Today, I took a half day to watch my daughter perform in the winter concert at her school and then have a talk with my wife, my daughter’s teacher, the school’s principal, and the family liaison. My daughter loves singing, and she was excited to sing for us, especially because her Saba was in town visiting. I loved seeing her on the stage with a wide range of other kids, and I loved seeing the movement incorporated into the performance. What was not so great was the heavy dose of Christmas capped off by a Santa dancing his way to the stage and “Ho Ho Hoing” to the kids’ singing. That is all that my daughter talked about afterwards.
The talk that followed was predictable given the Santa and the “Giving Tree” in the front lobby of the school. We framed the meeting with appreciations for them giving us time on this busy day and for all of the positives that we are seeing from our daughter this year. The teacher seemed very defensive initially only looking at the principal and the family liaison with only furtive glances at us. The principal did a fine job of facilitating the meeting, and the family liaison seemed to genuinely listen. It was clear, though, that they were all proud of the job the school was doing with multiculturalism. In the classroom, the teacher informed us that they spent two weeks on Chanukah with lots of books. The liaison chimed in that her son had come home talking about the holiday and playing the dreidel game. Moving past that, we started to broach the specifics of the Christmas items that had come home to ask about the specifics of how they were introduced in the class. Again, there was push back right away. The reading center story about a dog who thought he was part of Santa’s reindeer team sounds delightful, but it was encountered in a reading center with no adult intervention. Similarly, students were welcome to make their list of presents wanted for their birthday. All that was needed was to cut off the top of the paper that proclaimed it to be Santa’s list. The teacher reiterated that children have choice in these centers and don’t have to do the Christmas related options. Her example of setting out some stamps and that children didn’t have to use the Santa stamp though there were not other symbols from other religions made me fume inside. This opened up one of the big topics: the unguided, institutional presentation of Christmas symbols. Their immediate response, and one that I often get, is that Santa, Christmas trees, reindeer, and the like are not religious symbols. To this I reply that for someone not in the Christian religion, they are definitely symbols. I think I said it more politely than that, and this is the point that I think one of the three seemed to think about. I mentioned that upon entering the school everyone is confronted by a pine tree decorated by hats and gloves and named a giving tree. To Christians, this may not seem like a Christmas tree, but to others it is a thinly disguised one. Again, I was more politic in the delivery. That idea did not seem to make much of a dent, so I didn’t even go into the size of it compared to the smaller religious displays to the side and how an institution features the symbols that it promotes. The American flag in front of the school is a symbol that everyone attending a public school in America at least has to acknowledge. The Christmas tree in the lobby, however, puts the weight of the school behind one religion and forces anyone who does not subscribe to it to face identity issues upon entering what should be a safe learning space. The icing on that cake, of course, was the Santa dancing down the aisle and joining the kids at the end of the concert, and we didn’t even get to that in our conversation.
At this point, this blog entry is not as coherent as I had planned all day, but I am still churning the ideas around in my head. My greatest hope is that this begins a slow, positive change toward true anti-bias work and celebration of diversity. My fear is that we are now tagged as the trouble family and that the teacher will be guarded toward or treat our daughter differently from other students to protect herself from us. The conversation results were not surprising but were disappointing at the same time.