November 19, 2009

Religion, White Lies and Education: Enrolling the kids in school in Santo Domingo

After three months of summer vacation, followed by homeschooling the kids for three months, I am ready to have the children back in school. In Guatemala, that was not an option. So, I was pleased to learn yesterday that, in Santo Domingo, there is a school just three blocks from our new apartment that may accept the girls for our three month stay.

However, it put a bit of a damper on my spirits to find out that their acceptance to the school was conditional. The first condition was that they pass an exam, in Spanish. All three of the girls – Tatiana and Soraya who are eight and Raymi who is six – speak Spanish. However, their reading ability is limited, as most of their schooling has been in English. Tatiana and Soraya, however, did do the first grade in Spanish, so they should be able to pass a test to get into the third grade.

Raymi, on the other hand, is just learning to read, in English. In addition, the principal wanted to put Raymi in first grade, instead of kindergarten, as she turned six a few days ago. I had my doubts about Raymi’s ability to pass a test in Spanish that would allow her to skip kindergarten. So, I was a bit nervous as we waited the two hours for the school to give us the results of the tests. At least I knew that their chances were reasonably good. Condition #2 was a bit more complex.

When we entered the principal’s office, one of the first things she asked me is if we are Catholics. I told her “yes,” which is only partly an untruth. My husband was baptized and his whole family is Catholic. My grandmother is Catholic, and my father was baptized. However, my parents are now both atheists, so we, of course, were never baptized. Her next question was whether or not the children had been baptized. There, I told the whole truth – that they have not been baptized. She paused, and asked me if we had family members in the Dominican Republic who could do the baptism. I told her I might have someone willing to do the ceremony. She told us there would be a group ceremony on December 2, and that we could do it then.

That, I will have to think about. I will have to do some research on what it means to baptize the children and what sort of compromise I might have made here. To be honest, my main concern was to get the children into a school. This school is only three blocks from our house, and, like most schools in the DR, it is Catholic. Our other option would be an Evangelical school, which could be worse. There are public schools, but I doubt it would be easy to enroll the kids there, as they are not Dominican. I have heard they don’t allow Haitian children to enroll at all, even when they live here permanently, so I am not sure what our chances would be at a public school. Given these circumstances, perhaps a baptism is not the worst option.

This incident and my half-truth in the principal’s office reminded me of many other times I have been questioned about my religious beliefs and the variety of responses I have given. In most cases, I tell people I am not religious, and, if they insist, that I am able to find peace within myself without religion. If they insist more, I tell them I agree with Karl Marx, who argued that religion is the opium of the people.

In other cases, however, I avoid this discussion altogether. For example, when a woman was crying on my shoulder and began to pray, and then asked me, “You are a Christian, aren’t you?,” I just nodded my head. I felt she did not need to be concerned with my salvation at that time. Other times, it is just easier to go along. When I visited my friends in Nigeria, on Sunday mornings, I had the choice between going to church with everyone else and staying home and listening to my friends’ father trying to convert me for the whole time everyone else was at church. I often chose to go to church to avoid the whole issue.

The thing is, although I am not religious, I am not necessarily anti-religious. I do have my issues with religion. At the same time, though, I can see how some people need it, or at least benefit from it. I have met many former alcoholics and drug addicts who were rehabilitated through Christian centers. And, according to them, it is their faith that allowed them to heal. I also have many friends who are deeply Christian. And, when life has been cruel to them, their faith has gotten them through. So, even though I do believe religion is the opium of the people, I also recognize that some people need a little opium to get through life.

By the time I finished going through all of this in my head, it was time to meet with the assistant principal and then the principal. The assistant principal told us that Tatiana and Soraya had done fine in math. Their Spanish, however, was pretty bad. Nevertheless, they were willing to work with us, and agreed to accept the girls. All we had to do was go downstairs and sign some papers. As for Raymi, she decided it would be better to put her in kindergarten, which works out better for everyone.

When we went downstairs to the principal’s office, she asked me again for the baptism certificates. I reminded her of our earlier conversation. However, I think she was just trying to make a point. She gave us our paperwork and directed us to the cashier. Once we paid, I figured we were in. What a relief!


  1. Very interesting post. Some people do, indeed, need a little opium--very well said. I am Jewish, but also not religious or observant. That being said, I learn from what I can from the teachings of Judaism (and any religion) what I can and incorporate in my life what is meaningful to me from it (and them). I am not an atheist, but I have my own interpretation of what "god" is and what "faith" is. Faith and god are big words and there's a lot of space under their umbrellas.

  2. Thanks, Rachel! I think that is how Nando sees religion - more as a question of spirituality. And, he is a spiritual person. Me, on the other hand, although I am moved by the beauty of Mother Nature, am less convinced by the whole thing. And, of course, some of the religious teachings are to be lauded. I think one of my biggest problems with religion is that you have to choose just one, when, as you point out, there is much to be appreciated in many of them!