BANGOR, Maine — Bangor High School teacher Catherine Gordon spent late Tuesday afternoon in her classroom putting back up the pink Christmas tree decorated with Hello Kitty ornaments she had been told to take down Friday afternoon.
Gordon, who has taught math at the school for 30 years, said Principal Paul Butler told her he had reversed his decision as the final bell rang Tuesday.
“He told me he could have handled things a bit differently and I told him I could have handled things a bit differently, but I think this opened up a dialogue with everyone,” Gordon said in a telephone interview.
The tree will be up one day. The district’s winter break runs Thursday through Monday, Jan. 3.
Butler reversed his decision after Gordon created a social and news media storm when on Friday she posted a statement on her Facebook page saying she had been told to remove the tree. She spent Monday and Tuesday fielding phone calls from and being interviewed by local and national news outlets about what some viewed as a cultural clash over recognizing a religious holiday in a public school.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she said Tuesday.
Gordon said in her Facebook post and told reporters that having to take down the tree made her sad, especially since she had put up similar decorations in her classroom annually for most of her career without complaint.
“All day today my students gave me small gifts — candy, chocolate, a Hello Kitty coloring book and even a sweatshirt with a Christmas tree on it,” she said Tuesday. “I really appreciate their support and the messages I’ve gotten from parents and strangers.”
Butler and Bangor Superintendent of Schools Betsy Webb both issued written statements Tuesday afternoon about the issue of holiday decorations in public schools.
“On Friday of last week, a concern was shared with me regarding an inconsistency with our balanced approach to holiday observances, which I communicate annually,” Butler wrote. “I contacted the teacher, shared and then clarified the concern about a classroom Christmas tree, and offered an opportunity to meet and discuss the situation in person.
“While this conversation ultimately did not take place,” he said, “I did review various reasoned perspectives on the topic that have satisfied an important professional responsibility: to ensure that the sharing of any one tradition ultimately highlights the universal nature of holiday celebration.
“The Christmas tree that has been the focus of this discussion does so, and is therefore appropriate for the school setting,” Butler said. “Moving forward, I continue to believe that it is not only important but also possible to broadly discuss and observe traditions with the mindset that inclusive, planful consideration of many does not weaken any single one — a critical element of a balanced approach.”
Webb in her statement that said she wanted to clarify the department’s expectations regarding the education of culture, traditions and holidays.
“It is appropriate to educate students about traditions and cultures during the holiday season and throughout the school year,” she said. “In public schools, it is permissible to teach students about religion. Yet, it is not permissible to observe religious holidays or practice religion in public schools. Religious music, literature, decorations and art are permissible to advance students’ knowledge of society’s cultural heritage. However, these lessons should not dominate school activities.
“Schools may be decorated to recognize holiday seasons, but schools must not send a message that a certain religion is endorsed or favored,” she said. “Appropriate secular seasonal attire and/or decorations, including trees, have not been banned. A balanced approach is expected.”
Webb said the district does not have a specific policy on classroom decorations or holidays.
“The Bangor School Department uses guidance from various sources to maintain a balanced, educational approach,” she said, citing a national expert at The First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. “Our goal is to promote understanding of traditions, holidays and cultures while adhering to the First Amendment. Educating students of the religious freedom upon which our nation was founded is critically important in preparing students to achieve college and career readiness.”
In a release Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, praised Butler for reversing his decision.
“Thank you to Principal Paul Butler for doing the right thing in allowing for a Christmas Tree to be displayed in a classroom of Bangor High School,” Poliquin said. “The Christmas Tree is a traditional American symbol of the holiday and it is common sense that it be welcomed and celebrated, especially in a classroom.”
The controversy was a topic of discussion among students the past two days at the high school, Nick Danby, president of the senior class, said after school Tuesday.
“A lot of people are proud of Ms. Gordon for standing up for the tree,” said Danby, who is the son of Bangor Daily News cartoonist George Danby. “ Some students are for it, some are against it but there’s been a robust discussion about it. Many students saw it not as a religious symbol, but as a long tradition in her classroom, and a lot of people are happy Mr. Butler decided it can go back up.”