The continuing controversy about restoring public school prayers brings back memories of religion in the public schools of the District of Columbia in the 1920s, when I was attending grammar and high school here.
This was the compulsory procedure in the schoolroom before instruction began: first, we had to extend the right arm and hand, in a gesture afterwards adopted by Benito Mussolini, and pledge allegiance to the flag.
Then came the religious part of the morning's activities. Whether it was due to a rider on a D.C. appropriations bill slipped through Congress or a ruling by the D.C. school board was never explained to us.
First, the teacher had to lead the class in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. This resulted in tension between the Protestant and Catholic children because the latter refused to say the concluding words: "For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen." After class, this led to taunts and occasional fistfights.
The first sentence of the prayer presented a curious difficulty for some of us who said, in our blessed ignorance: "Our Father who art in Heaven, Harold be thy name." It wasn't until years later, when I discovered H.L. Mencken, that I learned the Creator's name was Yahweh, not Harold, and that I should have said "hallowed."
This was followed by a reading from the Bible. The teacher could select any passage, but that passge had to be an entire chapter.
My section chief in high school was Carlos Blume, a German teacher, who, incidentally, was never seen to eat anything for lunch but cold fried-egg sandwiches that he brought from his boarding house.
By his own admission, made privately to some favored students, Carlos Blume was "a village atheist." And so day after day he read the same chapter -- Chapter 5 of the Book of Genesis -- thus obeying the letter of the law while utterly violating its spirit.
My memory is still haunted by some of the verses: "And Seth lived a hundred and five years and begat Enos: and Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years and begat sons and daughters: and all the days of Seth were nine hundred and five years: and he died."
And so we learned about the extraordinary life expectancy and conjugal vigor of Cainan (who began Mahalaleel) and Jared and Enoch (who begat Methusaleh). Always there came the dying fall: "And then he died."
We knew when those words would come and, spontaneously with Carlos Blume, we chimed in.
Thus inspired, we faced our scholarly tasks with renewed vigor and hope.