Letter Back Home: Chatham, N.J.

Chatham Township // `Photo Credit: New Jersey Real Estate Finder.

Chatham Township // Credit: New Jersey Real Estate Finder.

I am proud to call Chatham, New Jersey, one of my homes. But I am deeply saddened by the hateful rhetoric espoused by a small fraction of parents from my school district. A few months ago, two parents with children at Chatham Middle School questioned the inclusion of Islam in the curriculum of a “World Cultures and Geography” course. They later appeared on
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News to promote their issues. While I am profoundly disappointed in the Islamophobic rhetoric of these two women, I urge educators and community leaders to step up and take this opportunity to tackle the systemic biases and inequalities that plague my rich and white hometown.

On Monday February 6th, two parents attended a Board of Education meeting to question the curriculum of 7th grade “World Cultures and Geography” course. They argued that the class promotes Islam, especially with this educational cartoon. One parents that her son’s Christian faith was not respected in class, giving the example of a 4th grade teacher who barred him from giving a presentation that used Christian scripture in soliciting donations for a fundraiser. She argued on Fox news that course “crosses the line because it teaches one religion and not others.”

In response, district superintendent, Dr. Michael LaSusa released a statement saying that the course includes “all of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and other faiths” and that the lessons on Islam take up only 3 out of 180 days. At a March 6th Board of Education meeting, administrators detailed how, in 6th grade, students hey take a survey of world religions:  encountering Judaism’s 10 commandments, Christianity’s sacraments, Buddhism’s four noble truths. In 7th grade, they survey world regions, naturally going into the majority religions of each culture and countries, including specific lessons on Christianity in Latin America and Europe. The curriculum, especially the high school curriculum with which I am familiar, is absolutely comprehensive and at times even eurocentric.

Despite the negativity and intolerance of these two parents, I was so proud of the community for banding together, petitioning for, and passing a ‘Welcome Resolution.’ This year there has been an increase in Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) incidents at school and an increased need for security at the Middle School, and at Board of Education meetings. While these women absolutely had the right to raise their concerns to the Board, and while that right needs to be reaffirmed, their rhetoric shapes the minds of my peers and friends. So I take this opportunity to ask my peers, friends, and hometown educators to push themselves to make Chatham a more diverse and inclusive place.

The people of Chatham are over 90% white, almost all have a high school degree or higher, and the median household income is $151,216. My personal experience in high school was so full of white people and rich people, that it makes Georgetown seem diverse. And while the remarkable education system in the district churns out college ready graduates, it does not instill a drive for social justice and tolerance. For instance, the Chatham Futures Leaders Club recently visited the New York stock exchange, which is a remarkable opportunity for young entrepreneurs. The only problem is that the 14 students and 2 teachers on the trip were all white and male. This point to the biases still present in our school and our community, which limit the opportunity for students to grow as forward-thinking leaders in society, not just in business. Education cannot be about preparing us for the next step in education, elementary to high school to college. Our system needs to push us to step outside of our bubble and be aware of our privileges. Every step of the way, our schools must prepare us for the real world, where not everybody has tutors and can afford the latest iPhone.

I had an amazing experience in the Chatham school system. But leaving that protected bubble has shown me just how much more there is to society than hockey games and pep rallies. I call on my teachers and my friends to give students the tools to become change-makers and to teach us how to use our privilege to help others.