My friend J. D. Chaves and I, seniors at Pelham High School, were walking down the main hallway--just as we had for the last 3 1/2 years. We talked about computers, television, girls--just as we had for the last 42 months of high school. We saw a religious sign on the wall--just as we had since we were freshmen. "First PrioriTy," the sign read (the "T" was in the form of a Christian cross). I stopped. First Priority is a Christian organization at PHS that meets on Tuesday mornings.
"I'm tired of this," I said to my friend. J.D. nodded.
"What can we do about it, though?" he asked. I then asked: legally, could they allow First Priority to meet on campus, but not a freethinker's group? J.D. smiled; it had begun.
Computer nerd that I am, I got on the Internet and furiously typed "atheist" into my web search program, and lo and behold, there was the FFRF web page. The web page interested me because it was proof that there were other freethinkers, but the most important thing about the web page was the e-mail address at the bottom of the page. I switched into my mail program and e-mailed Dan Barker.
Mr. Barker was extremely helpful; he gave me the address for information on an Alabama chapter of the FFRF, the AFA. I attended the very next meeting. Finally I wasn't alone.
Were there other freethinkers at PHS, just afraid to show themselves? I had to do something.
Well, that brings us back up to speed. J.D. and me, standing there, looking at that sign. We decided that Pelham needed a Freethinker's club. And who better to found such a club than a couple of heretics like us? As the photographer and staff reporter of my school newspaper, I wrote an editorial on our plan to create the club. The story was thrown out due to "size constraints."
Frustrated, J.D. and I took it upon ourselves to publish the letter ourselves. So, that night, I took a revised copy of the letter and $8 and had it printed 600 times. Enlisting another student (Junior Michael Disko) in our plan, we passed the letter out to every student in the lunchroom and gym lobby the next morning before school.
It didn't take long to see the letter's impact. My first period class tried to crucify me verbally and several people suddenly didn't want to be my friend anymore. J.D. had it worse. Apparently some very close friends of his had begun trying to "save" him. When I saw him in the hallway, before third period, he looked very dejected. But the real fun was yet to come!
In fourth period I was called to the office to speak with PHS Principal Tom Ferguson. Taking a deep breath, I entered the room and found that students were not allowed to pass out any type of literature without permission from the administration. I was then told, "I can assure you: there will be no 'Freethinker's Club' at PHS."
Thanks to the knowledge I gained from the AFA meetings and reading FFRF nontracts, I wasn't about to let this go. I knew my rights, and I explained them to my principal. After an hour-long meeting, I was released back to class with an "I'll think about it," and an appointment for the following week.
The next week, I dutifully attended the meeting with Mr. Ferguson, but his answer still hadn't changed. He told me to come back the next week, and "maybe there will be more to tell." I came back; the answer was the same.
I kept thinking, "Hey, he's a busy man, he'll get around to it." But it never happened. I came to his office almost every week. I gave him all kinds of information on freethinkers I (and the legality of what I wanted to do), but still no dice. After three months of this, I telephoned Pat Cleveland and requested help for our cause.
Operating under Ms. Cleveland's advice, I began writing letters to Mr. Ferguson in order to establish a "paper trail" of sorts. When he finally responded in writing, the letter was just as bad as the meetings had been; he conceded nothing, promising a decision in the near future. But this time, we had him in writing.
Soon the principal (and our school superintendent Bill Sparks) began to receive phone calls and letters from organizations he really didn't want anything to do with. In my opinion, Mr. Ferguson did not want to be the first Shelby County principal to be sued for religious bigotry. I didn't expect it to last long . . . and it didn't. I came to see him in the office and he told me that he was trying to look past his own private beliefs, and the group was allowed to meet.
After receiving permission from the administration to hold meetings, I immediately reserved the auditorium for Friday mornings. As I send this letter, I am also preparing for our first meeting. It sure does pay to complain!
One last note. The whole issue of my rights and those of my freethinker friends upset me. It was depressing to be talked to as if my rights do not matter. I constantly took solace in one of my favorite quotes from Orwell's 1984:
"Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad." I still hear people say things like, "He will come around; he'll find his faith." This was true. On April 8, 1996, when I heard the group was going to be allowed to meet, I found the faith that I had lost some time before--my faith in humanity and what it can accomplish.