By Margaret Zheng
At the February 15 general meeting in the Chancellor Center, the CR School Board unanimously approved the draft 2018-2019 district calendar, a plan which would have been fairly ordinary if not for one remarkable addition. Diwali, a holiday celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs that falls on Nov. 7 this year (the celebration follows a lunar calendar), was now an official school holiday, a day off for students and teachers. Yet what was most unprecedented was the cause for the addition: a student-led campaign that activated both Hindu and non-Hindu supporters.
The campaign began when a CRN junior, Vir Sahu, testified at the Dec. 21 School Board meeting about the need for the district to recognize more diverse student backgrounds. He argued that recognition of major Hindu holidays such as Diwali in the school calendar would be a step in building a more inclusive school community. This was Sahu’s first time giving public comment at a Board meeting, and his testimony seemed effective, as he was invited to attend the next CR Academic Standards Committee meeting in Jan., at which plans for the 2018-2019 calendar were to be discussed.
Later, when Sahu found that the Academics Standards meeting had been cancelled, yet the district calendar was still listed as an item for approval on the Jan. Board meeting agenda without the addition of Diwali, he began to coordinate a more powerful campaign.
He started a Change.org petition that eventually boasted just under 450 signatures from students and others of the CR community. For the Jan. 18 Board meeting, he invited several CRN students, including this reporter, to testify in support of making Diwali a school holiday. Although the Board gave time only for Sahu, Sahu’s father, and two other students to give public comment on the topic, it listened to their testimonies and decided unanimously to discuss the calendar at the Feb. Academic Standards meeting and to vote on it at the Board meeting following.
Sahu went to the Academic Standards meeting expecting to win no more than a half-day as recognition of Diwali in the next school year. Yet due to the online petition, student testimonies at both the Jan. Board meeting and the Feb. Academic Standards meeting, and a School Board notably receptive to student participation and input, the students involved in the campaign gained a greater victory: a full day off in honor of Diwali for the 2018-19 school year and beyond.
The unanimous Board vote for the revised district calendar soon sparked local media coverage and caused the Universal Society of Hinduism to urge all Pennsylvania schools to make Diwali an official holiday.
Reflecting on an ecstatic experience of civic power, Sahu explained, “I learned that students have the ability to make a difference when they see something in their community that needs to be changed. We have stronger voices than we may seem to perceive and it is important to make yourself heard, especially regarding topics that are close to your heart.”
He recommends that all students, including busy ones, occasionally attend School Board meetings and politically involve themselves in school issues, even if they do not yet have a cause for which they are passionate.
“Attending School Board meetings not only allows the Board members to become aware of student concerns,” Sahu observes, “but it also provides legitimacy to your efforts, thus making it more likely for the policy makers to agree to them.”
Please recognize that this reporter cannot be impartial to the campaign, in part because she was involved in its beginning stages, but also because she is human and thus naturally, likely incorrigibly, biased. She understands that bias or the perception of bias can cause offense, and she welcomes disapproval and even anger and disgust from readers of different perspectives from the students supporting the Diwali campaign.
She only advises that instead of reacting to feelings of frustration or anger by seeking to hurt and harm their opponents, persons thinking and feeling about any sort of controversy might respond proactively to their emotions by articulating compassionately their perspectives and by constructing campaigns that promote their cause while respecting the differing viewpoint of their opposition.
Incidentally, the day the district calendar was approved directly followed the day of the Parkland massacre, a tragedy which has motivated high school students in Florida and across the nation to amplify their voice and urge legislation and action that would prevent additional mass shootings from threatening their lives and their learning. Even though students do not all possess the right to vote, they increasingly participate in civic and political life and insist that their voices – their thoughts, feelings, stories – be heard.