One Person Can Do So Much by Schiller Hill (November 2001)

The “Ruth (Dixie) Jokinen Memorial Student Activist Award,” an annual award of $1,000 cash presented at the annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention, is generously endowed by Foundation Board Member Richard Mole, to encourage student activism for freethought and state/church separation. Schiller Hill was the year 2001 recipient.

Introduction by Catherine Fahringer:

Most of you know that I live in San Antonio, Texas. We have one newspaper. Our one newspaper loves to put the pope on the front page or the local archbishop, or people who have seen Jesus in a screen door, or the Virgin Mary in the bark of a tree.
That’s all front page news, but imagine my surprise one day when there was an article by John MacCormack, who was a speaker at our 1999 convention in San Antonio. He had written an article about a young man from Bracketteville, Texas, a brilliant young man who was top in his class–his grade point average was 4.392–and so naturally he was valedictorian.

However, a few days before his graduation, he said: “I cannot accept and I will not give a speech because I know there will be prayers entailed in this ceremony and I can’t do that.”

Well, my eyes just popped out of my head. Schiller Hill is the young person we are speaking of and Schiller is 18.

After he refused, of course, he got big press and made gutsy comments to the press on the importance of the separation of church and state, and on religion, such as saying, “I believe in a rational means to everything, not in some all-powerful being.”

He’s enrolled now at the University of Texas-Austin, majoring in electrical engineering, and it seems fitting to us that this valedictorian who was essentially muzzled by his school’s disregard for the First Amendment is joining us to tell his story.

Thank you. Thank you, this whole Foundation, for the money. That helps a lot. It’s just great that I found people like y’all. I speak kind of strange, like George Dubyah, but don’t hold that against me. I may make up some words here and there, but it’s all good.

I’ve always had trouble speaking my mind at our school. I speak and people always bash what I have to say. I’m never afraid to say what I believe. I always put what I think out there for other people, who maybe believe what I believe, but are afraid to speak out.

We have, I think, about six or seven atheists in Bracketteville, a city of about 3000. When I got there, there was one. That was me. And people always try to convert me. My friends, girlfriends, they always try to convert me and when they started actually thinking about what they were trying to convert me to, they actually converted over to atheism. I guess it didn’t make any sense to them. Christians don’t like to think; that’s the problem with them.

All throughout high school I’ve had trouble with prayer in schools. I don’t think it should be there because of the separation of church and state. And freshman year in high school, when I played basketball, before every basketball game we had prayers before, prayers after. They always tried to pray four or five times during a basketball tournament, and I don’t understand it. I kept on asking, is our God more powerful than theirs because, you know, we beat them? What happened to their God? I don’t understand both teams praying to the same God. Who’s going to win?

We always had prayers before football games, even after the ruling was passed in Doe vs. Sante Fe. They were still doing it after that, and it was brought to their attention that it was illegal and they said they were going to keep on doing it because they thought it was their right. And they’re wrong.

But yeah, I’ve been fighting that in that school for a long time. I tried to start a local chapter of the ACLU, as a school chapter. They would not let me do that. I know the reason but they wouldn’t say the reason.

They said that they didn’t think it was necessary because they didn’t think there was any discrimination going on at our campus at all. The majority of the student body in our class was Hispanic and we only had one Hispanic teacher. And the Hispanics got it really really bad, like the teachers would make comments about them and things like that, and when they complained to the school board, when they complained to the school officials, nothing would happen.

So we always had trouble and they don’t like me because I always bring it to their attention that they’re wrong on most of the things they do.

I got kind of fed up with all this stuff going into my senior year. We had a National Honor Society meeting and the sponsor of our National Honor Society set aside two different people to say prayers, gave them the prayers to say, and said you’re going to give these. I told them I wasn’t going to show up. They wanted me to read something, so I just wasn’t going to go because of all the prayers. I got a bunch of flak for that from all the people in the National Honor Society. They thought I was ruining their senior year, or something. I don’t understand that one.

So when graduation came along, I didn’t want to go across stage at all. I told all my friends at school I didn’t want to go across because of the prayers. I didn’t want to even be anywhere near that.

But I have an older brother who didn’t walk across the stage, he just went and picked up his diploma at the office and took off. I wanted to do the same thing but my mom made me go through with it.

So I went and told the superintendent that I wasn’t going to give a valedictorian speech. I went over to his house and told him I wasn’t going to give the speech because I didn’t believe that the prayer should be there and I didn’t feel comfortable being in the place with the prayer and I didn’t think it was constitutional. He said we’re going to do it anyway no matter what.

So then I wrote an email to the editor at the San Antonio Express-News and then I got a call from John MacCormack. I had expected it to be swept under the carpet and to never hear about it again. But he started calling me up, interviewing me over the phone, decided to come down one day, took some pictures, interviewed my class and school officials.

When it came out on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News, the day of graduation, all the teachers were looking at it like, “What the hell is that!” It was pretty funny because I got so many dirty looks from the teachers.

The worst part about that was that during the graduation ceremony, everything, even the stuff that people usually wouldn’t, like, associate with God, they’d throw in “God bless you” here and “God bless you” there. Why? It doesn’t do anything to me.
After graduation was over and I was standing in the little line to shake everybody’s hand, everybody came up and shook my hand, saying, “God bless you, God bless you.” It took a lot to stand there and just say, OK, yup, whatever, thank you, thank you. It was bad. I never knew there were that many Christians in that little town, but there are 13 churches.

After that article came out, I thought I was going to get some emails and some mail from psychos or something saying I was going to go to hell and stuff. I got one of those. I only got one. The rest of them were from educated people supporting what I was doing like the email from Catherine Fahringer.

Some really educated people–several lawyers, professors, people from educated families–all contacted me and told me to keep up the work. Just keep on fighting for the separation of church and state and get the word out there and just tell people that every little bit helps. Because if people just sat back and did nothing, that would be worse than anything. One person can do so much.

Thank you all. Does anybody have any questions?

“Would you have made more impact if you had accepted the invitation to give a speech, and told them what you told us?”

The problem was they wanted me to have a long speech written out in the first place, so they can approve it. With me up there I’m pretty sure somebody would have been on a little switch making sure I didn’t say anything wrong. I’m very outspoken about this stuff and they were afraid in the first place.

But actually I’m glad I didn’t, because me not speaking got to more people than me actually speaking there. If I would have spoken there the audience would have been like, 1000 maybe, max, and since I didn’t speak and got on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News, that got to a lot of people.

It got to people who usually don’t even think about stuff like that. And if it makes one extra person think about how wrong that is, that’s worth it. And it will give them hope. It will also piss off some people.

The bad letter that was sent to me? That person could not spell. Everything after “God” was spelled wrong. You know that’s all that person knew.

“What kind of support do you get from your family?”

I get a whole lot of support from my family. My family is very strange. My mom is a Baptist, my dad is a Methodist, but they don’t go to church. They think religion should be between you and your God. They didn’t want to push religion upon me except for the fact that they sent me to Catholic school for a while. And that was bad.

But they wanted me to make my own mind up. They wanted me to make my own decisions, to learn about whatever I wanted to learn about and they support me on everything that I do. They did a good job raising atheists. My brother’s an atheist and you know it’s just pretty cool.

“Are you having any problems in college like you did in high school?”

Not really, because in college, people just don’t care. Most of the people who I hang around with, they don’t talk about religion. It’s like, “What do you want to do tonight?” That’s about it. So we don’t really talk about that kind of stuff.

On the UT-Austin campus we have a lot of Christian groups that are always handing out flyers. You walk down the street and get about five, six flyers from the Southern Pacific Islander Bible study group and one from like, the Italian Bible study group and the Chinese Bible study group, the Muslim/Christian bible study group. . . . It’s just unbelievable all the things to do with religion there, but people hassle them all the time. Even the Christians hate them. Christians hating Christians, that’s a wonderful sight. It’s just hilarious.

“What would you do when the basketball coach led you in prayer?”

What I would do was, either I would stand outside the little huddle they got into, which was what I usually did, or I would leave the actual lockerroom if I had a chance, and the basketball players didn’t mind. The coach kind of got a little pissed, but you know, I didn’t like that guy, either.

He was a good Christian because he’d go to church every Sunday. But he told me every time he went to church, “I’ve come up with this new football play.” That’s what they’d do. The coaches would go and draw football plays in church.
Audience member: “It inspired them.”

Yeah, it inspired them. That’s why our football team, was like, 0 and 10. God really helped them there.

“Did the prayers deter you from playing a sport?”

It really wouldn’t deter me from playing basketball. It was something I loved to do and I would do it no matter what, but it really bothered me that there were actually prayers. I’d let them know that it bothered me, but I’d still go out and play. Because if the prayer actually deterred me from going out and doing something I love to do, they’d win on that one and I wouldn’t want that.

“Did you pray harder after you lost?”

I guess the coach would pray harder, but all the players would blame the coach. The coach wasn’t that good. But the kids wouldn’t pray harder. The coach told us we drove him to drinking one night. That’s because we got beat by like, 50. That’s not a pretty game.

“Did they have the salutatorian give the speech?”

Well, what happened was the salutatorian was supposed to give a little two minute speech or something. They kind of extended that to 10 minutes.

There was a lot of laughing going on. That can’t be good for the speaker, unless they’re trying to be funny, and that’s different.

“At what age did you find out you were an atheist or how did you come to that conclusion?”

Well, when I was going to Catholic school, I think it was in fifth grade that I got in trouble a lot because I couldn’t memorize the Apostle’s Creed or something like that. So as punishment, they would make me write books out of the bible, copied handwritten, you know, word for word. I copied the book of Proverbs three times that year. That was punishment! “I hate this–come on, stop doing that!” I was ready to get hit. I was like, “Hit me instead.” I just couldn’t handle it.

In first grade they always had us draw things, you know, “Draw a picture of Jesus how you see him.” Once they told me to draw a picture of when I was baptized. I was like, “I wasn’t baptized.” They were like, “Draw a picture of when you’ll be baptized.” I got an F in that class because what I drew was a skeleton and they really didn’t like that

I didn’t consider myself an atheist back then, but I was on my way back in first grade. I was well on my way.

“Do you have any advice for atheist students who are having problems like you had?”

Yeah, try to be popular first. When you’re popular and you have people trying to imitate you already and then you come out and say, “Hey, I’m an atheist,” they’re not as hard on you.

Everybody at my school has known I was an atheist since freshman year when everybody goes, “What are you?” I said, “I don’t believe in God. I’m an atheist.” I still was popular after that but they wouldn’t want to talk religion with me because I’d kind of change them over by telling them they’re full of crap and pointing out contradictions in the bible. I hate that book. I had to read that thing like three times front to back and that is way too much.

“Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?”

Hmm, OK, that sounds like a good idea. But I don’t think the Christians would get these jokes. And me living down in Texas, it’s not really a good place to do Christian jokes.

“Did you ever fear for your physical safety?”

Not really, because I’d already beat up most of the guys at school. They didn’t mess with me very much.

Freedom From Religion Foundation