I took my O-levels in 1999, after spending four years in ACS(I). It was a time when the administration and teachers seemed to take their Christianity very seriously. Even as a teenage boy, I could tell that the prayers did not come from a place of mere duty. The teachers did not seem to drag their feet when they prayed. They prayed with an earnest sincerity that made it seem like leading a public prayer was a privilege. (But I have to apologize a little bit, because even though I remember the way they prayed, for the life of me, I can’t remember their names.)
I remember that the non-Christian students among us never seemed bothered by the Christian-ness of the school. The strongest complaint we had was that some of these Christian rituals — chapel services, morning devotions, and so on — could be terribly boring at times (I say “we” even though I identify as Christian because we all had the same complaint). Nobody was, to my knowledge, coerced to do anything that offended their religious convictions. Everybody had to wear their ties to chapel, of course, but you did not have to pray if you did not want to. You had to show respect, but if you were a Buddhist or a “free thinker”, you never had to participate.
I remember that sensitivity to the multiplicity of religions in my school with great fondness. It was probably my first introduction to the idea of tolerance — it was a flawed embodiment of that idea, but a very good try, nonetheless. I had the good fortune of having a form teacher who would pray with our class very occasionally. He kept to the practice of not forcing prayer on any of the non-Christians in my class. I have a memory of him explaining to my class that prayer could be used as a way of calming ourselves before an examination, which was a brilliant way of including everyone. Not everybody prays, but I’m pretty sure everybody knows what anxiety is.
To my eyes, my school managed to convey the good bits of spirituality without the coercive, hateful parts. The impulse towards being Good (capital G!), the virtues of honesty and excellence (how different the world would be if everybody stopped telling lies), the calming power of prayer or simple meditation (prayer and meditation are not the same things, but very similar at times) — these are massively valuable lessons that could very well have been the reason for academic excellence, for many of us.
This principle — imparting the good without coercing — guides my own teaching. If I meet Buddhist students, I ask them if they have read any of the Dalai Lama’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I ask them if they have any idea what meditation is. If I meet Christian students, I use parables to illustrate the power of stories. I ask them if they understand what “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” is. I ask, but I avoid any hint of force like the plague.
I often ask students about their religious sensitivities, very early on, so that I know which lines not to cross. Some prefer not to talk about religion at all, so I talk about how neuroscience has shown that the brain’s ability to function under stress is diminished. Eventually we get to talking about conquering anxiety and exam panic, but I never need to resort to religion to teach them peace.
Teachers are called not only to get their students good grades. Our students learn from us, by the very virtue of the way we exist. If a teacher is perpetually overworked, domineering, and anxious, students learn something from that. If a teacher has self-discipline, is always well-rested, and never panicky, students learn something else from that. I try my best, but as old boys (and girls) from my old school like to say, with wry grins — the best is yet to be.