India in Classrooms

BY: STAFF CORRESPONDENT


Apr 18, SAN FRANCISCO, CA (HINDU VOICE) — Mona Vijaykar: daring to make a difference - "In contrast all they knew about ancient India is.... Bollywood and Booda!"

Mona Vijaykar, a Visual Communications and Advertising professional, originally from India, has made her presence felt in the San Francisco Bay Area (USA). She is a children's author and also heads 'India in Classrooms' (www.indiainclassrooms.org), a growing organisation that addresses Hinduism in American schools.

I decided to launch India in Classrooms as a Teacher Assistance Program in 2003. My son's 6th grade class had 8 weeks of ancient Greece, detailed Roman history, a fair share of China, while the teacher spent three measly days on ancient India! My son told me that his teacher declared, "Roman and Greek civilization dominate the rest!" That really got me.

In his 7th grade, the school invited a speaker from the Islamic Network Group to supplement the social studies' unit on Middle Eastern history and Islam. The ING does an amazing job by highlighting every aspect of their civilization.

In contrast all they know about ancient India is.... Bollywood and "Booda"!

Were schools quite receptive to what you had to say?

Initially not at all. In fact it was only after a long and vicious battle with school authorities in my own area (Saratoga, California) that I was finally prompted to set up a formal organisation.

It was in the aftermath of 9/11 that I finally expressed outrage. Schools in the area were bending over backward to have more Islamic stuff in their curriculum, so as to create a more positive portrayal of Islam. However Hinduism continued to be totally neglected. I protested that Hinduism was as misunderstood as Islam and needed explanation. I demanded they invite a speaker on the history of Hinduism and ancient India for 6th graders.

But to my utter surprise, this request was strongly opposed by other Hindu parents!! They refused to support me and marched to the Principal's office to express their disapproval!

What followed was a nightmare. I was instantly rumoured to be a politically motivated Hindu fanatic (!). The entire school community ostracized me, to the extent that my offer to help raise funds for the schools was rejected. Even Caucasian and Chinese parents, who were initially sympathetic to my concerns, mysteriously remained silent!

I was humiliated in the presence of the entire PTA of 50 parents, when the Chair roundly blasted me for trying to "change the curriculum". It was evident that none of the parents in the room, Indians included, were aware of the fact that the curriculum includes serious discussion on Hinduism. My contention was to put the curriculum into practice and not to change it. But they wouldn't listen.

It became so ugly that even my family, which supported my overall objectives, was forced to question my perseverance in the face of such hostile resistance. Finally I had no choice but to threaten action against Redwood Middle School on grounds of academic discrimination.

It made the Superintendent finally sit up and listen. She was the one who advised me to form an organization for credibility and I am eternally grateful to her for that constructive suggestion. I decided to approach schools in a professional, organized manner.

Since then, have you met with a better response?

The challenge from the Saratoga schools forced me to knock on the doors of other school districts. (Out of adversity comes opportunity!)

The responses were mixed. While some public schools hesitated due to bureaucracy, some private schools were more enthusiastic. Even Catholic schools expressed an interest in Hinduism and I had to pinch myself when one teacher complained that I should have talked more about reincarnation! I have taken it a day at a time and after three years; my efforts are finally gaining momentum. I am now invited to some schools on a regular basis since I have established a relationship with them.
Of course there is growing interest in school districts where Indians present critical mass but the dozen invitations that I have received within the past two weeks are testimony to India's sudden importance in the curriculum.

Recently I had my greatest triumph, when Saratoga High School invited me, after three years of holding out; 150 high schoolers listened with rapt attention.

You now have an impressive record of 'educators' listed on your website, how did you manage to gain support and involvement after meeting with such hostility at the beginning?

(GRIN) You know it's funny how you throw hesitation and modesty to the wind when you work for a cause and have no selfish motives. I began to solicit support from potential 6th grade parents and badger them to invite me to their schools. It was the fastest way to lose friends. Socially, my one-track conversations would draw glazed looks but eventually reach the more discreet supporters. It helps to be persistent because many teachers and parents have good intentions but short memory spans.

I think what really helped was the introductory sessions that I arranged in libraries across the Bay Area. I would inform the city newspaper ahead of time about India in Classrooms' presentation and people would turn up to listen. Gradually the e-mail list grew to 200 plus supporters. I am not sure how many even bother to open my emails but the few who do, have kept me going with their encouraging responses and by spreading the word.

Mala Padmanabhan is one supporter, who has taken every opportunity to bring attentions to my work and that led to an interview on a radio channel, www.itsdiff.com. This interview brought an invitation from www.podbazaar.com to publish regular podcasts on their website. Thanks to Podbazaar, India in Classrooms gained international recognition.

I also sent out formal invitations at the beginning of each school year to school superintendents and race relations committees to visit and browse the India in Classrooms website and I made it a point to keep the more receptive educators updated on various issues related to India in classrooms.

With first hand experience of children's views and interpretations of their surroundings, has 9/11 had an impact on how white American children view their classmates of an Indian origin?

I don't think 9/11 had any impact on Indians in general. There may have been some impact on kids who live in middle America where there is less diversity, but here in California and other multicultural areas there was no visible impact.

But I think that 9/11 definitely put the spotlight on religion. It revived 'cultural exposure' in schools but there is a huge risk of misinformation in the guise of cultural exposure.

Did you feel the American education system had failed Hinduism?

Oh absolutely. The recent California Textbooks issue was clearly an example of the haphazard, un-academic and unfair approach that is applied to determine textbook content (see http://www.letindiadevelop.org/irochtc/). However, I do not blame the Americans for it so much. I blame Hindus for not being proactive. The problem is that American educators and administrators are ignorant about the world so they pass on their limited knowledge. They need expert advisors from within the culture who are not politically motivated.

What kind of views do children hold about Hinduism?

The kids hold the usual stereotypes so I have never been surprised. But I think they have been stunned by what they learn during my presentation, which obviously has little to do with me. They expect some stories and mythology and get physics instead! It is evident from their letters of gratitude.

I call it the Disney approach versus the Discovery approach. The Disney approach is based on stories and mythological characters. These entertaining stories that have moral content, but were meant for kids and illiterate people, who cannot understand complex Hindu philosophy. It's a bit like the way that science is taught to children using pictures rather than long discussions and explanations that would go way over their heads. Most people are drawn to stories because they are entertaining, easy to understand and do not need much thought.

However, adults don't need gimmicky pictures to understand abstract ideas. Similarly, Hindu adults must outgrow mythology and stories in their adulthood and explore the symbolism and philosophy at a deeper level. That is the Discovery approach. They must begin to apply their minds so that Hinduism is understood for the sophisticated system of philosophy and spirituality that it is.

This initiative must take up a lot of energy dedication, I guess it is now like your full time profession?

It is funny, we have such limited vision that we don't know what destiny plans for us. I had always thought that my visual communications' major was to obviously make a career in graphics or advertising or at the most, a children's author. It did not occur to me till much later that my failure to penetrate the advertising world in this country was part of a Divine plan. I always thought that I would return to 'my real profession' once I got this issue of misinformation out of the way. That I was in fact groomed to apply visual communication to this purpose dawned upon me very recently in most surprising circumstances.

My mother wanted to consult a jyotish (astrologer) in Bangalore for her own concerns. When this man saw me, he insisted on informing me that I had been a teacher in my past life and my mission was not complete! I got goose bumps when I heard that because it explained why I was involuntarily drawn towards education when my real profession was art. That was when I felt compelled to embrace this mission with its ups and downs.

You have managed to gain some media interest, have the reviews been favourable or met with suspicion?

I have been very fortunate that all the media attention has been positive and supportive. I have not gained any active full time assistance in spite of all the media coverage about misrepresentation of Hinduism in schools. While the reports arouse interest among teachers, the ghost of prejudice among fellow Hindus follows me everywhere I go. For example, I was preoccupied for the past weeks, designing fliers etc for Pratham (a NGO for literacy in India). As a gesture of goodwill, I offered my books, 'The Vee Family' as consolation prize for an art competition. It would cost me some $5.00 per book. To my horror, I received a letter from the co-coordinator refusing my offer saying, it would conflict with Pratham's message, without having read my books!! I face this persecution all the time since most Hindus of today want to live life in a comfort zone and are afraid to associate with anyone who is perceived as controversial.



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