Let’s truly become A Religion for Our Time.