The Human Spirit: A burka at Bacon Academy

Colchester is about as American as any small town can be

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
I grew up in Connecticut, so an item about a Connecticut high-school student complaining that her classmates mocked her for wearing traditional Muslim clothing caught my eye. I was flabbergasted to read that incident took place in my own high school, a New England public school with the memorable name Bacon Academy. A few words about Bacon Academy. No porcine considerations determined the name. It was founded in 1803, the same year as the Volozhin Yeshiva, with money bequeathed by Pierpont Bacon, a local gentleman farmer. He left an endowment of $35,000 to the "inhabitants of the First Society of Colchester for the purpose of supporting and maintaining a school... for the instruction of Youth in Reading and writing English, in Arithmetic, Mathematicks, and the Languages, or such other branches of Learning." Sam Austin, who founded the eponymous town in Texas was an alumnus. But by the time Yiddish-speaking children of Eastern European immigrants, like my late father, his siblings and cousins moved to Colchester, Bacon Academy had long abandoned its private-school status and had become the town's rather no-frills rural high school. My sister and I didn't read Herman Hesse and Margaret Mead in school like the city kids, but we did have certain strengths. We used voting machines for school elections, so that future voting citizens wouldn't be daunted by technology. We also had an annual Otis Constitution prize for which the award was a Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. I still have my New Collegiate. We were fully integrated and relaxed about our local version of multiculturalism. Catholic kids felt comfortable coming with ashy foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Protestant kids went to summer church dinners at the big white Congregational Church near the village green with its bandstand. Jewish kids (we were about 15 percent of the class) shared matza sandwiches and invited non-Jewish classmates to bar and bat mitzva parties. Every day, we had popular dancing at lunchtime time in the gym. The black kids in our classes, some with afros, usually took the lead, demonstrating remarkable dancing knowledge and skill to the rest of us. IN RECENT decades, Colchester's population has tripled, and the little high school has expanded its curriculum. We had American history and civics; there is now a class in Middle Eastern studies, taught by Angie Parkinson who "has visited the Middle East" and would like a teaching exchange with Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, her class only drew a dozen students until recently. To promote it, she invited students to wear Arab dress. According to the Hartford Courant, in February, Caitlin Dean, 15, agreed and wore a blue burka to school. Not that she's a Muslim or apparently committed to these extreme women's cover-ups. Her fellow teenagers allegedly taunted the ninth grader and subjected her to nasty anti-Muslim comments. As a result of the publicity, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has come running to the rescue. CAIR's Connecticut legal rep wants to bring the organization to Colchester to meet with students and have a town meeting "to talk about their feelings about Muslims, war and terrorism." She claims "people are confusing terrorists with Muslims." CAIR presents itself as civil rights organization, but if you poke around the Web just a tiny bit, you'll see how controversial it is. Just a few examples. Daniel Pipes has written extensively about CAIR's lining up on the wrong side of the war on terrorism. The San Ramon Valley Herald reported in 1998 that CAIR chairman Omar M. Ahmad told a crowd in California that "Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran... should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth." According to terrorist expert Steve Emerson, author ofAmerican Jihad - The Terrorists Among Us, CAIR has a long track record of extremism and anti-Semitism. Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin alleged CAIR's links to terrorists. Steven Pomerantz, former counterterrorism chief of the FBI, wrote, "Any objective assessment of the material... leads to the conclusion that CAIR, its leaders and its activities effectively give aid to international terrorist groups." A few weeks ago, the GOP House Conference objected to the use of a Capitol facility to host a CAIR forum, labeling the group "terror apologists." Colchester is about as American as any small town can be. It doesn't need CAIR to initiate town meetings. This New England town has a proud tradition of town meetings to determine major issues. If indeed bigotry has developed in my high school, these are matters for the elected school board, the administration and the PTA to seriously address. Far more than the contretemps at Columbia University, CAIR in Colchester sends chills down my spine.