Tacos & Tolerance

It was nearly dinnertime on one of the last days of summer break. I’d promised my daughter—just ten days shy of turning seven—that we could have Chipotle for dinner. I had to come through on this particular promise, if only because I had broken my taco promise too many times already that summer.

I was rushing to get inside. Not just because the August humidity pasted sweat-soaked tendrils along the nape of my neck, but because the parking lot at this particular Chipotle is impossibly small. Nearby hungry workers would soon be leaving their concrete and glass hives, making the parking situation impossible at best. Get in and get out. That was my goal.

Holding my daughter’s hand, we took a few quick strides across the asphalt and opened the door. The rush of cool air consumed me along with the seasoned and sizzling aroma coming from the open kitchen. Good, I thought, no line yet. Our order would be plain and simple—three tacos, brown rice and cheese only, please—and two burritos for my husband and me.

As we stood there together, watching the burrito-wrapping wizards work their magic, from behind me I felt a warm hand rest upon my left shoulder. I turned around to see who it might be and was greeted with an even warmer, “Hi! How are you?!” along with a tight hug. I was taken aback.

She then turned and smiled down to my daughter and asked how she was doing too. The genuine enthusiasm this woman had at seeing us was so tangible, yet unexpected. She could have just as easily stood back in line and not said anything. With my back turned, I certainly didn’t notice that she had come in some time after we did and was standing about ten people behind us. She clearly went out of her way to say hello.

The mystery woman? She’d been my daughter’s pre-kindergarten teacher more than a year ago. And, in all honesty, I always thought she really disliked our family, or at least me. She never did or said anything specifically to indicate that, but I was always paranoid and suspicious that she was nice to me only because she had to be.

Perhaps I should back up and explain: the year she was my daughter’s teacher was the one (and only) year of my daughter’s five-year daycare/preschool career that took place at a religiously affiliated institution. We ended up there because the place she’d been going to for the previous four years was no longer a good fit for my daughter. After researching the various other preschools around town, the only viable option left, it seemed, was this school.

Notwithstanding my intuition as a mother that this was a good match for my daughter, as an atheist I wasn’t exactly thrilled that one hour of her preschool week would be dedicated to singing songs and hearing stories about Jesus and his love. Yet when I considered the alternatives—that is, my daughter being utterly miserable and unable to function at the other (secular) school options—there really was only one thing to do: enroll. And that’s just what we did.

The director (and to a lesser extent, I think, the staff) was well aware of my atheism from the start. We are raising and encouraging our daughter to come to her own conclusions about what is and what isn’t, but she certainly knows our perspective on these things already. Still, during the initial tour of the school I made sure to ask plenty of questions so that my husband and I could be sure that we could live with this situation for one whole year.

It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about indoctrination or brainwashing; I asked a lot of questions because I wanted to confirm that our daughter would not be ostracized for potentially believing, much less vocalizing, as five-year-olds often reflexively do, something entirely different than what the overwhelming majority of teachers and other enrolled families so strongly believed. We teach our daughter to have tolerance for all of the worldviews out there, and we want the same reciprocated for her. Could this be guaranteed in a religious preschool? Despite all the questions and answers, we really couldn’t be sure. Still, we took a leap of faith and enrolled her anyway.

At first, I really struggled with that hour of singing and coloring pictures of Jesus and sheep. When I unpacked my daughter’s backpack on Fridays and saw those coloring pages, my stomach churned a bit and I questioned whether we had made a huge mistake. It was exactly as much as the director explained it would be, but it felt like more. I think this was especially the case during the month that my daughter sang “Peace Like a River” on a continuous loop around the house, complete with hand motions. She loved singing that song. Should I start packing her bags for the convent now, I wondered.

But then something shifted. I took it all at its face value and realized I had a perfect opportunity on my hands to allow conversations to bubble to the surface that really otherwise wouldn’t have at this young age. I was able to use all of these songs and stories as a springboard for talking about religion and beliefs with her in a way that gave her a bit more informed consent. If I was truly aiming to raise a freethinker who came to her own conclusions, shouldn’t I at least allow some of the other perspectives in? It’s only a year, I told myself, let’s make the most of it.

Yet despite my new approach and my daughter’s seeming obliviousness to the meaning of the songs sung during that hour, I always felt like a fish out of water there. It was hard to know how to respond to another parent lamenting about some disappointing news she’d just received yet who remarked brightly, “Well, it’s God’s plan!” Sucker punched in the parking lot. I felt myself blush when I was the sole person in my row who did not pray out loud during the holiday performance. Was my cover blown? Not that I was hiding my nonbelief, but I didn’t exactly go out of my way to announce it either. Some parents knew, but most did not.

More than that, I felt paranoid that her teacher, likely knowing our family’s stance on things, was just being polite when she smiled and talked about my daughter’s day. I actively wondered if she was just being courteous to preserve her job. And, hey, did I just see her hug the other children with more affection? No, of course not. But we all know that if you try hard enough, you can convince yourself of truths that don’t exist.

Regardless of my second-guessing, my daughter’s experience at that school was overwhelmingly positive. Mission accomplished.

After the second week that my daughter was in public school kindergarten, I briefly emailed that teacher to thank her and give her the highest praise for preparing my daughter so well. I was sincerely grateful for her ability to help my reticent child evolve into someone confident enough to smile as she walked into her new school.

The teacher never responded to my email.

I knew it, I told myself, she never really liked me. I bet that it was because I’m an atheist. And then she hugged me in the taco line almost a full year later.

If nothing else, the entire experience has reminded me that I need to separate the person from their religion. Their belief system does not directly reflect on the kind of person they are in their heart. I need to take daily actions and interactions at face value and not take it so personally just because someone else believes in something that I don’t. It’s a kind of trust and tolerance in others that I need to teach my daughter as she navigates this diverse world, especially if I expect it in return.

Yes, of course it’s easy for atheists to feel the sting of injustice and invisibility in our everyday lives because it does exist on some very tangible levels. But many times it simply doesn’t. Not everyone is out there to hate or ignore us with as much determination as we imagine. I know better now, though this notion was not always intuitive to me and certainly not my default setting. Instead, I had to learn it with a side of guacamole to go.