FEAR is a terrible thing. My realization of this was reinforced when I read a piece by a Massachusetts state senator in which he wrote that a catastrophe is lurking, waiting to destroy us all, because the President of the United States ''wants to establish prayer in the public schools.'' Just imagine the evils that will be visited upon us if children are allowed to pray in the public schools. What if their prayers were answered?
I remember that some of us prayed in the public schools many years ago. Some of my friends, not I, heaven forbid, you'll excuse the expression, sometimes prayed for the school to burn down. Usually those prayers were offered just before important examinations. In December and January we usually included a prayer for an overabundant supply of snowstorms so that the schools would have to shut down. Other more mundane prayers addressed their supplication to the decisions that determined which kids would be in the classes of which teachers, to be taught which subjects. We prayed for victory in football games. Just before promotion time we often prayed that we'd make the grade and advance to the next level.
To this day I don't know if the prayers were heard. Our school never burned down. Most of the snowstorms blew out to sea. We survived the class assignments. We usually lost as many football games as we won. And for most, promotion always came without much difficulty.
But in those halcyon days of my youth in the Boston public schools we had legal, public prayer as each school day began. Each morning our teacher opened her Bible (New Testament) and said, ''Children, join me in prayer.'' Along with a minority of my classmates, I was Jewish. I'd look at the selected prayer of the day and sometimes I'd join in the recitation. Sometimes I didn't. If I saw ''Jesus,'' or words that looked ''un-Jewish'' to me, I kept my mouth shut. The prayer over, we all then stood up to pledge allegiance to the American flag - without the current phrase ''under God'' following after ''one nation'' - and then got on with the business of education.
Somehow, then, before schoolchildren had been recognized as perfect models for psychological study, we never gave a thought to our participation, or lack of same, in school prayer. No fingers were pointed at me, because I may have kept my mouth shut. I was never taunted. I was never criticized. I was never threatened. I never believed that someone was trying to convert me to Christianity. I didn't because I knew that I was a Jew and I took my Jewishness for granted, for then and forever.
Secure in our Jewishness, my friends and I were able to take our non-Jewish friends at face value. We played baseball, football, kick-the-bar, peggy, and squash. We shared sleds in the winter. We swapped parts of our third- and fourth-hand bicycles, baby-buggy wheels for homemade soap-box carts, roller skates and keys. One or two baseball mitts were semi-community property. Baseballs covered with black tape, along with taped-up splintered Louisville Slugger bats, belonged to whoever remembered to take them home. We knew who we were and our non-Jewish friends knew who they were. We went to our shuls (synagogues) on Saturday. We knew it and they knew it. They went to church on Sunday. They knew it and we knew it. Their Christianity and our Jewishness never got in the way of American kids growing up together in the same neighborhood.
Yes, we had prayer in the public schools, but we had no marijuana, cocaine, or other mind-altering drugs. We had prayer, but we had respect and order in the classrooms. We had prayer, and we had goals and objectives, pursuit of knowledge. We had prayer, but we were well aware of the religious differences. We had prayer, and we had a very deep love of our country. We had prayer, but we had no fear. We had no fear of our differences, we had no fear of our neighbors, we had no fear of asking for God's help, in many faiths and in many languages, in our homes, in our individual religious institutions and, yes, in the public school classrooms.