Calendar could put the community on the same page

A follower of Sikhism felt left out when he saw the calendar distributed by the Guilderland School District. He saw that it included Christian, Jewish, and Islamic holidays as well as the Chinese New Year. He asked if his religion could be included, too.

Until we heard about this request from Amy Zurlo, the conscientious public information officer for the school district, we didn’t know much about Sikhism. We looked it up.

We learned that it was founded 500 years ago and now has 20 million followers, the fifth largest religion in the world. We felt rather narrow and small not to have known more about it. So we traveled around the world on the web to various sites, some of them in languages we couldn’t understand, many with pictures and music that communicated in a realm beyond words.

Sikhism, we learned, is a religion that preaches truthful living and equality of mankind — novel at the time and place where it was born, in the Punjab region of South Asia in the 15th Century where a caste system prevailed. Sikhism observes no group distinctions within the entire human race. It also denounces superstitions and blind rituals.

The founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, laid out three requirements for his followers — Naam Japo, to meditate on the holy name; Kirat Karni, to work diligently and honestly; and Wand Kay Shako, to share one’s fruits.

We particularly liked this hymn of the Guru Granth Sahib: There is one supreme eternal reality; the truth; immanent in all things; creator of all things; immanent in creation. Without fear and without hatred; not subject to time; beyond birth and death; self-revealing.”

We thought about this as we wrote our story on Tuesday’s school board discussion about the school calendar. We’re gratified the board didn’t rush to adopt what seemed to be the obvious choice but, instead, will wait until its next meeting to decide how to configure its calendar. This will allow people in our community who have opinions on the issue to express them.

Zurlo brought the matter to the board for a practical reason. In the eight years that she’s been at her job, the calendar has gotten more and more crowded, she said, since there are “tons of events and a limited amount of space.” She views the calendar as academic in purpose, and she has just 28 pages to cram in all of the activities of a very lively district.

Our country has been built on the premise of a separation of church and state, and so it seems obvious a public school should not be involved in promoting any particular religion, but educating students about a wide variety of religions is another matter.

 Several board members spoke of the danger of offending someone by leaving out their religion and argued it would be safer just not to list any religious holidays. The only ones that should be listed, said the board’s vice president, are the ones that result in a day off from school.

“Why would we do that?” asked the board’s president. He argued that, if the board is to be clear of religion, it should be clear of all of it.

The reality is that most of the students who adhere to a faith in Guilderland are Christian, and Christmas is a federal holiday. The district has traditionally also scheduled a vacation over Easter and a holiday on Good Friday. More recently, the district has scheduled days off for the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

Proponents for having no religion in the calendar said that no explanation need be printed for those holidays. But the reason still remains.

Again, the reality is that students at Guilderland that observe faiths other than Christianity and Judaism do not have district-given days off from school for their holidays. They have to work around their Jewish and Christian classmates’ schedules.

It is easy in a situation like that to feel marginalized. When the majority in a community holds one belief, it permeates the culture of a place and its schools. Well-meaning teachers who hold events like classroom Christmas parties, for example, can unwittingly alienate children who aren’t part of that faith.

Clearly, it makes no practical sense to compensate for this by listing every religious holiday known to humankind on a school calendar. Devout Catholics celebrate many saints’ days. Devout Jews honor each Sabbath.

Every decade, the Glenmary Research Center publishes a county-by-county report, based on the latest federal census, of the religious congregations in the United States. The most recent, in 2000, lists many denominations of Christians and Jews as well as data on Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, Taoists, and Zoroastrians. The center found in 2000 that nearly 64 percent of the Albany County population was affiliated with a religious congregation — the vast majority Christians but also Jews and some Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist groups, too.

Of course, there wouldn’t be enough space on 28 pages for all the religious holidays let alone the school activities.

But an idea put forth by several of the school board members struck us as a good one, both practically and philosophically. Why not include a page in the calendar that describes the various religions observed by students in Guilderland? If there isn’t enough room for an entire page, a small space facing the monthly calendar page could be set aside to describe a religion practiced locally.

The community could be involved, perhaps through the district website, with adherents submitting a description of their faith they would like to see included. If the fear is that people will be offended to be left out, how is it better to leave everyone out? Then only those who observe the Christian and Jewish holidays — even if they are unlabeled days off from school — are included.

One of the board members arguing against inclusion of religious holidays said, “We’re not in the business of asking people what their faith is. We’re in the business of educating children.”

We believe there is no better way to educate children than to allow them to learn about how others live — what they believe and why. Such education goes beyond tolerance to acceptance.

“Our calendar,” said the school board president, “is an important part of how we reach our population.”

Sending a message of acceptance of varied cultures and faiths out to the community at large is a good idea. It provides a beacon to light the way to understanding. Someone receiving the calendar who doesn’t know much about a particular religion, like Sikhism, may be inspired to learn more.

And the child who is part of a minority, a tiny minority in Guilderland even if his religion is a major force elsewhere in the world, would be heartened to feel included. Guilderland is that child’s school, too. The parent who called Amy Zurlo has a right to feel like his child belongs here.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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