Strong Backbone Student Activist Awardee Devin Estes

Devin Estes, 10, received a $1,000 Strong Backbone Student Activist Award endowed by a kind octogenarian FFRF member from New York, who prefers to remain anonymous and donates the scholarship fund annually to celebrate his birthday.


This essay was written with help from Devin’s father.

By Devin Estes

Every morning, my elementary school has a teacher-led, religious program called “Upper Room.” During Upper Room, teachers lead the students in prayer and in singing religious songs. Students who don’t want to attend must go to the lunch room. I was one of only two students who didn’t attend Upper Room. However, I know of at least two others who also didn’t want to go, but they didn’t want everybody to know that they didn’t want to attend. They wanted to fit in and didn’t want to be treated the way I was being treated.

For example, one of my teachers said during class that she would debate any atheist, because, according to her, God would send bears to maul and eat atheists and those atheists would pray when they were being eaten. While she said all of this, I sat there in class and cried. This wasn’t the only time that this particular teacher bullied me in front of the entire class.

This teacher didn’t just say hateful things about me when I was present, however. She also enjoyed criticizing me for my atheism when I wasn’t in class. She enjoyed enlisting my fellow students into her brand of bullying. One of my classmates shoved a table into me, and told me that she did it because she heard that I didn’t believe in God. As you might expect, my school did absolutely nothing to prevent my teachers from criticizing me, or to discipline any of the students who bullied me.

My school was an interesting place. I say “was” because I am now home-schooled. And I say “interesting” because I’m being charitable. My teacher enjoyed playing gospel music during class, and teaching about the personal histories of those gospel singers.

Another example of just how “interesting” my school was is its annual “Bring Your Bible to School Day.” As my father pointed out, they never had a day to bring your Quran or your Kitab’I’Aqdas or any other religious book to school. This was not an exercise to teach about religion, but rather was merely the school’s attempt to indoctrinate students into Christianity.

The attempts to indoctrinate didn’t end there, however. On one occasion, we had a mandatory school-wide program during which participants performed feats of strength, and then told us that God had made them strong. The whole thing was just one more God-fest. Students weren’t told ahead of time, and we weren’t given the option of not attending. Did I mention that this is a public school?

One day, when my mother was dropping me off at school, I showed her what was actually going on in the Upper Room morning program. She saw the teachers leading the students in religious songs. She saw them projecting the words to those songs on the gymnasium wall so that the kids could sing along. She was appalled. I’d told her about Upper Room, but as an attorney, she had trouble believing that something so wildly unconstitutional was still happening in this day and age. As they say, however, “Seeing is believing.”

As soon as my mother saw what was going on, she posted it on Facebook. Some of my mother’s friends on Facebook forwarded her video to newspapers and television stations here in Kentucky. When reporters contacted my mother, she asked me if I wanted to remain anonymous or if I wanted to tell the world about what was going on at my elementary school. I chose to talk. The broadcast media didn’t ask to interview me on the air, which is just as well, because my parents wouldn’t have allowed that. I’m only 10 years old, after all.

I did, however, talk to newspaper reporters from the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. As soon as my story was broadcast on television, the city in which I live showed just how “Christian” they really are. Oddly enough, the medium used most to express their particular brand of Christian hatred was Facebook. Although both newspapers ran stories about me, and about the Upper Room religious program at my elementary school, most of the hatred expressed by my neighbors was focused on the very short broadcast stories. Go figure.

Unfortunately, the hatred being heaped upon me at my school by two teachers and many students has forced me to withdraw and to be home-schooled, for now. My family is hoping to move to a nearby city before the next school year begins.

In my absence, Upper Room is still continuing at that elementary school. At first, when the news stories were broadcast and printed, they moved Upper Room to the county courthouse, which is only about a block from the school. Yes, that’s right, I said “county courthouse” — the same place where court is held, and that is paid for with taxpayer money. Perhaps my entire city is “interesting.” After a while, though, it got moved back to the school. But now, I’m told, they simply play pop music. One of the songs that my sister tells me they play is Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” So, I suppose that’s progress. Small steps, right?

My mom worries about me and the bullying. I tell her not to worry and that it is important to always speak up for equality, whether it is about religion, race, gender, nationality, etc. I may only have one voice, but that is all that anyone has. We all have a responsibility to speak up against inequality whenever we can. I’m not saying that we will achieve equality in my lifetime, but maybe future generations will make progress to further the lives of the human race. I am a bit disappointed that the human race still treats people differently because of religion, race, gender, nationally, or anything else, but I still have hope.

Freedom From Religion Foundation