Life has changed in the neat gray house on the loping country lane. There are sleepless nights and tense conversations, and the telephone now has an unlisted number. Because you can't be too cautious in the days after you've been labeled the Young Atheist of Calvert County.
In his sneakers and thrift store bowling shirt with "Cathy" embroidered on the chest, Nick Becker doesn't look like a threat to society. But ever since he defied the adults in his rural community 35 miles south of the District, he's been tagged by everyone from local politicians to a national columnist as the embodiment of all that is wrong with America.
"It's weird, it really is," said Becker, a lanky 18-year-old who rocketed to local notoriety and national fame three weeks ago after he protested a prayer at his public high school graduation. "I'd be lying if I didn't sort of like seeing myself in the papers. But a lot of what people are saying is really ridiculous."
A young man's challenge to authority is a timeworn tale. But the story of Nick Becker's rebellion twists differently in this way: The rebel had a cause. He had the U.S. Constitution and the Maryland state attorney general on his side. And when he questioned local authorities, they threatened to arrest him and banned him from a post-graduation party. The community reacted even more harshly, labeling Becker with one of the worst pejoratives in a conservative, churchgoing place: atheist.
"A graduating senior objected to a traditional student-led prayer during the graduation ceremony," read the lead story in the Recorder, the local semiweekly newspaper. "He considers himself an atheist, which is one who denies the existence of God."
Becker is actually an agnostic, but for all practical purposes here, the offense is the same.
Plenty of high school wiseacres like to poke at authority. Plenty of teenagers tell rude jokes or trash their parents. But now plenty of people are hypersensitive about the consequences of teenage attitude. And once you've been branded the county atheist, people start picking over the life of a mildly rebellious, curious teenager, looking for clues.
"If it's a kid who doesn't have a religion per se, who doesn't go to church on Sunday, they get kind of scared and react the way they did," says Eric Smythe, 18, one of Becker's friends who attends the local community college. "They call him an atheist and throw it around like he's a demonic, Satan-worshiping, evil, evil kid. He's not. He's a good kid. Standing up for something should be admirable, not damnable."
But the prayerful folks in Calvert County insist they also are standing up for something admirable. They say they exercised their constitutional right to religious expression and are fighting a society that has squeezed God out of public life and thrown itself out of kilter as a result.
"This is an average American community which chose to exercise our rights to pray," says Linda L. Kelley, president of the county commissioners and one of several community leaders who ignored a ban on prayer and recited the Lord's Prayer during the graduation ceremony.
"No one in Annapolis or Washington, D.C., is going to tell us when and where we can pray."
'I Just Collapsed'
Nick Becker wasn't the homecoming king or quarterback of the football team, just a teenager traveling in his own orbit of school, friends and family.
He is the only child of two federal workers, Patti and Gerald Becker. Patti, 45, is dark-haired, petite. Gerry, 52, is fairer, tall and laconic. They live in the northern, most affluent section of the county in a neighborhood of comfortable homes sprinkled among farm fields. Nearby Northern High School is surrounded by acres of corn and hayfields and faded red tobacco barns. School buses jostle with tractors for space on the roads.
The Beckers moved from Virginia to Calvert in 1974 to be close to the Chesapeake Bay. They occasionally attend a local Methodist church. Gerry belongs to an informal fishing club and spends a few hours on his boat many weekends casting for rockfish.
And so the transition from obscurity to the talk of the county has been jarring.
Immediately after graduation, they sent Nick to San Francisco for a week to get him out of Calvert County. They vetoed an offer from "Good Morning America" to fly Nick to New York to appear on the show. During two interviews he had with The Post, Nick's parents were close at hand, answering questions for him, editing answers he gave himself.
"This is the most horrible experience we've been through," says Patti Becker, who has had trouble sleeping since the episode. "We were going to see our son, who excelled in high school, at his graduation, and what we ended up with was total humiliation. We're not prepared for this. It's painful, whether Nick was right or wrong. It's painful to see your child called a lone malcontent and atheist, splashed across the papers."
The sight of her son in a police squad car was too much. "I just collapsed and started crying," Patti Becker said.
Her religious Greek Orthodox parents came from Florida to attend the graduation. "I didn't know how to tell them about this," says Patti, who kept her parents at her home during the ceremony by telling them she couldn't get tickets for them. "I was afraid he would be booed or attacked verbally because he had protested the prayer. I didn't want my parents to be exposed to that."
She disconnected the cable connection in the house so her parents wouldn't stumble across the television news. Eventually, Patti Becker told her parents the truth. "They were very supportive," she says. "They understood."
Smart--and Smart Aleck
In elementary school, Nick Becker once slapped a piece of pizza on his face for laughs. But when he reached adolescence, he grew more subdued. He would sit in class, occasionally muttering sardonic comments.
"People just pretty much looked at him as very bizarre but also kind of funny," says Michael Kelley (no relation to Linda L. Kelley), who taught Nick math for four years and was the teacher closest to him. "He's very creative. Comes up with ways to express things that are not just interesting and mathematically accurate but very funny."
Becker's parents have lavished attention and resources on him, encouraging every interest--soccer and track, music, math, computers, literature and filmmaking.
Using his mother's video camera, Becker and his buddies made short films, black comedies about family relationships and teenage angst. One spoof took on organized religion where the protagonist discovers that Joe DiMaggio and Groucho Marx, among other deceased celebrities, have been sent to Hell because they did not believe in a Christian concept of God.
Becker tried to get another video--a fright movie parody about a family that got chopped up and put in the bathtub--aired on local cable-access television; it was rejected. "It didn't make sense," says the program director at Jones Communications, which is more accustomed to airing zoning programs produced by the League of Women Voters. (She asked not to be named, fearful of being "involved" in the Becker saga.) "It wasn't funny. I didn't get it."
When Becker got his driver's license, his parents bought him a green 1978 Buick Electra. He would drive an hour to Washington to see Akira Kurosawa's classic "The Seven Samurai" at an American Film Institute screening or to a punk rock festival in Baltimore, traveling with one or two friends who shared his tastes.
"The loud minority of people in that school think if you don't wear the right clothes, you're not the right kind of person to be friends with," says Jen Hann, 17, one of Becker's closest friends. "It can be hell for somebody like Nick who doesn't see the point in spending $50 on clothes and buying everything he wears at Old Navy or the Gap."
Becker tore through the math curriculum, taking two math classes every year until he exhausted the school's offerings. In his senior year, Becker and two other students ran a Web page to help students with calculus.
A problem Becker wrote for the Web page displays his sensibility: He's smart--and a smart aleck. "A 20-lb bag full of severed thumbs is dropped from the second highest floor of the Sears Tower, 1542 feet above the ground. The top floor was rented out for a Narcoleptic Rabbi Association (NRA) convention . . . (a) Find the position and velocity functions for dem thumbs . . . (b) How long does it take for dem thumbs to smash into the pavement below in a disgusting, bloody mess?"
When his school newspaper, the Patriot Press, asked seniors where they would be in the fall after graduation, Julie Schenk, the student who had hoped to deliver the graduation prayer, wrote, "I will be majoring in Elementary Education and minoring in German at Salisbury State University."
Becker wrote, "I don't remember. I locked the plans in the safe and I forgot the combination."
Rebel on the Web
In addition to his bedroom, Becker has another room in the house. It is crowded with a couch, a stereo, a large television and videocassette recorder, a record player, speakers and musical instruments--a drum set, acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, banjo, even a zither. Strewn around the room are videotapes of films by Fellini, Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin.
In the middle of this room is a personal computer, which has increasingly become Becker's platform for expression. Two years ago he created his own Web page, which he filled with original poetry, short stories, a diary of his private musings and rap songs written partly in nonsensical French.
Since graduation, all sorts of people have been logging on to Becker's Web site--teenagers from around the country, activists on both sides of the school prayer issue, and especially adults curious about the young man. They've forwarded bits and pieces from the Web page to one another. "Seems very eerie," one woman added to an excerpt she forwarded around the county.
Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist, checked out Becker's Web site and compared him to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage gunmen in the Columbine High School shootings. "Why is God the only idea banned from government schools, while the demons that produce the beliefs of a Harris, a Klebold and a Becker are tolerated, protected, even promoted?" Thomas wrote.
Anyone looking to reinforce a dark image of an angry young man can find plenty of material on Becker's Web page.
"My Dad Can Go To Hell (In C# Major)" rails against a father's attempt at control. "I like you and you like me/ as long as I suppress creativity/ Censor this and censor that/ mind is narrow, head is fat/ I don't care what you do or say/ I'll speak my mind another way."
The dad in question worries that strangers are delving into adolescent rantings and coming away with the wrong impression.
"When I was young and I had a fight with my dad, I'd get in my '55 Pontiac and go drink beers with my friends--Nick will sit down and write something," says Gerald Becker. "Now I wish he'd just had some beers with his friends."
Galvanizing the Opposition
The local radio station on this isolated peninsula plays songs that rarely date later than 1972, with a heavy dose of Burt Bacharach, Connie Francis and hits like "Blame It on the Bossa Nova." Some of the tobacco farmers and watermen still keep their doors unlocked at night.
The school colors at Northern High are red, white and blue. The mascot is "the Patriot," a Revolutionary War soldier in a tricorn hat. A county commissioner once took time during a meeting to mention how the oversize American flag flying at the new Bob Evans restaurant gave her chills.
One November day in the 11th grade, Becker refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. "I don't think there's any point in making us stand up while someone recites rhetoric," Becker says.
He was sent to the principal's office and threatened with an in-school suspension. But that evening, he sent an e-mail to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sent a fax to the school the next day, informing administrators that they could not require Becker to stand for the pledge. Principal George Miller apologized.
Becker wasn't delicate in victory. He posted a story about the episode on his Web site in which he called the flag "the cloth on a stick."
But the flag flap was merely a warm-up, as it turned out. When he attended last year's high school graduation to see a friend get her diploma, he was shocked by a student-led prayer at the ceremony. "I thought, 'They can't do this; it's not legal,' " Becker says.
For a numbers whiz like Becker, math has a certain appeal. Problems have answers. Truths can be proven. Religion, on the other hand, is filled with mystery and leaps in logic.
"As human beings, we all think about it. We all wonder how we came to be," Becker says.
He was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and attended Sunday school at a Methodist church until high school, when he began questioning religion. Church teachings demanded more belief than Becker could offer.
"The world was created out of something," he said. "I mean, matter is never created, never destroyed. So some kind of force, some kind of energy, created this. . . . I just don't accept one thing because that's what someone said it was. I'm just trying to figure it out."
Using a Christian prayer at the graduation ceremony seemed unfair to anyone who didn't accept a Christian concept of God, Becker says.
"The world is not just made up of Christians," his father says. "This wasn't about the right to prayer. This was about the right to go to a secular occasion."
Carrying printouts of legal opinions he researched on the Internet, Nick Becker made the case before Miller that a student-led prayer at graduation violated the constitutional separation of church and state. After both the ACLU and the state attorney general sided with Becker, Miller agreed to remove the prayer.
As word spread that Becker had challenged the prayer, reaction was intense. "He doesn't respect the flag, he doesn't respect anything," one boy shouted toward Becker in a school hallway. His Advanced Placement English class dissolved in lopsided debate--Becker and one other student against the rest of the class.
Becker calls his critics "close-minded" people who live in a "backwards, backwoods place."
"He definitely has strong opinions and although he looks for tolerance from other people he doesn't necessarily give it himself," says Kelley, the math teacher. "I always thought it was ironic--that he wants something that he himself doesn't want to give. He's just so overwhelmed by his convictions."
After the prayer was dropped, the teenager was triumphant. "They could say all the stupid stuff they wanted, but I won," he says.
But when it came time at the graduation for a "moment of reflection" that had replaced the prayer, some in the audience--including the county's highest elected officials--defiantly recited the Lord's Prayer.
Becker walked out and was threatened with arrest by state police when he tried to re-enter to claim his diploma. Then he was barred from the post-graduation boat cruise, for which he had already bought a ticket.
Those who know Becker say he was not looking to become a celebrity. "He could have caused a much bigger scene than he did if he wanted to," says Kelley, the teacher.
"He felt if he didn't walk out, he would be a hypocrite," says Hann, his friend. "It's probably one of the hardest things he's ever done."
Becker says his last lesson from Northern High School was an old-fashioned one about standing up for convictions.
"Don't give up," says Becker, who plans to study computers and film at the University of Maryland. "When something's wrong, don't sit idly by, complaining. One person can accomplish stuff."
For those on the other side of the debate, the lesson is oddly similar.
"People who have been silent on the question of prayer are now taking a stand," Linda Kelley says.
"There's not a function that I've attended since this whole thing started--Eagle Scout swearing-in, picnic--where people aren't talking about it. If government is about 'We the People,' well, we the people have made a statement here."
CAPTION: "I'd be lying if I didn't sort of like seeing myself in the papers," Nick Becker says of challenging the prayer at his public school graduation. "But a lot of what people are saying is really ridiculous."
CAPTION: "I just don't accept one thing because that's what someone said it was," says Nick Becker about his religious convictions. "I'm just trying to figure it out."