Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was left totally unprepared for the real world

“The disregard for education that is espoused by JW doctrines encourages parents to willingly overlook the importance of teaching and socialising their children”

watchtowerSchool was very confusing for me. I was not allowed to develop friendships with my classmates outside of school-time and going on to further education was discouraged. For these reasons, I was glad to be removed from school at age 14 in order to receive elective home education. It meant that I could avoid the confusing situation that was “school” and concentrate on matters of greater importance, which, at that time, meant preaching the good news, house-to-house, with fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). My education stopped there, pretty much. I remember receiving one solitary visit from the Local Education Authority Officer and took only 1 GCSE (Maths), which I paid for myself.

Not all children of JWs have the same experience when it comes to schooling. Some parents are stricter than others. However, in the area where I grew up, there were several other children in the same situation as me: home-schooled, with no qualifications. It was not uncommon, in fact, for us to be out knocking on people’s doors on a weekday, when most people our age were in school. That such a situation could occur is an indictment, not only against the views of JWs but also against society. And yet, it’s also hard to know how to feel, or what to do, about it. I think back to my school-days and still feel confused.

I remember once, aged around 7 years old, going home with a school-friend to play (this school-friend was not a JW). After being there for 20 minutes or so, there was a knock at the door… my mother had come to take me away. Immediately after leaving the school-friend’s house, I got a telling off – a telling off which I didn’t understand then and which I still don’t now. However nice this boy may seem, I was told, he was not a JW and therefore not a good influence. As time went on, I learned to conform to expectations, taking JW literature into school and sharing it with my classmates, hoping that they would become JWs too. I did not participate in morning assemblies as a prayer was given in those assemblies. Likewise, I did not engage with Christmas or Easter celebrations, or indeed any sort of religious celebration. I did not join in with extra-curricular activities. I think, all in all, it constituted a failure to be socialised in a healthy way. As mentioned earlier, I was glad to be out of the situation when, at aged 14, I was removed from the school system entirely.

I don’t doubt that my parents thought they had my best interests at heart throughout all of this but the sad fact is that their whole world was about serving God and was not based in reality. Both of my parents had no experience of further education and this played a role. But, more than this, the disregard for education that is espoused by JW doctrines encourages parents to willingly overlook the importance of teaching and socialising their children according to normative standards. When I did finally decide to cease being a JW (aged 18), I was left totally unprepared for the real world. I was cut off from the JW community and my choices were severely limited due to my having never finished school. To mould a child in such a way robs that child of their full potential. Drifting around in my late-teens and early-20s, I felt like there was no hope for me.

My parents, the JW community and, to a lesser extent, society in general allowed what happened to me to happen. As a child—an indoctrinated child, at that—I didn’t have the capacity to take responsibility for myself. JWs, and other faiths too, need to ensure they provide children with the best start possible by ensuring that they have opportunities to work with, regardless of what faith they may choose further down the line.

Oliver J. Smith

Even moderate Church schools can do real harm

“Being from a Muslim family, Ali was not allowed to attend assemblies…. I have a very clear memory of seeing him peering through the glass into the hall, trying to see if assembly was over. Could there be any clearer image to reinforce my notion that Ali was not fully ‘one of us’?”

I did my first three years of secondary school in a private fundamentalist school that used the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum. It was not a pleasant experience. As a result, I hardly ever talk about the school I went to before that, a Church of England primary. I remember being very happy there and I’ve always thought of it as an excellent school, especially in light of what was to follow. Reflecting on it now, though, there are some things that bother me.

I never thought of the school as Christian at the time. I think I’d been there a year or more before I even realised it was a faith school. My family believed that to be a real Christian you must be Born Again. Since the Christianity propagated at this primary was not of the Born Again variety, as far as I was concerned it didn’t count. Yes, we were encouraged to believe in God and go to church, but everyone did that, didn’t they? “Even the devil believes in God”, my dad said.

There was one boy from a Muslim family in my year, Ali. I’m exceptionally glad he was there now. He was the only Muslim I’d ever met (and one of the handful people I knew who weren’t white). He was the lone face I could put to Islam. Without him, Muslims would have been entirely the inhuman Other in my mind. Ali and I were not close friends, but we got on fine.

Well, we got on fine when we didn’t talk about religion. Unfortunately one lunch break we did just that, which ended with me telling him he was going to hell, and Ali in tears. I was kept in at lunchtime the next day while two teachers hauled me over the coals for what I’d said. I was genuinely perplexed, since as far as I was concerned I’d only told Ali the truth.

To be clear, I do not blame my intolerance on the school. I grew up with a poisonous religious ideology that I learned mainly at home and church. I don’t know what the local vicar had to say about hell, but I imagine his response would have involved tea and a biscuit and telling me not to worry. But there was nothing about about the school’s faith status that made reconciliation with Ali easier. The school’s stance just confirmed for me that Christianity was supreme (I just did Christianity better than everyone else). Had the school taken seriously the beliefs of people with other faiths and none, it could have been a much-needed brake on my fanaticism.

Being a faith school, we had religious assemblies, and being from a Muslim family, Ali was not allowed to attend them. He sat in a room adjoining the hall during these gatherings. I have a very clear memory of seeing him peering through the glass into the hall, trying to see if assembly was over. Could there be any clearer image to reinforce my notion that Ali was not fully ‘one of us’?

Despite it being a Christian school, I was pretty sure that some of our teachers really didn’t believe, and that conviction has not dimmed with time. We ended the school day with prayer, and some of these prayers were less than convincing. I remember a teacher taking the opportunity one November to ask God to help us remember that Christmas was still quite a long time away, so we shouldn’t start getting excited yet.

One afternoon the teacher told us we were about to pray. I waited silently for the prayer to begin. “When you’re all ready, we’ll begin”, prompted the teacher, and I wondered which straggler was holding up proceedings. “We’re waiting, Jonny,” she snapped. What? Me? It took me a second to work out what was wrong: I had my eyes open. My family didn’t really believe in closing our eyes to pray. We did sometimes, when it felt right, but we saw Jesus as more of a friend, and I didn’t close my eyes to talk to my friends. I dutifully closed my eyes, indignant at the implication I was ‘doing prayer wrong’ coming from a teacher who, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t even a proper Christian.

What aspect of this farce seemed like a good idea to the architects of my education? The teachers compromising their integrity by pretending to espouse a religion they did not believe? Using this charade to filter children towards a religion they did not choose? Shaming a child whose religious observance was not ‘correct’?

I maintain that my primary was an excellent school. But the things that were excellent about it were not distinctively Christian, and the things that were distinctively Christian were not excellent.

Jonny Scaramanga blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.