Taysie was awarded $550 by FFRF for her essay.
I sat on the hard bleacher two years ago with my head bowed, squirming inside. This was supposed to be a high school graduation ceremony, not a church service. My uneasiness was like a physical thing, but I didn’t feel it would be polite to get up and leave in the middle.
So, like some others around me, I sat in uncomfortable but respectful silence, hoping the prayer wouldn’t last too long.
Seniors are responsible each year for choosing the guest speaker for the graduation ceremony. That year, a local pastor was chosen. His three children all graduated from the school I attend, where he coached football for many years and his wife drove a school bus. They are well-known and liked, but I and many others were not prepared for the type of speech he was delivering.
It started and ended with a request to bow our heads in prayer. He prayed to Jesus and to God to prepare students and bless them, to keep them safe and pure in the outside world. To say my family was uncomfortable was to put it mildly. Discomfort and disbelief stirred within me.
There are about 60 students in my high school and 13 are seniors who will be graduating in a few short weeks. I’m anxious about what my future will hold, excited about taking on more adult responsibilities, and relieved to have made it this far. But I’m also anxious about the graduation ceremony itself because of how my community is, what attitudes are sometimes held by students and teachers and what happened at that graduation ceremony two years ago.
All my school years, I have struggled with trying to explain my feeling that there is no God and that the bible is nothing more than an interesting book full of stories that some feel are moral guidelines. I feel the concept of God is a mythology that attempts to explain things humans have difficulty understanding.
I prefer to research things that I find puzzling, finding my own answers and blundering down the path I find, taking responsibility when things go wrong, or right.
There have been many times when my outlook caused hard feelings and defensive attitudes among fellow students, who mistake my questioning nature and rejection of conventional religious belief systems as being somehow evil. I have never said I am not a spiritual person, just one who chooses not to buy into the conformist ideology that seems so prevalent in the world today.
I once attended a church service and went to an orientation to be a camp counselor, but I couldn’t be true to my own beliefs and continue to take part in those events. I felt embarrassed, not for myself, but for those in attendance who seemed to truly believe what was being espoused. I felt like I was disrespectful to myself, and that no one else ever seemed interested in or respectful of my beliefs.
This year I was the graduate. We chose a former teacher for our guest speaker. The school was informed that it’s a violation of civil rights to use a prayer at a public school event. I’m not sure if anyone will notice or miss a prayer, but I feel relieved to know I won’t have to squirm again on my own graduation day.
I won’t feel forced to listen to what I don’t believe is true. I know I can attend a church of my choosing to hear such a message, on my own time, if I desire. I know I’m not the only one with this feeling. I’m just the only one who informed the school, using information I researched and presented to the administration.
This was my parting gift to future graduates — to be able to participate in a graduation ceremony free from proselytization and which focuses on student achievement, wisdom for the future and best wishes as we begin our adult lives.
Taysie Savage, 17, Indiola, Ore., will attend Oregon State University to major in forestry management. She served as student council president in her senior year and was inducted into the National Honor Society.