I have always considered myself lucky to be living in the United States as a member of the Baha’i Faith. My father’s side of the family originally came from Iran, my father moving to the States in 1968. Since the Iranian revolution, members of the Baha’i Faith have been treated, to put it lightly, poorly in the country, such as lacking the right to attend university there. My father’s immigration experience and what it has meant for him, his mental health, and the general experience of my family as an immigrant family are part of a whole story in and of itself, but that’s not what I’m going to be focusing on in this post. Instead, I’m going to narrow in on my experience attending a religious school in North Carolina, one based on a mix of Christian and anthroposophical values, as a member of a non-Christian religion.
According to the Council for American Private Education (CAPE), there are 5.7 million students attending private schools in the United States, and 78% of those individuals attend religious schools. While there is a stereotype that only the wealthy attend private schools (an understandable belief given how expensive many of these schools are), I grew up in the lower-middle class bracket, and attended my particular private school with financial assistance. I never felt particularly different than the other students; while they were not a particularly diverse bunch (all but two of the students were Caucasian, with me being one of them if you count being middle eastern as being non-white), I found that I was not singled out for my race among the group. I was never singled out for my religious beliefs either. Although my school incorporated religion and God into our general education, they focused more or less exclusively on the main Abrahamic religions and Biblical stories. There was no “Baha’i” class or real, specific recognition of my religion at all. That was something I had come to consider normal, of course — after all, it wasn’t until Rainn Wilson starred in The Office that I even saw a Baha’i represented in any significant way in American culture. Even now, I have yet to see a major Baha’i character in any form of American entertainment (Wilson’s character, Dwight, wasn’t exactly representative of our Faith. At least, I sure hope not).
Our school, and especially our main teacher did a commendable job of keeping the atmosphere inclusive. As someone who grew up in a religious upbringing myself, I never really felt that their focus on the Bible was strange, as the concept of “God” was already a natural extension of my life. On the other hand, more or less everything we learned about and celebrated was through the lens of these same faiths, with little to no true acknowledgement of others like mine. Being a Baha’i didn’t really come into play in my educational identity at all. In a school where religion was intertwined with education, I was potently aware of just how “other” I was.
When I was attending the school, we had yearly Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations. My own Baha’i celebration, Ayyam-i-ha, was not recognized when I was attending. I was the only Baha’i in the school, and as with my experiences with American culture as a whole, I was pretty used to being the odd one out, a religious minority. Baha’i is the sort of belief system which, when you would mention it to your peers, would only received a confused look. One student might say to another, “Oh, he’s a Baha’i,” not as a form of condemnation, but as an acknowledgement of my otherness. I do feel that if, at the time, the school had featured a significant acknowledgement of my belief system, I might have felt more included in the overall experience.
By the time I was in middle school there, I began to get a true sense that I was looking in on a club I just wasn’t a part of. This added to general feelings of isolation that are normal for middle schoolers, but especially so amongst minorities in our school systems. Interestingly enough, the students who felt the same way as me tended to be those who were questioning their own beliefs, or who just came from non-religious families and were only now really beginning to understand what that meant for them in a heavily Christian-influenced culture. Luckily, our school chose a more conceptual, mythological exploration of Biblical teachings as we dove more into them in those years. There wasn’t a sense that non-believers or other-believers were “wrong” or sinful, at least not in the curriculum. However, there are many other private schools with more explicitly religious curriculums, and these schools often feature more direct preferences and expectations of their students. For instance, as the Catholic Education Diocese of Cairns puts it, in Catholic schools, “enrollment priority is given, in order, to those who participate regularly in the celebration of the Eucharist, Catholics who commit to the values of the Catholic church…(and) who commit to the values of the Catholic church.”
Since I graduated, my old school has continued to take steps to better incorporate diverse beliefs, including a recognition of those that don’t have any. While lunch blessings and mentions of God continue to be a part of the fabric of the school, and always will be, there have been multiple ways in which they have celebrated the increasingly diverse student body. For Baha’is, of which multiple now attend the school, there is a greater recognition of Ayyam-i-ha, and the Holy Days Baha’is observe have been officially added to the school calendar. It’s steps like these that will help students like me feel more included, acknowledged, and indeed celebrated by our peers and educators. It’s one thing to be free to practice your beliefs, and a whole other thing to feel identified, to feel like your beliefs are part of the fabric of culture that make up your community. Mental health is already a huge concern among that age range, as is bullying and social isolation. If private schools can gradually develop a sense of celebration of our differences, rather than a system based only on our sameness, this will help to bring communities together in a time where inclusivity is becoming an ever-increasing necessity.
To learn more about the Baha’i Faith, visit www.bahai.org