In Calvert, Commencement of a Controversy
by Brianne Warner
Last Wednesday marked my sixth Northern High School graduation ceremony: three as a band member, one as a graduating senior, one as a senior's close friend, now as a sister.
But while the pomp and circumstance played on, Calvert County Board of Commissioners' speeches droned on and the shiny gowns topped with caps and tassels marched on, this year's Northern High School ceremony had a glitch unlike any other.
The controversy, well publicized, surrounds an invocation redubbed a moment of reflection, sans an endorsement of God as a result of a student's concern that a prayer did not belong in a public school's ceremony.
The moment of reflection was gracefully handled by senior Julie Schenck, who spoke not only of the possibility of prayer in the 30-second silence but also of thoughts of Kosovar teenagers and graduating seniors in Littleton, Colorado.
I only wish the silence following her reflection had been handled as gracefully.
Instead, it was swiftly broken by the loud words: Our father, who art in heaven
Many more joined in, enough so the prayer was distinct to the audience, a group comprised not only of Christians but also Jews, Muslims, atheists and many others. The student who originally raised concerns walked out, according to The Washington Post. He was then detained by police and barred from Project Grad, Northern's late-night school party, according to the Post.
At that moment, I was shocked and angered by the disturbance. A week later, I am saddened, embarrassed and still upset.
The disruption of the silence was, as our Superintendent James Hook put it, disrespectful. Julie specifically called for silence: This request was ignored. The prayer was also blatantly rude to those of other faiths. And it was chillingly dismissive of the deaths - in Littleton, Kosovo, even our own county - we were to ponder in this silence.
In the tiny world of Calvert County, churches are dominant places. Outside, though, I've learned there are many other options and many other answers to the big questions. Too many wars have been waged over the right answer, battles fought even during high school graduations.
We are fortunate to live in a country that believes the right answers to the big questions are up to our individual minds and hearts. The Constitution protects our answers, just as it protected a student's right to not hear one particular, though predominant, religious view at his senior ceremony.
Northern High School is a public high school - and a very good one at that. Though perhaps mainly Christians may attend, though the Federation of Christian Athletes holds prayers and meetings there, though students may bow their heads over cafeteria lunches - Northern High School is still a public school.
Only when a school turns private does it gain the power to allow in only one belief, to refuse other views and enforce one religion. The prayer leaders seem to have forgotten this. What's worse is that some of our lawful representatives of our government have also chosen to implicitly speak out against the separation of church and state, one of the fundamental grounds for our country.
When county commissioners and school officials reveal their tendency toward intolerance, people of all beliefs suffer. When police detain a distressed student over his supposed disruption rather than direct their efforts at the real disturbance, our Constitution and all people under it suffer.
I am embarrassed by the way these representatives of our county handled the situation. It cast Calvert County as a backwoods, intolerant place and on an occasion when only celebration should have been heard.
May 26 was a time of celebration, a time to reflect in the Class of 1999's past successes, future hopes and completed high school education. Instead, this year's ceremony lingers as a lesson in a past failure, future hopes and, I hope, an ongoing education in respectful tolerance.
Former NBT intern and current webmaster Brianne Warner will return to the University of Maryland School of Journalism as a junior next fall, after a summer internship at The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown.