School board weighs plea for Diwali holiday
West Windsor-Plainsboro students threaten boycott
By Bill Hawley
Princeton Packet Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 1998
PLAINSBORO - Students who want the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District to make Diwali a school holiday said they would continue to push for recognition of the Hindu religious celebration, even if it meant boycotting school next year.
At its work/agenda session this week, Board of Education members said the board's curriculum committee should address how to include discussions of non-Christian and non-Jewish holidays into the curriculum.
The board did not vote on the district's 1998-99 calendar, although board members indicated they would adopt one that closely followed Mercer County's proposed calendar, which does not include Diwali as a holiday. The board will vote Tuesday on the calendar at its regular business meeting.
Diwali is a Hindu celebration of the triumph of good over evil that is marked by gatherings at a temple, gift giving and parties that last into the early morning hours, Indian students and their parents said. Diwali takes place in late October or early November. The day after Diwali is New Year's Day in the Hindu calendar.
During the first public comment portion of the meeting, seven students, one parent and one teacher addressed the board in favor of the holiday.
"In a community as racially diverse as ours, there is an innate need to spread awareness," said Archie Ruparel, a junior at the South Campus of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School.
Indian-American students do not learn about Indian culture in school, he said, adding recognition of the holiday districtwide would foster ethnic pride.
Archie said he was sometimes beaten by non-Indian students in middle school, who called Indian-American students derogatory names.
"A lot of it has to do with not understanding other cultures and not being open to them," he said. "Look at where you can make a difference.... This is an opportunity to promote the diversity of our schools."
Philip Millstein, an English teacher at the high school, said he was one of only a few Jews growing up in a small community in Connecticut, so he could relate to the concerns of the students, many of whom he teaches.
"We should do everything we can to validate children for what they are and who they are," Mr. Millstein said. "How can we say our holiday is more important than their holiday? It just doesn't seem fair to me."
Kiran Patel, a junior at the high school, said West Windsor-Plainsboro is a unique district in the area because it has a large Indian-American minority.
She said 12 percent of the senior class, 14 percent of the junior class and 13 percent of the sophomore class at the high school are ethnic Indians.
The Parsippany and Passaic school districts recognize the Muslim holiday Eid because of the significant number of students there who practice Islam, she said.
"We cannot afford to follow a countywide calendar that may not apply" to West Windsor-Plainsboro, Kiran said.
Munish Dayal, president of the sophomore class, said he "will be the happiest man alive" if Diwali is a recognized school holiday. "We're asking for a few small steps here."
During board deliberations, Carol Dugan said, "One thing that really struck me in the comments that the students were making was the importance of learning about each other. And I think that's important."
Ms. Dugan said board member Barbara Friis showed the board a calendar that listed all the holidays of various religions, and Ms. Dugan suggested these holidays be listed on the school calendar for informational purposes.
"I agree with Carol," said board member Peggy Waterfall. "The past calendars have been very sterile.... If we did recognize all holidays on the calendar, it would be a great teaching aid."
Board member Cheryl Larrier-Jemmott suggested the board's Curriculum Committee be charged with incorporating holidays celebrated by various religions into the curriculum.
Ms. Friis said the district should provide staff development to make sure teachers can learn about non-Christian and non-Jewish holidays.
"I feel the district can do no less than try to incorporate something into the curriculum," said board member Stan Katz.
The district wastes time "worrying about valentines in kindergarten to third grade," Mr. Katz said, adding students could learn something if they talked about holidays like Chinese New Year and Diwali.
Mr. Katz said, however, he is opposed to closing the schools on any more holidays and would support opening them up on some holidays the students receive now. Mr. Katz did not specify which holidays he was referring to.
Ms. Friis asked if there has ever been any thought at the county level for moving spring break away from the religious holidays of Easter and Passover.
"The easiest thing to do is to have the state Department of Education come out and say, here's a calendar, period," Interim Superintendent Tom Butler said.
After the meeting, Munish said Indian-American students should not be forced to choose between their education and their religion since their parents emphasize the importance of both.
He said he wants students to know more about Indian-Americans than what they learn from television, adding the one image they see is "Apu," the proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store on the television show "The Simpsons."
He said students wouldn't suspect from that characterization that many Indian-American adults in the two townships are highly educated.
Shilpa Gupta, a junior at the high school, suggested the holiday given to students on the Monday after Easter could be moved to the fall for Diwali.
Shilpa's mother, Abha Gupta, said she learned from her children what the Christian holidays signified.
Swetha Vajapey, another junior, said she went to church with her non-Indian friends to learn about their religion. She said the students wouldn't have asked for the holiday if it wasn't important to them.
The students said they were prepared to boycott school next year, if the holiday wasn't recognized, and they expected to attend this Tuesday's board meeting, too.
"We are committed to making this a holiday," Archie said.
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