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Sayu Bhojwani Headshot

Celebrating Diversity in Public Schools

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As a young girl I grew up celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in Belize. At my Catholic school, the nuns gave me, and the handful of other Indian students, a bag of plantain chips and the soda of our choice: tokens to recognize our communities' celebration. It was a small gesture but it made up somehow for the fact that I sat in the church pews while most other students took communion, or doodled in notebooks while my classmates prepared for the sacrament of confirmation. In those exclusions, my Anglican, Baptist and Episcopalian classmates joined me, but on Diwali, I was the lone Hindu. The soda and chips made me feel special rather than strange.

Following the school day, I headed home to celebrate with my family the victory of good over evil by lighting diyas, or clay lamps; eating sweets and spending time with my cousins. Celebrating Diwali with my family holds a special place in my heart, and once I became a mother, I ensured that my daughter understood its significance to our community and family. While she was a pre-schooler, I helped her classmates make diyas using miniature clay pots and tea lights. I believe her sense of joy about sharing this holiday with her friends and their families contributes to her feeling proud of her culture and willing to learn about others'. At her preschool, she learned Hanukkah songs, for example, which prompted conversations in our home about the holiday and primed her to celebrate it with our Jewish friends.

Now that my daughter is a NYC public school student, open recognition of children's religious celebrations are not allowed, ostensibly as a separation of church and state, and as her principal has indicated, "because not all families celebrate holidays." At the same time, public schools' "Spring Break" conveniently falls during Easter every year. Public schools also close on major Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seamlessly allowing for and validating the holy days of certain religions while expecting that students who follow other religions request excused absences to observe their holy days.

For example, an estimated 120,000 of the 1.1 million students in New York City's public schools are Muslim and Eid-al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are both unrecognized in the NYC school calendar. When these students take an excused absence to commemorate their community's special holidays, they are negotiating with a bigger bureaucracy than a Catholic school in a small Central American nation. Perhaps no one knows they are absent, or why. But each individual student must grapple with feeling illegitimate or different or perhaps even irresponsible for being absent.

Our students definitely need more, rather than fewer, days in school, so more holidays may not be the answer. But, different holidays could be. More important than days off is the role that celebrating and recognizing the many cultures and religions of our students can contribute to their sense of self. Maybe not a soda and some chips, but something to make us all feel special and not strange.

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