It’s difficult for me to talk about my oppression in the environment in which I teach. I’m a Mexican male from an area much wealthier compared to where I teach. Compared to my students, I’ve got it made.
However, there is one aspect of my identity that has been a constant source of internal contention for me. This is a part of my identity that I would say would be the closest thing to oppression that I have felt in the past two years. In this moment, I would like to come out:
I am an atheist.
I was raised in a Mexican-Catholic household, which—as anyone who grew up Catholic can tell you—is reason enough to give up on religion. The combination of my views of the Church and my own reason and logic made me stop going to church when I was fifteen, even though I was considering joining the priesthood just two years earlier (the defining moment in that decision was my discovery of the definition of “celibate”). I finally declared my atheism at age twenty and have been devoted to it ever since.
My family has been surprisingly accepting of my atheism, and my friends don’t care. However, teaching at an all-black urban high school in an impoverished city that has more churches per capita of any major U.S. city is not the best place for an atheist.
My school was actually founded through a church network. The school gave up its religious affiliation before applying for its charter. However, the vast majority of my coworkers still refer to it as a “Christian school,” mostly because they and most (if not all) of our students are Christian. With the exception of a few Jewish staff members, I am the only non-Christian in the district (at least the only one who is “out” as such).
In a public school environment, this should not be a problem: There is no promotion of religion in a formal setting. However, several teachers and administrators have been known to take troubled students aside for prayer sessions, and even I have been suckered into praying during professional developments.
Coming from a working class, Mexican family, I know the importance of religion—it’s sometimes all one has. The belief that this existence is temporary and pain and suffering will be relieved in the afterlife keeps some people going. Do I believe it? No. Do I respect it? No. But I tolerate it—to an extent.
The other day was particularly tough. After a series of fights, failing students, and several cups of coffee on my part, a veteran teacher caught me in the hallway.
“You don’t look too good.”
“It’s been a pretty crappy day.”
“Oh, Honey,” she said as she grabbed my shoulders, “just remember that you’re doing God’s work.”
I grabbed her hands and took them gently off of my shoulders. I could handle pretending to pray; I could handle people praying with my students; but telling me I am doing God’s work was the final straw.
“I am not a man of God,” I said calmly, “I am a man of men. I don’t work for God, I work for these kids. I don’t believe that God has a plan for everyone because I don’t believe in God. Please don’t assume that I’m a Christian just because I work here.”
She was speechless.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t take the assumptions anymore.”
She looked at me with a combination of concern and disgust.
“You are allowed to believe whatever you want,” I said, “but please don’t assume that I believe the same thing.”
She still looked at me, not saying a word.
“Being an atheist does not make me a lesser teacher. I am a great teacher, and you know it. My motivations are just a little different—I’m not doing anything for God; I’m doing it for humanity. And, as long as our students are in a loving, caring environment that allows them to learn and grow, then my lack of religion should not matter.”
She finally opened her mouth.
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
And she walked away.
The next few days greeted me with awkward stares from most of my coworkers. No one said anything to me, but I knew what they were thinking: We have a Godless man doing God’s work.
And he’s on the run.