View from the Borderland: Thoughts on marking holidays at school

Note from the Online Editor: The Web team here at the Addison Independent is very excited to introduce our first community blogger — Rebecca Reimers, a Brandon resident, parent, and educational consultant. Rebecca will be sharing her thoughts about southern Addison County and the town of Brandon in "View from the Borderland," a series of blog posts on our Web site. In the months ahead, she'll profile local residents and businesses, tackle issues of local history, roam Brandon's cemeteries, write about her home and her family, and more. Check back often for more from the "View from the Borderland," and if you're interested in becoming a community blogger, get in touch with Online Editor Kathryn Flagg.My seven-year-old son was recently looking through the December school lunch menu at the beginning of the month — no doubt searching out the days when chicken nuggets or pizza were going to be served. He noticed that the week before December break, the school would be offering a “holiday dinner,” featuring ham. “How come,” he asked me, “the holiday dinner serves food that isn’t kosher?” We as a family keep strictly kosher, but we don’t eat pork or shellfish in the house, and my son knows enough about the rules of kashrut to know that this holiday dinner wasn’t for his December holiday, Hanukah, or it would feature latkes — crispy fried potato pancakes.Time for another trip to the principal’s office, I thought. Having grown up in an unusually ethnically and religiously diverse New Jersey suburb five miles outside of New York City in the 1970s, there were many things I was unprepared for when my children entered Vermont’s public school system as three-year-olds. I knew enough to plan parent-teacher conferences at the beginning of each school year to explain all the ways in which my kids might pose unique or “first” teaching experiences: They are adopted, multiracial, and Jewish. What I wasn’t prepared for was the need for ongoing follow-up on the everyday curriculum choices that teachers were making. Many of my children’s teachers, despite efforts to incorporate “diversity” into their classrooms and curriculum, continued to follow the old scripts without accounting for the fact that by doing so, they rendered my children — and others who didn’t fit into the “majority” stereotype — as invisible and not valued. As a former high school teacher myself, I knew that it was unreasonable to ask teachers to change everything that was exclusionary of some kids in their classes all in one year, but I was not prepared for some of the bruising conversations and pitched battles that seemed to emerge over what I perceived to be fairly minor requests, easily accommodated.And so I had become a frequent visitor to the principal’s office by the end of my oldest son’s kindergarten year. As an educator, he told me, he agreed with almost everything I believed; but as a school leader, he knew — as did I, from my own experience teaching and facilitating professional development for teachers — that change can be slow. In every profession, including education, there are “early adopters” — the people who see the future and embrace it, willing to put in the hard work of re-evaluating almost every aspect of their practice and changing what is needed. But there are also the resisters, who cling to tradition and past practice. Sometimes their commitment is ideological; more often, they simply haven’t had the time to reflect on which aspects of their curriculum are may feel exclusionary to a child and why. Often, no one has taken the time to listen to their reasons for why they want to keep things they way they have “always been.” Usually, they continue past practice even after it is demonstrably not in the best interest of all their students simply because teachers in general are rarely given the professional development time and resources to reflect, to learn, and to collaborate in changing their practice. Fortunately for me, when the elementary school principal retired last year, his assistant principal took over the job. She already knew me and my children, knew my concerns, and knew my past history of stirring up sensitive issues and getting strong and unexpected backlash when my kids first entered the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union public school system. She was an excellent listener, empathic and focused despite the many pressing demands on her time, but like her predecessor, she was also good at gently reminding me that change would not happen overnight. Meanwhile, I had learned that instead of being an outraged defender of my children (and the nightmare parent every teacher fears), I would get much further by actually proposing solutions that I thought might be amenable to all parties concerned. Given the monumental problems affecting so many of the kids in our elementary school, it is a real testament to our principal that she would take the time whenever possible to read my many notes or, if she had a few minutes, invite me into her office to share my concerns. I knew that deep into the second year of the recession, in a school that had already had a 60 percent enrollment in free and reduced lunch programs and failing test scores, she had much larger issues on her plate. The psychological stress that she was seeing among her students — and she very much views our all the kids in the elementary school as hers — was enormous; the budget cuts being proposed by the state for education and mental health services are nothing short of catastrophic. Yet here we were, discussing whether it might be possible to rename the “holiday dinner” as a “winter celebration dinner” for the following year.The problem with calling a ham supper in December a “holiday dinner” is that the only major religion in the world that has a significant holiday in December is Christianity. Moreover, ham is verboten for both observant Jews and Muslims, as well as religions that practice vegetarianism: Mahayana Buddhism, for example, some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists. Granted, there are no Muslims attending my son’s elementary school, but there have been Jehovah’s Witnesses in Vermont in greater numbers and for a longer time than Jews, and like Jewish kids, they don’t celebrate Christmas either. But every kid celebrates winter, with the arrival of sledding, snowball fights, snowmen, and hot cocoa. And despite the fact that in Vermont we get the cold weather of winter long before the actual solstice, it still seems appropriate to celebrate the formal arrival of the season (not to mention the coming school vacation) with a celebratory meal — even one that serves ham. If schools are going to continue their efforts to become more inclusive of the students in their population, and to educate all their students about other cultures and religions in preparation for their own possible forays into the wider world once they graduate high school in Vermont, we need to make sure that the schools are one place, at least, where both diversity and inclusivity are not only taught, but directly experienced by the students. My Jewish son can partake in a traditional Christmas ham dinner at school if he wants to, and all of the Christian children whose families cannot afford a fancy holiday dinner will be able to celebrate their own holiday traditions as well. In the end, poverty, more than any other factor, can make a child feel invisible, valueless, and excluded almost everywhere in our society, including school. For this reason, I would never advocate removing a “holiday dinner” from the school lunch program; but I do think we need to rename it so that every child, regardless of their background, is recognized and valued.Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.

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