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Teacher broadens world of high school students

Through a world religions course, he eases ignorance and prejudice about different cultures.

By EILEEN SCHULTE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


PALM HARBOR -- One day in October 1997, when Timothy "Coach" Falls was teaching world religions class at Clearwater High School, the students asked some tough questions of a guest speaker from a local Christian church.

She was shocked by their queries about how her denomination dealt with the issues of suicide, evolution, reincarnation, immortality, hell, abortion, the death penalty and homosexuality.

Then they asked about her view on premarital sex.

Before she could answer, the sky grew dark and the air seemed to be sucked out of the room. The building began to shake. A tornado had hit the school, ripping off part of the roof of the gym.

"I think God answered that one for me," the speaker said.

It was one of many memorable classes for Falls, who left Clearwater High School and began teaching world religion at Palm Harbor University High School three years ago. He also coaches weightlifting and JV football at the school.

The course is an elective, but it's not considered an easy A, Falls said.

Before working at Clearwater High, the divorced father of a 13-year-old boy served for 15 years in the Air Force, where he was a technical sergeant with the U.S. Special Operations Command.

But "my life's dream was to be a teacher," Falls said.

He started out teaching social studies. Once, he decided to poll his students, asking them about their likes and dislikes.

He was talking about his teaching methods; the students thought he was talking about their general likes and dislikes.

"They said I don't like tourists, old people, blacks, Scientologists," Falls said. "I thought, where is all this hate coming from?"

Through the miscommunication, he found the students had a deep well of ignorance and prejudice for different cultures and religions around them.

One day he was looking at a list of elective courses offered by Pinellas County schools and was "surprised to see world religions there," Falls said.

He jumped at the chance to teach the course.

He felt the class would foster tolerance, provide spiritual nourishment or strengthen students' ties to their own religions.

After one of the first classes, he got a phone call from the mother of a teenage student. Her son had come home and built an altar to Shiva in his room.

He froze.

"I started explaining to her, and she said, "Hold on, Coach. I'm not mad,' " Falls remembered.

The mother was so interested in the subject matter that she not only borrowed a world religion book from Falls but sat in on one of her son's classes.

Most of Falls' students are seniors. Twenty-three are non-denominational Christians, nine are Methodist, one is an immortalist, seven are Lutheran, two are Hindu, one is a Scientologist, one is a Wiccan and 42 are Catholic, including Sasha Freeman, 17, a senior who belongs to Our Lady of Lourdes in Dunedin.

"It's not exactly like what I expected," Freeman said. "I thought it would focus on Christianity and Judaism."

Instead, she's learning about Hinduism.

"We had a Hindu speaker," Freeman said. "He didn't meet his wife until his wedding night. They still marry off their children. There's arranged marriages."

That wouldn't do for Freeman, a pretty blonde.

"I'm happy with the dating thing," she said, laughing.

Freeman said her parents are pleased that she is taking the course. "If public school is teaching it, obviously everything is checked out and I'm not going to come home all of a sudden and start worshiping Buddha."

The course is designed to teach, not preach, said Betty Douglas, supervisor of secondary social studies for Pinellas County schools.

"It is not a Bible study," Douglas said. "We're just studying different religions of the world. It's a diverse world. It's important to have an understanding of other cultures. I don't understand how you can study a people without studying their religion."

Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, D.C., said a course like world religions can be beneficial.

"It has to be taught in such a way that no religion is better than another," he said. "If you have a well-trained teacher who is objective, courses like this can actually be helpful."

Like Freeman's parents, Nathan Newton, 18, a senior, said his mother is enthusiastic about the class -- especially his reasons for taking it.

"I wanted to know what's out there," said Newton, a member of the youth group at Christ Presbyterian Church in Largo. "I wanted to know about other people's religions so when they talk to me, I'll know something. It keeps you from being prejudiced."

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