Miss Burns had the most beautiful blonde hair I had ever seen. Most of the time she wore it high on the back of her head, spun into a tight bun. Sometimes she would wear it in a neat ponytail, pulled back taut in the front so no loose strands dangled in her face. In the back, it flowed silk-like in the groove created by her spine.
I was in love with Miss Burns. I was six years old. She was my first-grade teacher and I loved school almost as much as I loved her. Except for Mondays. I hated the first day of each week because I couldn't bear the way I always let Miss Burns down.
It was 1970, the time of Vietnam protests and free love and hot pants and rock and roll. And it was the year my family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, the home of Elvis, the crown of the Cotton Queen, and the heart of the Bible Belt.
Like all Americans, Miss Burns was worried about the future of the nation. She told us so. I know now that's why she was a teacher. She wanted to point young minds in the right direction, with the help of God.
Today, a quarter of a century later, she may be allowed to do it. The Republican majority in Congress has been talking about a constitutional amendment to re-introduce prayer to the public schools. And Bill Clinton has said he would consider such an amendment, that he's never been against prayer in schools, only coercion. I think back to my first school days with Miss Burns, and the lessons I learned about prayer and coercion.
On Monday mornings, right after class attendance and the Pledge of Allegiance, Miss Burns would turn to us and ask the same question. Week after week, I was the only student who failed to give the answer she was looking for.
"Who went to Sunday school yesterday?" she would inquire. "Raise your hand if you went to church," she instructed. As every other child's hand reached for heaven but mine, Miss Burns would gaze at me with a mix of pity and disappointment. And a wave of shame would wash over me as I drowned in the sea of upstretched arms.
Finally, I just wouldn't go to class on Mondays. I couldn't bear Miss Burns' pain or my own self-consciousness as the other kids raised their hands in the Monday morning ritual to God while I sat motionless, head bowed in embarrassment, not prayer.
If I prayed for anything then, it was to be like all the other kids. To be able to raise my hand with them, to finally make Miss Burns proud of me.
When Mom found out I had been skipping school on Mondays, she wanted to tie me down and whip me. When she found out why, she wanted to tie down and whip Miss Burns.
Dad took another approach. He was a Muslim raised in a Quaker school and now teaching at a Catholic university. He decided there was nothing wrong with taking me to Mass. It would be a good idea to expose me to other religions, to broaden my world view, he argued.
The following Sunday, Dad dressed me up in a blue suit and red bow tie. We went to the big church on campus, where a man in a black robe made us stand up then kneel, stand up then kneel. When we finally sat down, I fell asleep until Dad nudged me to drop my quarter into the silver bowl being passed down the aisle.
Sunday school was more fun. There were lots of other boys and girls, and there was lemonade and cookies. A nice woman who reminded me of Miss Burns, except her hair wasn't as pretty, told us stories. Stories from the Bible, of course, and I knew that would make Miss Burns happy because she was always talking about the Bible.
I was never so eager to go to school as the Monday after church. I couldn't sit still through roll call, and when we said the Pledge of Allegiance I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.
After the flag pledge, Miss Burns stood behind her desk and posed the faithful question. "Who went to Sunday school yesterday?" she asked. A look of surprise and delight danced across her face as my hand shot in the air with everyone else's.
"Why, Mubarak!" she exclaimed, pleased. "Where did you go?"
All grins, I announced I went to the big church on campus with my Dad, and I went to Sunday school, where they had lemonade and cookies and Bible stories.
I thought Miss Burns would be happy. I thought she'd be proud that I was finally like everyone else. But she was quiet when I finished my tale, and I could tell from the stillness that something was wrong. I wasn't going to heaven after all.
"Well, Mubarak, that doesn't really count," Miss Burns said slowly, trying to explain things to me.
I went home in tears that day, angry at Dad for screwing things up and taking me to a Catholic church instead of a real one, like the Baptist church Miss Burns went to.
The next morning, Mom went to school with me. Miss Burns was real pleasant and polite, as always. Mom was neither. I was mortified.
Mom made it loud and clear — mostly loud — that Miss Burns was not to ask me ever again if I had gone to Sunday school. We were Muslims and we did not attend Sunday school, but, Mom reminded Miss Burns, we did attend a public school.
Miss Burns listened to mother's angry words and calmly responded it was her duty to save my soul. Miss Burns was a Christian first, a teacher second.
Mom went to the principal's office, but he agreed with Miss Burns. It was their God-given duty to save my soul. It took the threat of a lawsuit before the keepers of Sharpe Elementary School agreed that maybe Miss Burns shouldn't ask her students who went to church on Sundays.
All we want as children is to be liked and to be like everyone else. The last thing we want is to be different. Knowing how left out and ashamed I felt in Miss Burns' class, I wonder how any school-sanctioned expression of religious belief could not be coercive. And I wonder what my mother could possibly have done or said to change the plight of her six-year-old son if the legal separation of church and state had been muddied by a constitutional amendment to allow state-sponsored prayer in schools.
We already have absolute freedom of religious expression. Children can pray in school — or anywhere else — whenever they so please. What we do not have — and what we must not bring about — is school-led, school-sanctioned religious ceremony. To do so would not be religious freedom, but the worst kind of religious coercion imaginable. It's exactly the kind of thing that so many Americans, especially Christians, came to this country to escape. It would be unethical, un-American and un-Christian to undermine that by promoting one religion over any other through prayer in the public schools.
We only stayed that one school year in Memphis. Dad found a teaching job in Pennsylvania, and we headed North.
When Mom came to pick me up the last day of school, Miss Burns was there with my report card and all my class projects. She gave me a big hug and a kiss, and started to cry, knowing she'd never see me again. She told Mom she would continue to pray for me.
I'm sure somewhere Miss Burns is still praying for me. I just hope it's not in her classroom.