[This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, or events to reality is strictly coincidental. It is also part of a series. Characters who have been introduced in previous episodes will not be re-introduced. You can find a list of characters from episodes up to this one here.]
The God-Talk Club was gathering again at the Roadside Cafe, their regular meeting place. Recently, the owner had added a couple of couches and some more comfortable chairs in groups, trying to take advantage of the number of students who chose to study in his cafe, and coincidentally eat large amounts of snacks and drink a great deal of his soft drinks. He had bought an assortment of used furniture, which kept up the general décor of the place—accidental crossed with tornado aftermath.
Mark arrived earlier than usual, and claimed one of the new, more comfortable seats. He had just gotten settled in, when Ellen showed up with his regular large Coke. Generally they needed no words. This time when she delivered the drink she was leading a man who appeared to be in his late 20s, and who was dressed professionally. Mark immediately thought he was some type of executive, and wondered what he was doing here at the Roadside Cafe. Generally, the clientele ran to blue jeans and t-shirts, not professional dress.
“Mark, this is Bob. I told him about your group.”
“It isn’t much of a group. We just get together and argue on Friday nights.”
“It’s the only group that meets regularly and seems to keep most of the same people,” said Ellen.
“OK, yes, and I’m being rude.” He turned to Bob, half got up out of his seat, and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too,” said Bob, though he looked a bit uncomfortable.
“Just settle in anywhere. There are no rules at the Roadside Cafe.”
Bob found a seat on another couch. “How many people are there in your group?” he asked.
“It really isn’t a group. It’s too informal. Usually there’s about half a dozen who show up. They show up when they want and leave when they want, but the discussion goes on. Most people just join by interrupting the discussion. Speaking of interruptions . . .” he waved at Jerry who was approaching.
“This is Bob,” he said, looking at Jerry and waving in Bob’s general direction.
Jerry walked over to where Bob was sitting and held out his hand. “I’m Jerry Simonson,” he said.
“If Jerry had his way, we’d have rules, and maybe a chairman,” said Mark.
Jerry, in a collared shirt and dark slacks looked a bit out of place as well, sort of a balance between Bob’s office wear and Mark’s torn and faded jeans.
Jerry chuckled. “And if Mark had his way, none of us would know anyone else’s names.” He paused. “So how has it been going, Mark?”
“It’s a pretty ordinary day in the middle of the semester. I finally got my grade back on that essay we discussed, and I passed.”
“What are you studying?” asked Bob.
“I’m at the seminary, M.Div.”
“Master of Divinity, preacher.”
“But he doesn’t really know if he wants to be one,” said Jerry.
“Maybe I’ll be a lawyer.”
“And lie about people instead of God?” Bob looked like he thought he’d just scored points.
Jerry looked shocked, and the evening’s topic might have been decided then and there, except that Justine joined them at that moment.
“Bob, this is Justine,” said Mark, proving he could actually make an introduction. “Justine, Bob was just calling preachers liars.”
“I’ve been called worse,” she said, looking straight at Bob.
“So you’re a preacher?”
“Reverend Justine Reeder, professional liar at your service.”
“You don’t actually mean that, right?” he asked.
“Well, no, but does it make any difference to you? You’ve already decided who I am, and you haven’t even met me.”
“I was making a joke, one that appears to have been in bad taste. I apologize.”
“Apology accepted.” She favored him with one of her enthusiastic, “the world is a wonderful place” smiles. “But if you really think preachers are liars, let me introduce Mac—Mac Strong, that is, who has never called me a liar, but only because she’s more polite than you are.”
“Hi Mac.” Bob turned back to Justine. “I suppose I deserved that. It looks like you guys pretty much say what you think.”
“Oh, absolutely. What fun would it be otherwise? But Mac has been the only real skeptic in the bunch up till now, so I suspect her of holding back. Jerry here thinks I shouldn’t be a pastor because I’m a woman, and Mark isn’t too sure what he believes. I’m not sure what he’s going to preach about if he gets ordained. All we lack for a quorum is Mandy Kelly, the homeschooling mother.”
“You rang?” Mandy rushed the last few steps, and literally dropped into one of the chairs, reinforcing Jerry’s low opinion of her maturity. She was in her early forties, but Jerry always thought she was going on ten.
“Speak of the devil,” said Mac, grinning.
“Me?” said Mandy. “I’m just that most harmless of creatures, a mother.”
A ripple of laughter went around the group, as Ellen put a grape soda of uncertain brand near Mandy. Mac noticed that neither Jerry nor Bob joined in the laughter.
“We shouldn’t forget Ellen,” said Mac. She’s really part of our group too.”
Ellen blushed a bit, and nodded to everyone, then rushed on about her business.
“Who are you?” asked Mandy, looking straight at Bob.
“I’m Bob Norman. Ellen introduced me to Mark.”
“He thinks preachers are liars,” put in Justine.
“I’m never going to live that down, am I?”
“Probably not. To me you’ll always be the guy who thinks preachers are liars.” Mandy managed to say this in an affectionate tone as though telling him she would always remember his sweet smile and pleasant disposition.
“So what’s the topic?” asked Bob.
“You keep asking for a topic,” said Mark, “as though we were organized or something. We just talk about what comes up. You can bring up a topic if you want.”
“Did you say you’re homeschooling your children?” Bob asked Mandy.
“My oldest is 15. She’s working on 12th grade right now. Her brother is 12, and already on 9th grade material. Then I have another boy who is 10 and in 5th, while the youngest is 7 and working on 3rd.”
“And you teach them all?”
“Yes. What do you do?”
“I’m a high school science teacher, mostly biology, though the school is small enough that I have to teach other subjects from time to time.”
“Maybe I’ll have some questions for you.”
“Well, since everyone says what they think, I have a question for you. How do you do it?”
“Oh, it gets wild from time to time, but they’re pretty good kids and we get where we need to go.”
“That’s not what I meant. I have to handle as many as 30 at a time. I’m talking about subject matter.”
“What about it?”
“How can you manage to teach all the subjects effectively that your older children need? I studied biology, and I’m pretty good, but I have to teach chemistry some semesters. I have a minor, but I feel less effective when I’m teaching chemistry. You’re trying to teach everything.”
“I gather you don’t like homeschoolers very much.”
Bob hesitated for a moment. “No, I don’t.”
“Other than my qualifications, which you don’t know, could you tell me why?”
Bob’s face reddened a bit at the suggestion that he was talking about something he didn’t know. “I know you can’t possibly have a master’s level education in every subject your kids will take in high school. And since you’re sure to point out that many teachers in our local high school don’t either, let me say I’m certain you don’t have the equivalent of an undergraduate major in each one, or even a minor.”
“That goes to my qualifications, but I bet that’s not the only thing you don’t like about homeschooling.”
Jerry was watching closely. As much as Mandy’s personality and behavior offended him, he respected her choice to stay home and educate her children. He was quite ready to defend her right to homeschool her kids if necessary. But Bob and Mandy were hardly aware of the rest of the group. It was easy to recognize that they weren’t casual about this—it was important to both of them.
“You’re right, I don’t like homeschooling in general, regardless of your qualifications. Homeschooled kids get much less socialization, they don’t get exposed to a variety of ideas, they often don’t understand basic concepts in areas where their parents weren’t trained. They’re just not prepared to live in the real world!”
“Wow!” breathed Mandy, looking even more intent.
But Bob wasn’t finished. “What’s more, I think public education is the greatest asset we have in this country. Parents need to support it. People who keep their kids home suggest that the public schools are no good, and that erodes support.”
Jerry exploded. “Suggest? I say it outright. The public schools are failing our kids. Private and home schooling is the only option for parents who care.”
Mac decided that Bob needed support. What’s more, she agreed with him. “And as people who care withdraw their kids from public schools, there is less and less incentive to improve them. Then public schools get only those who can’t afford private school and don’t have time to homeschool.”
“Let’s get back to qualifications,” said Mandy. She turned to Bob. “How did your classes do last year on the state achievement tests?”
“They were somewhat above the state average, enough to help get our science program rated in the top 10% of the state.”
“My children all scored in the high 90s for their grade level, and that’s against the grade they’re studying, not the one expected for their age. That means Emma, my oldest, is in the 99th percentile of 12th graders in the state.”’
“But you get to choose. I have to take the students I get.”
Mandy started to laugh. “Where in the process of producing the children did I get to choose? When my husband and I had sex? I think you’re using an argument aimed at private schools, not homeschools.”
Bob laughed as well. “Yes, I misstated that. But I think the point still holds. I’m guessing—correct me if I’m wrong—that you’re upper middle class, and you’re probably well educated yourself. Both genetics and environment suggest your children will be good students. The proper comparison would be how much biology I could teach them as opposed to how much you can.”
“OK. I’ll admit that. My husband is an attorney, and I have a Master of Education along with a MS in Information Systems. In case it matters to you, the MS was earned online. But you’re still making a mistake.”
“It’s not what you could teach my children vs what I can teach my children. It’s what you could teach my children under the conditions in which you work, vs what I can teach my children under the conditions in which I work.”
“Which is another good reason to support public schools. We need to improve the conditions, equipment, student to teacher ratio, classrooms, and so forth.”
“But in the meantime, I need to educate my kids.”
“And there are conditions other than physical ones,” put in Jerry.
“What are you talking about?” asked Bob.
“I mean spiritual conditions. You can’t refer to God in class. You can’t teach the children about their relationship with God. You’re a biology teacher, so according to state law you have to teach the children about evolution, and you can’t even teach them about any alternatives.”
“I think religion should be left to the home, and if the parents want, the church. And I’m happy to teach about evolution. There are no scientific alternatives to evolution. I have no problem with the state standards on that.”
“Well, I think that if you’re forced by law to teach children they came from monkeys, you shouldn’t be surprised when they behave like monkeys.”
“Where on earth did you get the idea that my kids behave like monkeys?”
“Well, they’re in public school. I know that there are serious discipline problems over at the high school. You’re not trying to tell me there aren’t.”
“No, there are problems. That’s one of the reasons I want every citizen involved. But I manage a very successful classroom.”
“But you teach them that they came from monkeys.”
“Well, no, that isn’t precisely what I teach them. I teach them that all living things on earth are related, and that they share a common ancestor with Chimpanzees, for example. Humans are apes, biologically speaking.”
“Chimpanzees, apes, monkeys. It doesn’t matter. Mandy can teach her children that God created them, and that they are special. She can also teach them that true morality comes from God, through his word, the Bible.” Jerry finished on a somewhat triumphant note.
Mandy looked back and forth between the two of them. “I don’t suppose it matters to either of you what I actually do teach them? Bob seems to think I’m not teaching them evolution . . .”
“I never said that,” interrupted Bob.
“. . . well, you implied that I wasn’t qualified. Jerry’s assuming that I teach creationism. I’m just a placeholder to be tagged with whatever you want me to be.”
“So do you teach your children the theory of evolution?”
“That’s what it is, just a theory,” said Jerry.
“A theory is a well established explanation for a various facts that are based on observation and reasoning,” put in Mac. “So that would be good, no?”
“I mean it’s not a fact,” said Jerry. “It’s just speculation.”
“It’s the organizing principle in biology and it’s as well established as many scientific theories.”
“Could I answer Bob’s question?” asked Mandy. “We could argue evolution all night.”
“We’ll have to do that, right after we argue about Biblical inerrancy,” said Mark.
“OK, we can do it. But in answer to Bob’s question, yes, I do teach evolution. I use standard textbooks. I also assign a great deal of outside reading.”
“So do you teach so-called ‘other models’?” asked Bob.
“Yes, I do. And before you say it, I know you don’t believe there are other scientific theories. But there are people who make claims, and I like to let my children read about such things.”
“Do you also let them read about astrology?”
“Then why let them read about so-called scientific creationism? There’s as much evidence for astrology as for scientific creationism.”
“But there’s no movement, no rush of books claiming that astrology is scientific. There is for intelligent design and for various other forms of creationism. So my children read about those claims and they read books by people who challenge them. My eldest has read both Darwin’s Black Box and Finding Darwin’s God, for example.”
“At 15, that’s not bad.” Bob was impressed. “How do you find time for all that?” asked Bob.
“Well, I don’t have to deal with all the scheduling stuff, getting to and from classrooms, and so forth that you do in a public high school. Also, my children all read very fast, and they often read outside of scheduled school time.”
“Shouldn’t you educate your children first about sound science before exposing them to a debate between people with PhDs that they might not understand?” asked Mac.
“I think they understand basic science well enough.”
“But you see, Bob, that she can teach a more balanced curriculum than you do because the state doesn’t tell her she can’t even inform her children about the controversy,” Jerry said, looking at Bob.
“I don’t think that’s much of a benefit. If people like you in the churches did your jobs, there wouldn’t really be a problem, would there? You could teach them all that stuff.”
“I’m not sure it would be much of an advantage in the classroom either,” said Mandy.
“Why not?” asked Jerry.
“I would have a problem having a science teacher like Bob teaching my children about religion.”
“But he doesn’t have to teach them about religion,” said Jerry. “He just needs to acknowledge the role of religion and that there are alternatives.”
“And how does he decide which alternatives to acknowledge?” asked Mac.
“Well, I think there are enough scientists who see problems with evolution that we could at least acknowledge the fact in class. And most people believe in God.”
“So how many people have to believe something before we acknowledge it? 10%? 20%?”
“I don’t think we need to find the precise boundary. In the case of acknowledging God, we have more than 80%. Surely that’s enough.”
“Again,” said Mandy, “I don’t want our public schools teaching religion. I want to teach my children about religion.”
“Why do you say ‘our’? You’ve abandoned the public schools.” This was Bob’s major sticking point. He was a dedicated educator and he felt the need for more public support.
“Well, I pay taxes. My children participate in music and sports programs under the homeschool initiative. I vote for programs I think are good. And whether you believe it or not, I do believe we need public schools.”
“I don’t,” said Jerry. “We could go to a voucher system with private schools and the whole thing would work much better.”
Bob turned to Jerry. “Who do you think would provide an education for the most needy in that case? Would private schools be forced to accept just any applicant?”
“I don’t see how you could force private schools to accept all applicants, but a variety of schools would mean that there was a place for everyone.”
“I wonder who would start a school for the inner city kids, the ones people tend to give up on.”
“I think a mix of private and public schools is good, precisely because of that,” said Mandy.
“But only the rich can afford the education given by private schools,” said Mac.
“I’d be happy to consider anything that provides a quality education for everyone,” said Bob, “but I haven’t seen any real competitor to a good public school system. I admit many things need to be reformed, but only a sound public education system holds out hope.”
“The ‘rich’, as you say,” said Jerry, looking at Mac, “have to pay twice for their children’s education.”
“But it’s worthwhile to pay those taxes to have a better educated society,” Mac insisted.
“I don’t object to paying my school taxes. It’s part of our country’s infrastructure, just like roads. We need an educated workforce. I even voted for the tax increase for the schools last year.” As usual, Mandy was failing to stick to the script. Jerry couldn’t understand how she could homeschool, teach her children a variety of view on origins, and yet not support him when he called for the public schools to do so.
There was a moment of silence, and Mark took advantage of it. “Justine, you haven’t had much to say. What do you think?”
“Well, I don’t know. On these arguments about evolution and intelligent design, I don’t really know. But I see at least three people here who are really dedicated to what they believe. Mandy, it’s wonderful that with all your education that could get you a high paying job, you take the time to educate your kids, but most of my congregation couldn’t afford to do that. In fact, most of them are in one parent homes, and that one parent has to work.”
“But that’s not Mandy’s fault,” Jerry said.
“No, it’s not her fault, and I’m glad she can do it. But it’s also not a solution for everyone. Now you, Jerry, are a man of principle. I can tell that. We need more men of principle. But I really like to be able to tell my congregation that the one thing they can do, is get an education for their kids, so they don’t have to struggle the same way their parents did.”
“But what about a quality education,” asked Jerry.
“Well, I don’t know about that. Maybe your system would work better, but I’m not sure about that, and I know that the public school that’s two blocks from the church is going to be there and take all these kids. I know it’s a better education than what they’ll get in the street.”
She paused a minute, and for once, nobody started talking. Then she looked at Bob. “Now I know you think I’m a professional liar . . .”
Bob faked fending off blows with his arms over his head. “Mercy!” he said.
“ . . . but I can see that you’re really dedicated to giving kids a good education. It’s not just what you say, but the way you look when you say it. You mean it! Jerry’s way and Mandy’s way may be really good for them–and I haven’t forgotten you supported that tax increase, Mandy–but I work with kids who are going to go into crime or starve if they don’t get a good education, and I need to know there are teachers out there like Bob who are going to teach them. He may not believe like I do, but he’s going to teach!”
Justine sat back and looked at the three main players.
“Well, I guess that told us!” muttered Mac.
Jerry looked at his watch. He didn’t want to leave right then, but he was already late. “I wish I could stay longer. Really, I’m not running away from the debate, but I have somewhere to go.”
“Jerry, I’d believe many things about you, but not that you’d lie,” said Justine.
It was time for the food and some less intense conversation.